Sept. 10 2012 06:25 PM

Politics are personal, but so is my iPhone


Technological singularity? Don't get me started. Bring up the acceleration of technology, the near omnipresence of mobile devices, the integration of net-speak into ordinary conversation, and I'll instantly develop what my girlfriend calls my "crystal face," the same look that new-age spiritualists get while window-shopping in Sedona. I'm a proud cyborg and dream of the day, which I'm convinced is imminent, when we can digitize the soul. Crap. I just glimpsed my reflection in the monitor. Crystal face, gleaming like a 'shrooming yogi in a sweat lodge.

Instead of inflicting my Gibsonian obsession on my more grounded better half, I now have the opportunity to purge it here on the page. This new monthly column will serve as a series of dispatches
and recommendations from the electronic frontier. And I'll start by combining two of my greatest addictions: politics and my iPhone.

The end of the Republican and Democratic conventions marks the beginning of the final, fierce push to November. There have been enormous developments since Barack Obama harnessed the web in 2008. Twitter was relatively unknown, and iPhones were uncommon luxuries, certainly less prevalent than Blackberries. Also, 2008 was a year of memes (remember Hillary Clinton as the Downfall Hitler? The Obama-McCain dance off? Will.I.Am? Jib Jab? Linebacker Terry Tate tackling Sarah Palin?), whereas 2012 has been just pathetic. One thing this year does have: Apps.

For the political junkie, there's one app that stands out (and by that I mean it's more than a news organization's mobile site). In August, Talking Points Memo released its free PollTracker for iPhone, an elegant aggregator of the latest polls in most federal races. It's like taking the pulse of the electorate with the touch of a button; whenever someone asks, "Hey, how's [insert candidate] polling?" you've got the instant answer. That prideful moment is perhaps the main value, since polls don't really mean all that much.

Obama vs. Romney Part I: From an objective perspective, Obama still has a slight edge on Mitt Romney when it comes to apps. Their official apps are almost identical in design: Both offer guides to the candidate's positions, news releases and a way to donate, but nothing that a voter couldn't immediately access through the website. Where Obama's really shines is in the events tab. As of Monday, Obama advertised four different campaign events that I could attend in my area. The nearest event on Romney's [iPhone, Android]? A rally in Mansfield, Ohio, which, the app informs me, is 3,185 miles away from my office. Who knows, maybe the journey is worth the "foam Romney-Ryan mitt" available to the first 500 attendees.

A reason to watch commercials?: As a natural result of the infamous Citizens United ruling, shady independent groups are pumping mega-millions into television ads. There are two competing apps—SuperPACApp and Ad Hawk ("competing" used loosely here, since both are free and supported
by nonprofits, the Knight Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation, respectively)—that help citizens learn more about the organizations flooding the airwaves. Both apps require the user to hold a device to the speaker to capture the sound. Then, sophisticated audio-recognition algorithms identify the ad and match it to the sponsor. The SuperPACApp then provides the user with how much the group has raised and spent, then links to fact checks of the claims. Ad Hawk provides more detailed financial information and a brief dossier. Oddly, the apps return different financial totals. I tested the apps on three different
campaign ads: Ad Hawk correctly identified two, but then mistook an anti-Rep. Allen West (Republican from Florida) ad for a pro-Rep. John Barrow (Democrat from Georgia) ad. SuperPACApp was only able to identify one commercial.

Obviously, the big flaw for both apps is you have to physically hold your phone up for about 30 seconds; you could just wait for the disclosure at the end, then plug the PAC into Google.

Obama vs. Romney Part II: Do not install the free Obama vs. Romney game from DANKOlab unless you've got hours in need of slaughtering and money that's overdue for cremation. Created by Russian software designers, the heroin-class addictive puzzle game is the same as the company's earlier Mafia vs. Police app, with the criminal theme swapped out for election iconography (elephants, donkeys, delegates, donors and, oddly, a Guy Fawkes-masked Anonymous representative). The instructions are poetically incomprehensible (as if Alex from Everything is Illuminated wrote them), and after several hours, I was unable to determine how to win or even if you could win without spending real money to buy fake money to buy items to cheat your way to victory. And yet I keep playing.

So, in that sense, maybe it was an unintentionally realistic simulation of an American election.

Email or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.


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