Blog Post

The Permanent Poll: A Culture of Constant Test

In his more provocative writings on the digital, Jean Baudrillard prophesized that the adoption of the binary code would reduce all of the world's previously analogic chaos to an all-powerful dualism, thus forever erasing the possibility of difference.  The digital would introduce a state of "constant test" that would render the production of meaning null: the question/answer of the stimulus/response negating the development of discussion and representation.  Generally dismissed as hyperbolic and millenarian, Baudrillard's thoughts nevertheless do spark some heat when thinking about the existence of what I'll refer to here as the permanent poll: the constant, all-pervasive demand for feedback in an era of integrated pol[l]-itics.

Let's take an example: on Twiigs, a one-stop shopping spree for the Internet poll-taker, yesterday's entertainment poll was "What do you think of Ashley going back to blonde?" I took the poll in order to view the results: of 587 respondents, 35% choose "Yes, I love it!"; 33% picked "No, I prefer her as a brunette"; and 32% reported "She [would] look great with both," demonstrating the tendency of the poll to neutralize at 50/50 or in this instance 33/33/33.   Even when polls have some meat to their bones: "How much would you pay for a rechargeable electric car like the Chevrolet Volt, which General Motors says could get an EPA rating of 230 miles per gallon in the city?" ($20,000 won with 42%), they are usually in such close proximity to the somewhat vacuous "Which John Hughes teen movie is your favorite?" (apologies to the Hughes' fans) to be really effective.

From shows whose entire existence depends upon the ritual engagement of vast audiences (American Idol being the most obvious) to the participatory news environment of the twenty-hour stations (FOX News seems to dominate in this category: "Are Obama's Opponents Racist?"), or the polls that seek to find out your opinion on the various pollsters: "Is Fox Fair and Balanced?"we often find ourselves being queried.  While many of the news polls tend to offer only two choices ("agree/disagree" being the most popular), several have between four and five options, making the answers slightly more qualified ("agree" shifting to "strongly agree").   But still, the question raised by Baudrillard lingers: do these polls initiate insightful conversations that interrogate the issues? Or does the poll end simply with the results?

 

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4 comments

Hi, Lisa, This is another great post you've given us.  Thank you.   I read this right after Matt Straus's on invariance and it is fascinating to think the two together.  I also find myself in the midst of "poll fatigue," where, every day, there are not only new numbers about just about everything to ponder but also polls so badly expressed and interpreted that I find myself having to waste time trying to think whether or not I need to be encouraged, alarmed, or just annoyed at another badly conceptualized survey.      No answers, but I love your thoughtful linking of this question to our shared concern with digital participation in all its forms.

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Perhaps I'm being obtuse ("taking it to the previous level"), but my first reaction to the kinds of poll questions you cite is to think about the choices they offer as means of framing discourse: that is, as political speech acts aimed at engineering consensus, if not on the question posed then at least about which sorts of questions are worth answering, rather than as attempts to gather data. In this light, even provocatively trivial polls serve a serious political purpose, in reframing those polls that appear to be about more substantial issues. The common practice of providing feedback on the current state of consensus immediately after the voter casts their own vote turns the poll into a game and a didactic tool (so that the voter can test whether they are within or outside the mainstream, where one exists). I see such polls as a means to provide the individual with a sense of their standing in a society (or imagined community) that is broader than they could expect to encounter through their personal experience.

There are clearly some very thorny issues that bedevil sincere attempts to gather survey data, and a considerable literature about these. I wonder about the overtly political use of polls in society, however. What are the legal consequences if a pollster - such as a news media company - fabricates poll results, and are they the same if the poll is about questions of legislation or celebrity hair colour?

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I like your point about how these polls frame discourse in the very act of constructing the questions. I also think that there is a link between the immediate feedback provided in an "exit poll" scenario (or the "entrance"/"exit" poll combo) and the marketing surveys that seek to gain insight into consumer preferences. Both act to bolster products despite whether the product is a tangible material edible or a media-savvy political campaign. 

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I can't help but sample part of your first sentence, "the adoption of the binary code would reduce all of the world's previously analogic chaos to an all-powerful dualism, thus forever erasing the possibility of difference," into a more general reflection on our digital two-party system.  Are the potentials of democracy severely limited by the "all-powerful dualism" of a two-party system, and even more, by the erasure of any possiblity of difference between them?

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