116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
This week, I wanted to talk about the demise of Iowa’s status as first-in-the-nation to select Democratic candidates for president. More specifically, I wanted to talk about the identity crisis that the loss of status leaves in its wake. Losing a long term job, a divorce, moving to a new place — big changes in our lives can cause fear and anxiety among the strongest of us. Who are we now? What will we become? Was our place of prominence ever valid or warranted at all? Are we obsolete?
Then, a friend showed me a new AI tool he had been playing with called ChatGPT that is apparently going to render all of us obsolete.
“This thing can write that column you’re stressing over in 120 seconds. Watch this.”
I watched. He typed instructions into a long rectangular box on the website. The cursor below blinked for a few seconds, then line after line of text appeared in rapid succession. The bot described long-shot George McGovern’s 1972 rise to attain the Democratic presidential nomination after focused campaigning in then underappreciated Iowa, and the droves of candidates who followed in his footsteps. It identified the importance of first-in-the-nation status in creating proximity to power and influence for the sparsely populated and largely homogenous state. It pointed out the problematic nature of concentrating this influence within a population that is not representative of the nation as a whole. Finally, it discussed the potential negative outcomes for marginalized populations ruled by a government elected by people who don’t relate to their daily lives.
The result wasn’t perfect. It was redundant in several places, and read a bit like a middle school term paper whose author was desperately trying to reach the word count before the bell rang. There was a sentiment missing. A nostalgic pride you can only get from sitting on the floor in the Harding library at 24 years old with two hundred of your closest neighbors, excitement building as an unexpected junior senator from Illinois achieved viability and then victory — first in your state, then in the nation. An adrenaline you can only get from taking a candidate to task at a town hall meeting with your kids watching from the seats next to yours. A satisfaction you can only attain by reaching out to campaign after campaign, demanding to know their plan for addressing an issue that is critically important to you personally … and receiving detailed responses from each.
The missing piece is that identity crisis. How difficult will it be as an average Iowan to gain audience with presidential hopefuls? What will the impact be on the Iowa political industrial complex? Those born after 1954 have never voted in an election in which Iowa didn’t receive an outsize share of political courtship. Is there a shift in perspective with how we view ourselves?
For many, political engagement is socialization. The bread we break at a Central Committee Meeting is about more than jockeying for position; these meetings are opportunities for fellowship and community. Fundraisers are held in the living rooms of farmhouses just over the bridge — campaign chatter buzzing over the kitchen table. Politics becomes identity beyond our issues — it is our friends, our networks, our allies.
My first political experiences were at Kirkwood, where I met lifelong friends and elected officials through an on-campus club. Within my first 12 months, I would meet the future leader of the free world. I don’t expect an artificial intelligence bot to remember the oppressive heat at that steak fry, or to understand the necessity of a loss even when it hurts. Even so …
What I learned from this experiment is that I am way out of my depth in an attempt to comprehend the technology that in a few years time will likely change the world. I remember clearly the first time we connected dial-up internet at home. We gathered around the monitor to hear the beeps and static before we sent a piece of electronic mail. These days, my youngest child leverages her access to all of the available information on the planet by gleefully shouting “HEY GOOGLE, HOW DO SPIDERS POOP?” at full volume on Saturday morning.
Today, ChatGPT can compose a sonnet, a Python script, or an artistic rendering of your bathroom selfie in record time. Ten years from now, we may be restructuring entire industries to minimize the inefficiency of relying on human labor for productivity. Will we still need computer programmers? What will the process of a medical diagnosis look like? Tax preparation? We are already watching technology replace human labor in the checkout line.
If you lost the status afforded you by your industry, who would you be?
Sofia DeMartino is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
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