The End of US Dominance: How a Hackathon Brought a Superpower to its Knees

Slumped over on the couch in his dusty living room, Ethan thought longingly of the days where Americans still had a safety net. He remembered an uncle who had run into some trouble after being laid off from his job after the 2008 financial crisis, but he got by on food stamps until companies started hiring again. That reality seemed like a distant past with the current regime dismantling every service the government used to offer. He didn’t mind it at first – the lack of government oversight in every part of his life seemed nice. Lower taxes, less forms to fill out, no more big brother watching you at every step. But slowly, the lack of government oversight made companies start to go rogue. They started cheating customers, colluding and raising prices, and the economy rapidly deteriorated as the outside world shunned American companies and jobs started disappearing. Now here he was, without a job and wondering where his next meal would come from.

Ethan started thinking back to how all this started, if he could’ve done anything to prevent it. It seemed like such an innocent idea at the time – a hackathon to help solve gerrymandering. They brought in the brightest minds and civic leaders from MIT, Harvard and DC to try and solve the ever-present problem of gerrymandering. People were more motivated than ever before after seeing the 2018 midterms where the Democrats won the popular vote in the house by 7 points, yet didn’t gain anywhere near the proportion of seats that represents that population. Out of that hackathon, 2 CSAIL students and a political scientist wrote the first version of what would eventually become Aequitas, the software that caused this whole mess. He wondered for a minute how they felt today, knowing that their project ended up bringing the US to its knees and destroying the lives of millions of people. He remembered the first time he saw the software in action. The two students and the political scientist had continued working on the project after the hackathon and eventually spun it into a startup. They came by the Media Lab one day to give a talk, giving a great example of how an interdisciplinary approach can create new value. The software seemed simple enough, taking in mountains of demographic and past election data, creating different district lines and running it through tens of thousands of simulated elections to ensure that the district lines were fair. It finally seemed like the answer we could present to the courts, a scientific way to ensure and measure fairness when redistricting in 2020.

In some ways, that employee that stole the code was smarter than all of us. None of us saw the potential of the software to be used for the exact opposite of what it was meant to do, but he did. He saw that the algorithm was so powerful that he could use it to figure out how to draw district lines so that even 10-15% of a state could win the majority of their delegates. He knew that if he could deploy it in the right places this could finally give him the America he always dreamed of.

Nobody really knows what happened for the few months after he stole the code. Who he took that software to, how long it took them to perfect it. All we know is that somehow it made its way to the anarchist party in Pennsylvania, and while the rest of the country was using the software to create fair districts they figured out how to use it to steal 11 of the 18 house seats in Pennsylvania. Some of the news outlets picked it up, noticing how a bunch of “Independents” managed to suddenly win 11 seats within the same district. The country was too excited by Aequitas though, we had finally had a fair election in over half the states that had adopted the software to draw their district lines. Nobody noticed that in Pennsylvania, a small group of people was slowly staging a coup. It wasn’t long before they took over the state government of Pennsylvania, and once they had that foothold they started to send their people to other states they thought were vulnerable. In some ways, it was ironically impressive that a group that so vehemently believed that a central government shouldn’t exist was able to run so efficiently. In 2022, Ethan remembered the majority in something like 14 states. Or maybe it was 15. Who cares though, Ethan thought. By the time the presidential election in 2024 came around, it was already too late.

They took 305 of the 435 seats in the House that year, and they finally had enough power to start dismantling the Federal government. That president didn’t have a speck of scandal on her, the country was still prioritizing morality and character in a president after the debacle of President Trump. It only took two months for the first impeachment resolution to pass in the house. Then when the Senate hearings didn’t produce anything (as expected, Ethan scoffed), the second impeachment came out. Then the third and the fourth until it was clear that the House was holding the president hostage until she quit. It wasn’t clear at that time why they were trying to remove her since the Vice President would just continue the Democratic Party’s policies, but the public would soon find out. After she refused to yield even after the fifth impeachment hearing, the House started blackmailing the cabinet members. They knew while they couldn’t remove the president, they had enough power to ruin every cabinet member’s life. So we didn’t hear anything for a few months, and then it all happened so suddenly. Ethan remembered walking into the common space in the Media Lab and seeing tens of students glued to the screen, listening to the Vice President with all the cabinet members behind him saying that they were invoking the 25th Amendment. They didn’t think the president was fit to lead the country anymore, and after months of trying to remedy the situation they had no other choice. He remembered being confused but thinking at that time that if all the cabinet members agreed there must be something that provoked it. There was only a year left till the next election anyway, so the Vice President would probably just keep the country functioning until the next president was able to come in.

Of course, that’s not what happened. The Vice President was part of the anarchists all along. They had convinced an upstanding public servant like Cory Booker that government was no longer needed, and that only he had the power to implement the change that America so desperately needed. With the President and the House in their power, the dominos started falling. Agency after agency was disbanded, and every executive order was more militant than the last. They declared a state of emergency for no reason, suspended the 2024 presidential election and nothing has changed since. Six years have gone by, and the country is a shell of its former self. Half the country is unemployed, there’s barely enough food to go around and almost every country has refused to take any more refugees from the US. To think, all of this started with a simple hackathon and a piece of software. Maybe we should have realized that a little voter suppression with gerrymandering wasn’t the end of the world, especially if we knew what would happen when we tried to finally fix it.

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