One of the major roadblocks to finding a solution to gerrymandering is that we don’t have an agreed upon method of determining what exactly is a non-partisan division of districts. As Justice Kennedy pointed out in Vieth v. Jubelirer and then again in Gill v. Whitford, that the court might rule upon it if a standard upon which partisanship could be judged came forth and the court could use to establish whether a state was overly gerrymandered. At the same time, a tool that establishes rules around what is a fairly districted state must be absolutely airtight and not allow for much wiggle room. Once a standard like this is established, it’ll be very hard to argue against it or change it after the long road that has led us here. Due to that, if someone figures out how to manipulate the algorithm or whatever form the tool takes, it would create a legal and regulated method of gerrymandering that we wouldn’t be able to fight against. I think a mitigation strategy against this would be to put in scheduled checks on the methodology to make sure that we have mechanisms to modify it if we notice someone taking advantage of a loophole. For example, after every redistricting round (concurrent with the census every ten years) there should be a review of every state for anomalies. We could even have a judiciary approval board (not congressional) that goes through all 50 states and assesses how they used the tool to create their districts. If they judge any anomalistic use of the tool, they have the power to modify the tool as necessary and require the state to redistrict fairly.
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.
Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing boundaries to districts to give a party a better chance of getting more candidates elected. The practice is technically legal right now, since no supreme court ruling has outlawed it. The constitution does give the right to draw these boundaries to the elected officials in power, but it did not foresee that the level of partisan politics today would lead to such discriminatory practices. The end result is that the electorate that is unfavorable for the party in power is stuffed into fewer districts to stifle their voting power, effectively diluting the effect of their vote and violating our system for equal representation.
There are few aspects about our democracy as undemocratic as gerrymandering. The abuse of power by politicians on both sides of the political divide is harrowing, but not entirely surprising. We can’t provide a mechanism to give politicians the one thing they fight for every year (reelection), and then expect them to not use it. The founding fathers did not expect the drastic demographic shifts our country has undergone that has created discrete divides with enable partisan districting. The entire right for a politician in power to choose his/her electorate begs a larger discussion about the constitution needing an update (see Jefferson’s letter to Samuel Kercheval detailing this), but I think the more plausible short-term answer here lies in convincing the supreme court to rule on this matter at a federal level.
For some background, Justice Kennedy has now passed two verdicts on the question of whether the supreme court should take up the case of gerrymandering. In both 2004 (Vieth v. Jubelirer) and 2018 (Gill v. Whitford), he has asserted that unless we can agree on a clear metric that judges whether a district is drawn in an undemocratic manner, the matter should be left up to state courts. However, I believe the supreme court is exactly the body that should be ruling on this matter. The practice strips our right to freedom of expression, and that is worth ruling upon.
The core values with which I’d like to work are really centered around creating an atmosphere for creativity that’s grounded in logical, reasoned thinking. The issues I talked about in my previous post (Gerrymandering, Net Neutrality, and Mass Shootings) are difficult problems that require thinking outside the box if we’re going to solve them. However, there’s also been a cloud of misinformation about the topics in today’s political climate, and therefore ensuring that any solution is grounded in data and facts as much as possible is critical.
- Data Driven – solutions should be based in some background data that indicates why this may be a potential answer to the problem (in the space of all other answers, why did you choose this one?)
- Brainstorm in bulk – the first ideas we come up with are always the most generic, and the further we push the boundary the more original we become. Don’t just choose the first idea, but push until you can’t come up with any more.
- Create with a world view – understand that what you’re doing is rarely concentrated to one country or type of person. If you’re creating something that’s only accessible or applicable to a small population, ensure that it’s a conscious choice not an accidental one.
- Understand the ripple effects – think about how your actions affect people or areas 2 and 3 levels away from your immediate audience. For example, think about the environmental effects, or how it may affect your user’s family and friends, etc.
- Implementable – ideas should be grounded in the idea that the end goal is to implement them and create meaningful change. Ideas that are impactful but impossible to bring to fruition are not particularly useful.
Gerrymandering is a problem that still doesn’t have a clear solution as the Supreme Court has decided that they will not rule on the issue until a clear metric is established that can judge whether a state is unfairly gerrymandered or not. My ideal gathering to try to solve this issue would be a kickoff hackathon, but one that has a continuing component to it (to really hit on the implementable point). While hackathons are great, the vast majority of ideas coming out do not actually move forward in any meaningful way. Therefore, my ideal order of operations would be:
Day 1: Conference like structure where experts from the area (statisticians, politicians, political scientists) come together to lay a factbase on the attendees. The point is to get everyone in the room, no matter the background, to work off an even ground of facts and data before they start brainstorming solutions.
