I watched part of the first presidential debate last night (as much as I could tolerate before the social anxiety of watching people yell past each other forced me to change the channel). I was struck by how much it is not representative of real world political discourse. Two people prepare like crazy by memorizing a bunch of facts and sound-bits about their positions and their opponents’ weaknesses, and then they use moderator-supplied questions as cues to regurgitate those facts, even if the question is only tangentially related. And in the moment of performing, they consult no one. They just jab with a combination of their gut instincts and their memorized talking points.
I like to imagine (although perhaps it’s wishful thinking) in the real world politicians make more considered decisions and arguments as they govern. Before arguing a point or counterpoint, perhaps one might consult domain experts, do research into recent public comments that contradict the attempted conclusion, or even solicit polls to see if one’s approach is representative of popular opinion. Governing doesn’t happen in a single realtime conversation, so there’s plenty of time to do this type of work as one forms an opinion and mounts a response.
I see the value in being able to think on your feet, and the current presidential debate format is a proxy measure for that fast-thinking ability. But, I also want to see how people perform when they have the full weight of all their real world resources behind them.
My proposal to follow is inspired by chess. In chess two people battle out a zero sum game until there is one winner (or a stalemate), and they do so completely unassisted. It’s kind of like the current debate format. In the late 90s, a new form of chess emerged called Advanced Chess. It’s a computer-assisted form of the game where a player has software alongside them that proposes possible optimal next moves, and then the player picks the best choice proposed by the software. Just like regular chess, except now it’s software-assisted.
I’d like to see one of the current three presidential debates become an Advanced Debate. The candidates would have the opportunity to wear earpieces and have any form of technology (probably a laptop or tablet) open in front of them on the podium. They can have realtime fact checkers in their ear providing ammunition for rebuttals. They can be coached to be calmer or more aggressive. They can be given realtime polling data as to how their performance is being received by the audience. An army of a hundred people can power the candidate’s information at hand, but in the end it’s the candidate that is going to open his or her mouth and deliver the message.
I think this format would be more representative of modern politics. No one knows how many drafts, ghostwriters, fact checks, and polls goes into a single 140 character tweet sent by a politician. On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog, or a hive mind of global experts, coordinated through software, consulting AI tuned with petabytes of information, collaborating in realtime. It’s all abstracted by a user handle, and all that matters is the tweet’s effect. There is no such thing as “cheating” with information in the real world… it reminds me of math tests that ban usage of calculators (not to mention Wolfram Alpha); they do measure something useful, but they are not much of a real world proxy.
There is a terrific episode of Black Mirror called The Waldo Moment (Season 2 Episode 3 — Spoilers ahead) where a blue cartoon bear named Waldo runs as a candidate for parliament in a small British town. The character is voiced and animated by one person, but most of the arguments are fed by another team member. It’s the crude beginning of a clean layer of abstraction between the political message an audience receives and the hundreds of people that could possibly power that message, with none of the messy single human candidate to muck it up in the middle. The episode (as is all of Black Mirror) is dystopian, but it’s not hard to imagine an optimistic (or at least, realistic) interpretation. Why would we entrust the leadership and national security of our nation to a single person, when teams of people can be more effective as a group working together? I imagine this is how the presidency works today; President Obama has no shortage of domain experts advising him on every decision he makes. I do not mean to discount in the least the amount of effort a President puts forth to make the right decision, but to imagine it’s always just one person alone seems silly. Instead it’s a carefully considered position crafted by teams of people, well delivered by one leader. It’s obviously not as extreme as Waldo, but The Waldo Moment episode resonates so well with its audience because it feels like it only has one foot in the future, as opposed to a distant unrealistic leap.
So, lets embrace the reality of the information leverage we all take for granted on a daily basis and see how our presidential candidates perform in an Advanced Debate. It won’t happen this year, or really anytime soon, but I can imagine when we get our first Millennial presidential candidate, someone who was born with the default assumption of always having all the world’s information at their fingertips, this proposal won’t sound so crazy.