Tech Wit: The truth behind the debates

Posted: Monday, October 11, 2004

Techwit By Jason Ohler

It was Will Rogers who said it's not what we don't know that hurts us, it's what we think we know. Did you know that the presidential debates are no longer run by the League of Women voters?

According to journalist Connie Rice, the debates have been run by the Commission on Presidential Debates since 1986. The commission is run by Frank Fahrenkopf, a pharmaceutical industry lobbyist. This could explain my need for extra-strength pain relievers while I'm watching the debates. Apparently, the debates are also run by Paul Kirk, a top gambling lobbyist. This could explain why a lot of people are going to flip a coin to figure out who to vote for.

The commission has made sure that the debates conform to the blandest standards possible. Its contract says that audience members watching the debate must describe themselves as "soft" supporters of Bush or Kerry. They also have to promise not to move, speak or even cough or own anything sharper than a butter knife. I suppose we can't blame the commission for wanting folks to behave. After all, its their party. But what it doesn't tell us is that audience members' seats are wired with biofeedback devices. Secret documents inadvertently mailed to me by the commission (I had written them asking for free aspirin and some poker chips) explain how this works.

You sit in a seat wired for GBR (galvanic butt response), a technology that has been around for years. As the candidates talk, audience members wriggle in their seats. (Even though they aren't allowed to move, they are allowed to wriggle). Sophisticated computers determine what the wriggling means and send a "message" to the candidate via the kind of electronic ankle bracelets that prisoners wear at home. If a majority of folks don't like what they've heard, then the candidate gets a little jolt of electricity. Candidates change their minds and head in another direction until the pain stops. That's why they seem to flip-flop so much.

I wrote the commission and told them I knew what they were up to. To keep me quiet they offered to send me a "hush" gift: the home version of the presidential debate game.

It's great fun. You sit on something that looks like a deflated whoopee cushion, which you first plug into the Internet. As the candidates go at it, computers cross reference my galvanic butt response with my demographics. That way candidates know whether to bother with my opinion. I was apparently part of a test group of a few thousand. We were literally telling the candidates what to do with our butts. It's what they're doing to us, so it only seems fair.

But this is nothing. The next version of the game (tentatively called "Presidential Debutt") will let you place a friendly wager on the debates. Makes sense, seeing as how a gambling lobbyist runs them. Can you throw the election? I think if we can reduce a debate that determines the fate of the free world to a beauty contest with vague, prepackaged responses to the most pressing issues of our day, then we should be able to get our butts to lie.

So, what am I going to do this election season? I'm going to let the candidates know just where I stand by sitting on my butt. However, I strongly urge the rest of you to head to the polls. No buts about it.

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