Day 2: Teams are formed from across disciplines. Hopefully this would have been taken care of in the signup phase where there are a limited number of spots for each role, but teams would have a mix of people from politics, business, statistics, and engineering to come up with a solution. Then, they would have the full day to converge on an idea but spend a minimum of 5 hours brainstorming solutions first with no discussion on viability or feasibility. After that, they would start prioritizing and converging on a solution by the end of the day (no deadline though, they can have as much time as they need).
Day 3: The teams workshop their idea with experts from the field. There are stations set up (sort of like a fair) for different types of experts and the teams can go around and consult them to workshop their idea. By the end of the day, they need to come up with an implementation plan to test out their idea at a small scale, including what metrics they want to capture to understand how well the solution worked. At the end of the day, the teams all present to get funding to implement their idea, but the prizes have a stipulation that the team must actually implement the idea and work with the organizing team to be accountable for the implementation.
Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing boundaries to districts to give a party a better chance of getting more candidates elected. The practice is technically legal right now, since no supreme court ruling has outlawed it. The constitution does give the right to draw these boundaries to the elected officials in power, but it did not foresee that the level of partisan politics today would lead to such discriminatory practices. The end result is that groups that are against the party in power are stuffed into fewer districts to limit their voting power, violating our system for equal representation.
- Law: This is the most obvious way to fix this change. The supreme court has not yet passed down an overarching ruling on gerrymandering, partly because sometimes the line between a politically motivated redrawing of district lines vs. a legitimate one is blurred. Alternatively, a ruling party could fall on the sword and pass laws to relinquish this power state by state, preventing gerrymandering in future generations.
- Market: Speaking with your dollar could very well work in this case. Supporting or opposing incumbents based on what they’ve done with gerrymandering in their state is always a strong rebuke of the practice. In addition, boycotting businesses that support candidates with a history of gerrymandering can also help quell this tide.
- Norms: Public perception is the greatest tool that’s been utilized thus far towards the issue. Over the past decade, the effects of gerrymandering especially in House elections have come to the forefront, as it becomes clear that the collective stance of the representatives from a gerrymandered state do not represent the collective stance of the people. Journalists and political activists have started publicizing the nonsensical district maps that have been created for political gain, and voters in those districts are taking notice that their voting power has been diminished. However, the “next step” from this is much tougher as people have to make the connection from the lack of local representation to the fact that the only way to change it is to vote against gerrymandering in senatorial and gubernatorial elections.
- Code: Pushing out information to support the norms, market, and law discussions is critical here. Code can really help make it very clear what the effect of gerrymandering is on a voter’s power depending on where they live, and help push out that information in effective ways.
Companies have long been trying to control the internet for their own gain. Broadband providers want the ability to charge certain companies more for their traffic or use the capitalistic markets to take away all consumer surplus by having companies bid for how much they will pay for their traffic to be sped up (or just not slowed down). On the flip side, large companies are also open to this since they may want to pay extra to beat out that new entrant or the smaller company on the block. Either way, the American consumer loses. In June 2018, the FCC removed Obama-era regulations on prohibiting either of these scenarios to happen, opening the floodgates for Net Neutrality to be broken down over the coming years.
- Law: Again, the most obvious of the potential paths were this is very much a governmental decision on whether to allow companies to do this. Congress could pass a law to supersede the FCC and make it iron-clad that net neutrality is here to stay.
- Market: the one part of the original regulations that has stayed is that broadband companies are still required to disclose their business models and whether any of these practices are taking place. The market could easily make this a negative factor for the company, driving their dollars to broadband providers who provide an open internet.
- Norms: Playing along with the Market piece, social norms could dictate moving away from providers that discriminate traffic based on how much the company pays or whether the consumer is willing to pay more for equal internet. As long as there is an option for a provider with free internet, public pressure to move to that provider can be a deterrent for providers to move in this direction.
- Code: Although I don’t understand much of this on the technical side, some have discussed moving the underlying infrastructure of the internet over a period of time to something that can’t be controlled by a provider. While a provider may lay down the infrastructure, traffic could be hidden or encrypted in a way that they are unable to see and therefore stifle certain types of traffic.
Mass Shootings in the US
The US has more mass shootings than any other developed country in the world. While we may refuse to investigate the root causes of this further from an institutional level, it’s clear that this is a huge problem that we as a country must address.
- Law: The second amendment guarantees the “right to keep and bear arms” to all Americans. However, when that amendment was written guns were long muskets that took up to 30 seconds to reload and had very limited accuracy. A long shot from today’s assault rifles, at a minimum passing laws to restrict how easy it is for someone dangerous to procure a gun should be in our pipeline.
