Fully Automated Politics

Building on a topic Christian brought up earlier in his blog, I’d like to share an amusing experience of computer-age politics that I had today. Earlier, I got an email from an environmental group, called the National Resources Defense Council. In it, it accused Toyota of violating its own “green” image, because it is lobbying Congress against a bill that would raise fuel efficiency to 35 mpg by 2020. Entitled, “Has Toyota no shame?” the message asks the reader to send a note to Toyota.

When you click the link, you get a form with a letter already filled out explaining “your” position (obviously, it’s the NRDC’s position, but you are able to edit it if you like). Click another button and whoosh! your letter explaining your position on fuel economy policy is off to the President of Toyota.

Well, dear reader, I sent the letter, because I personally do believe the auto companies are holding themselves to too low a standard when it comes to fuel efficiency, and it is a matter of international security (among other things). Of course, I knew full well that my robo-letter would go straight to someone’s recycle bin and would never be read by any human being, let alone the President of Toyota.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, 5 minutes later I received a robo-response from Toyota, justifying its opposition to the fuel efficiency bill in Congress, declaring its support for an alternate bill, and then bragging about its achievements in the area of global warming and fuel efficiency. In short, Toyota had a rapid automated response ready for me, which (successfully) blunted the NRDC’s attack (which did not disclose that Toyota was supporting an alternate, albeit weaker, bill).

The whole exchange made me realize that in all this flurry of messages, I was the only human engaged, that the messages were neither about the NRDC nor Toyota, but about me. Automation has induced me to interact in a complex policy dialogue between a special interest group (the NRDC) and major company (Toyota). I’m not sure what to make of this (is this a good thing?), except to say that it is a different experience than the usual to- and fro- of 30 second political attack ads on TV, because I participated in it. I spoke, even if it was not with my own voice, and I was heard, if only by a text recognition program, and I was responded to, even if only by a canned script.

I’m positing the actual letters in the comments, if you are curious to see them.

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About jeffreybardzell

Jeffrey Bardzell is an Associate Professor of HCI/Design in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University - Bloomington. His research foci include critical design, interaction criticism, research through design, and digital creativity, which he approaches from a perspective that reflects his background in the humanities.
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8 Responses to Fully Automated Politics

  1. Here is “my” letter (which again was actually prewritten for me):

    Customer – 10/15/2007 01:02 PM
    Shigeru Hayakawa, President and CEO
    Toyota Motor North America, Inc.
    9 West 57th St., Suite 4900
    New York, NY 10019

    Dear Mr. Hayakawa,

    I am appalled that Toyota is opposing a guaranteed increase in
    fuel economy standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. If your
    company is serious about satisfying consumers and fighting
    America’s addiction to oil, it’s time for your lobbying to match
    your advertising rhetoric.

    Toyota’s ads paint the company as the greenest, most
    fuel-efficient car company on the market. If that’s the case,
    why is Toyota an active member of the Alliance of Automobile
    Manufacturers, a Washington lobbying group that claims that a
    sensible 35 m.p.g. standard is “unattainable”?

    Americans who love the Prius bought the message that Toyota is a
    leader in the field. But your current lobbying activities
    threaten to paint you as no different than any other
    gas-guzzling auto company.

    I urge you to back up your green image by calling for a
    guaranteed 35 m.p.g. standard by 2020 that allows for continuous
    improvement after 2020. And I call on you to withdraw Toyota
    from any lobbying association that opposes a guaranteed 35
    m.p.g. standard.

    Sincerely,
    Jeffrey Bardzell

    And here is Toyota’s response, sent from an automated account ironically called toyota_cares. (I say ironic not as an attack on the position, but rather because an automated account obviously doesn’t have any capacity to care.)

    Response
    —————————————————————
    Thank you for contacting Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc. regarding your concerns with Toyota’s position on federally mandated fuel economy increases.

    We share your interest in strengthening automotive fuel economy and, in fact, are actively lobbying for a significant increase in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards (CAFE). Any assertion by anyone or any one website or blog that we are doing otherwise, is simply not true.

    There are various bills before Congress that would mandate new CAFE targets by 2020 and require both cars and trucks to meet that standard. At Toyota, we favor proposed legislation known as H.R. 2927, the Hill-Terry bill. This measure is aggressive and calls for increases in CAFE by as much as 40% by 2022. Although this won’t be easy, we believe it is achievable. The bill maintains separate categories for cars and trucks.

    Please also note the following:

    – Toyota has always exceeded federal fuel economy requirements, and our passenger car line-up has the highest CAFE rating in the automotive industry.

    – Toyota is the only major automaker to consistently improve global warming performance since 2001, thanks to hybrids and better conventional technology.*

    – We’re totally committed to ongoing improvement of fuel economy and emissions in all of our vehicles. In fact, our commitment to this is so deep, we spend $23 million every day on green initiatives and research.

