The Piece of Activism I Choked On
Last night, I was scheduled to make calls between 6 and 8 pm to homes regarding an issue about which I have strong beliefs. I only made it 40 minutes into those two hours before I called it quits.
I’d volunteered to be part of this “phone bank,” but the more I learned about it the more uncomfortable I became. During training for the phone bank, we were given a script and told to stick to the script, no matter what. It made me feel silly and like a robot, sure, but it also made me feel like a tool, and a tool for something I didn’t like any longer. The script was long and wasted the time of the person on the other end. During the first few calls I could hear people sighing as they realized they’d gotten one of those calls again. I’d just given them one of those calls, and I didn’t like being the agent of that, during their dinner hours of all times.
I also didn’t like the way the calls were placed. During training someone asked why these particular people were being called. Was it to convince them of something or change their minds? No, responded the trainer. The job of the campaign is not to change minds, not even to try. The job of the campaign is to find people who agree and get them to act. In order to accomplish this, the campaign had purchased a big database filled with all kinds of information about the reading habits and buying habits and travel habits of everybody in the state being targeted for the campaign. After running a few pilot studies, it became easy to predict who would support and who would oppose the campaign. As a matter of fact, about two-thirds of the people in the state could have their political behavior predicted so well from their consumption habits that the campaign decided it wouldn’t have to contact them at all (either because they could be solidly predicted to support the campaign or because they could be solidly predicted to oppose the campaign). The people we were calling that night were the one-third of the population of the state whose behavior couldn’t be predicted by the statistical model. Our job as volunteers was to collect information personally about these people’s inclinations to further increase the predictive database’s accuracy.
This activity is called data mining, and I realized I was being used to extend the database’s reach, entering missing information for people who were inscrutable to the system. Don’t worry if people refuse to share the information tonight, they told us. Someone else will make the call again, and ask again.
When I asked people on the phone that night to share their information with me, and then to share their volunteer time to do the same thing I was doing to yet other people, and then to share their money with the campaign so that the campaign could fund more of its activities, they responded in very human ways. Some said they were sick, others said they had a lot of kids to take care of, and more than a few said they just had no money to spare. The script prompted me to respond with an “I understand” and then ask if there was just some way, perhaps, for these folks to give up just a little bit more information, just a little bit more of their time, just a little bit more money for the cause.
I realized that there were two causes that night, the first cause being the implementation of a policy that I care about, and the second being the collection of still more information on people to make their lives parse more easily by machine, to make their future actions more easily anticipated and accounted for.
I feel young and naive to be upset about this, and at the same time old and weary to think of the extent of it all. I also feel unsure. What’s the right thing to do? To continue to make these phone calls in order to help a campaign with a purpose I care about? Or to stop making these phone calls even if it means that the campaign won’t do as well?