- Market: In many ways, the market is the problem here. The firearms and ammunition market in the US is tens of billions of dollars, and those companies have no reason to slow down their own growth. However, there’s an opportunity here for a company to emerge as a leader to promote changes to our society, both in norms and law, that help us move towards less shootings. The vast majority of the US supports initiatives like this, and I imagine it would help the company’s image and actually increase sales for them.
- Norms: The vast majority of gun owners in the US say that their reasoning for owning a gun is either self defense or sport. There is no reason that automatic weapons should be this prevalent in the civilian space of our society, and pushing this as a norm is critical. If nobody is buying these guns, stores and gun shows will be less inclined to stock them and make them much tougher to procure.
- Code: I’m not sure if this is actually possible, but with today’s technology we could integrate additional safety mechanisms into the guns itself. For example, Geolocation in the gun that locks them if they’re within a radius of major public areas (schools, malls, etc.).
In 2016, I spent 6 months in Nairobi, Kenya working with a social enterprise called Sanergy (coincidentally founded at MIT). Sanergy as a whole is aiming to solve the sanitation crisis in the world today, with over 2 billion people lacking access to adequate sanitation facilities. This population is diverse and widespread, spanning from Brazil to India, rural settings to urban slums. Governments and relief organizations haven’t been able to solve the problem at scale, and historically sanitation has been considered a public group so participation from the private section has been limited.
Sanergy is trying to solve this problem by using a two-pronged approach. On one side, their non-profit arm has created a novel, waterless toilet that’s sold at low cost to customers in Nairobi who lack access to clean sanitation facilities. Those individuals are also able to treat the toilets as a business, charging a small per use fee and are subsequently incentivized to keep the toilet clean and operational. On the other side, Sanergy’s for profit arm collects the waste and uses novel methods to process the waste into byproducts to sell to the market. Its current products are fertilizer and animal feed, with other products in the pipeline as well.
I think a social enterprise like Sanergy well poised to solve this problem, because the problem intrinsically requires emotional motivation that comes with a mission driven organization, coupled with the innovation engine that comes from the private sector. To support this hypothesis, one can look back at attempts by the public sector or private sector in a silo. For example, India’s government has launched several campaigns to install toilets in slums and rural areas to decrease open defecation rates. The cost per toilet is much higher than what Sanergy can produce today, and most fall out of use after a period of time (however, the latest campaign in partnership with the Gates foundation shows promise). On the private site, a Japanese company called Lixil made a wildly successful low-cost toilet called SaTo which has sold over a million units thus far. The scale and impact of the toilet is irrefutable, but I believe SaTo misses the human element in its implementation. It sells the product through a network of vendors and distributors, but what happens with the product after it’s bought is not their concern. Solving this problem doesn’t just require innovation in design, but large-scale behavioral change as well.
The most obvious challenge with Sanergy’s approach, which they are well aware of, is scaling across regions and countries. The infrastructure required and regulatory hurdles faced with each expansion are significant, and even the disciplined expansion within Nairobi has been a challenge. According to the UN, inadequate sanitation affects over 2.3 billion in the world today. Solving at this scale requires a model that can be replicated efficiently and rapidly. If Sanergy can solve this challenge, I believe the model could very well be a critical part of the final answer in solving the global crisis.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I was in high school when I first heard this quote from Arthur Clarke, but it accurately captured how I felt at the onset of the technological revolution we were experiencing in the 2000s. To me, seeing the first iPod or talking to someone across the world over Skype made my eyes light up like magic does for others. Ever since then, I’ve been the stereotypical technologist, obsessing over every new technology from the incremental smartphone to the revolutionary autonomous car.
However, college brought for me a different connection, this time more emotional than intellectual. I worked with Engineers Without Borders and other social impact organizations, both locally and internationally, and found that this gave my career a meaning I hadn’t found before. My own life had been the subject of great fortune, moving from India to Alabama thanks to my parents and finding my way to a institution like Rice University where I could grow and learn. Of course, even with my subsequent work in the developing world I’ve had a minimal impact in the grand scheme. However, in a slightly selfish way I recognize that this path fulfills and energizes me more than any of my previous jobs.
So, how do I reconcile this emotional prerogative towards social impact with the intellectual drive towards cutting edge technology? I find myself spending much of my free time reading, learning, and thinking about new technologies and how I would implement or improve on them. However, I’ve worked in the tech sector both as a consultant and a manager and haven’t found the day to day fulfillment I did in social impact, although I was more excited about the product I was working on. This is the question I’m hoping to answer in this class – how do I reconcile these two differences to craft a career that is both fulfilling, yet intellectually satiating with my love of technology.