    We are continuously striving to improve our fuel economy, regardless of federal mandates.

    So please understand that we, too, strongly support increased fuel economy standards. It’s the right thing to do-and, we hope that we’ve been able to provide a little more insight into our environmental commitments and actions.

    To learn more, please visit our corporate blog and see our recent posts regarding this topic at http://blog.toyota.com/2007/10/post.html and at http://blog.toyota.com/2007/09/irvs-sheet-a-ca.html.

    Thank you for your interest in Toyota and the environment.

    Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc.
    Corporate Communications

  2. laurabrunetti says:

    That’s kind of interesting. We hear all this talk about how the internet is great for giving anyone and everyone (with access) a voice by leveling the playing field, but so what if they aren’t really being heard (and it doesn’t seem like they are if it’s as easy as that for me to generate an automated response with my voice never meeting another human’s ears or eyes in this case). So how effective is it really? And how level is the playing field really?

  3. mingxian says:

    I’d like to say that it is just a copy from reality. Three years ago I participated in a English learning class. One day, the teacher gave us a letter and several white papers and let us to make multi- copies of the letter manually and sent those letters to different congress men due to the government planed to reduce the financial plan for second language learning program. Those letters are totally same expect the “writer”–who wrote the words onto the paper and the signature. I totally didn’t know and didn’t care who took care of those letters.

    However, for Jeff’s experience, I think maybe it has different and more meaning compared with mine due to its digital attribute. Maybe people just want to publish their advertisement by this way. And maybe….

    There are too many possible reasons and motivations when people do something online. Sometimes we know and sometimes we don’t. In some sense, they are designing for the future.

  4. thismarty says:

    It reminds me of that scene in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil where the protagonist connects the “In” pipe at his cubicle to the “Out” pipe. Only this time, the ecosystem has done it for you.

  5. Tyler Pace says:

    This reminds me of the “lawyer bot” phenomenon that started a few years ago. A great example comes from Blizzard who use automated web crawlers to search for content they find objectionable, identify an email address of the site admin and proceed to send a fancy looking letter complete with legal letterhead and a lawyer’s signature. No human is involved in this process and they send out hundreds of these letters a day with hopes that their legal carpet bomb strategy will suppress behavior they don’t support.

  6. I guess the point I was trying to make was not about clever letter bots, but rather that the clever letter bots can *reply* to each other, and yet also somehow I became the focal point of that. It was pretty clever of Toyota to come up with a system to serve up an appropriate and effective reply, responding to my robo-letter to no one with a letter to me on a subject I care about. IOW, instead of my letter merely going off to Toyota to make no difference (which is exactly what happened as far as that goes), Toyota shot back at me and I actually *did* read their letter. So rather than me making an impact on them via an automated letter, they made an impact on me via an automated letter, prompted by my automated letter.

  7. Dave Roedl says:

    all I can say is LOL. this story reads like a Vonnegut novel.

  8. In the all’s well that ends well department, those of you following this thread will be delighted to know that NRDC apparently found out about Toyota’s reply, and subsequently spammed everyone who “sent” a letter with a rebuttal to Toyota’s rebuttal. So I guess the best description here is an automated flame war with an audience of one, me (until I subjected all of you to it, that is). Here is the NRDC’s re-rebuttle:

    Dear Jeffrey,
    Thanks again for taking action along with more than 80,000 other online activists who are appalled at Toyota’s shameful stance on improved gas mileage.
    By now, you will have no doubt received an email from the car company in which it claims to “share your interest in strengthening automotive fuel economy.”
    Don’t be fooled. Here’s the situation —
    The Senate has already passed a strong bill that would raise the fuel economy standard to 35 mpg by 2020. With your support, we’re fighting to get that measure included in a final energy bill that will soon be voted on by both houses of Congress.
    But instead of supporting that greenest of measures, Toyota is attempting to derail it by supporting the Hill-Terry bill. The Hill-Terry bill would only require an increase in gas mileage standards to 32 mpg by 2022.
    The difference between these two bills may not seem all that significant, but in reality, it’s huge. The bill passed by the Senate is more than twice as effective as the Hill-Terry bill, which would waste millions more gallons of gasoline per day and could produce hundreds of millions more tons of global warming pollution.
    We’re going to keep the pressure on the self-styled “green” automaker until it gets in gear and supports the tough fuel economy measure that has already passed the Senate.
    Please take a moment to tell your friends who are tired of corporations that market themselves as environmentally conscious even as they undermine the future of our planet.
    We’ll be sure to keep you updated on this crucial fight for cleaner cars.
    Sincerely,
    Frances Beinecke
    President
    NRDC Action Fund

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