This week on Gadget Lab, WIRED digital director Brian Barrett joins us to talk about the app that derailed the Iowa caucus—and what it means for elections to come. Then, a conversation with WIRED staff writer Megan Molteni about how the spread of the coronavirus is claiming lives, disrupting the economy, and creating chaos in the global supply chain.
Read more about what the hell happened with the Iowa caucus here. Follow WIRED’s ongoing coverage of the coronavirus here. Read more of Megan Molteni’s coverage here, and find Brian Barrett’s work here.
Megan recommends season 2 of Sex Education on Netflix. Brian recommends The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury. Lauren recommends season 3 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon. Mike recommends the podcast Freak Flag Flying.
Megan Molteni can be found on Twitter @MeganMolteni. Brian Barrett is @brbarrett. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our consulting executive producer is Alex Kapelman (@alexkapelman). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.
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Lauren Goode: Technology! Nothing’s getting better.
[Intro theme music]
Michael Calore: Hi everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. My name is Michael Calore. I’m a senior editor here at WIRED and I am joined, as always, by my cohost, WIRED senior writer, Lauren Goode.
MC: Hello Lauren.
LG: It’s great to be here.
MC: Like every week.
LG: Like every week.
MC: Like every week. You’re like a captive. Also joining us this week is WIRED’s digital director, Brian Barrett.
Brian Barrett: Hi, guys. Thank you so much for having me back.
LG: Yeah, you must’ve done something right the last time because we only waited about a month to have you back on. Whereas before I think you said it was what? A year and a half?
BB: At least a year and a half, maybe two years.
LG: Well, we’re thrilled.
BB: I am improving.
LG: We’re thrilled to have you back.
MC: This week show is about the news beyond our usual gadget-sphere, and beyond the world of Silicon Valley that we typically cover. It’s about what happens when new tech is introduced in critical situations like in the Iowa caucus. As it turns out, there wasn’t really an app for that. Or there was, it just didn’t really work as intended.
Later on, we are going to be talking about the chaos of the coronavirus, and the ways in which the outbreak is influencing the economy. This is something that’s going to hit the consumer electronics world particularly hard since so much of the manufacturing and production of the products that we use is concentrated in China. We’re also going to talk about misinformation about the virus, how to cut through the conspiracy theories, and know what is real and what is not. For that segment. We are going to be joined by WIRED science writer, Megan Molteni. But first, let’s talk about something only slightly less apocalyptic, the Iowa caucus. Brian Barrett, why don’t you take us through what happened at the beginning of this week?
BB: Sure, and it feels like forever ago, but it was only a few days ago. It was only on Monday that Iowans reported to high school gyms across the state to canvas and caucus for their preferred candidates.
It is a chaotic enough process, as anyone who watched it this year and in a previous years knows, made very much more so by the fact that this year Iowa decided to use an app to relay results from each of the individual caucus sites back to sort of the mothership where the democratic leaders were hanging out. There are a few problems with this. One, apps in and of themselves are buggy. Anyone who has ever used software knows that software has bugs, but I think the bigger problem here is that everything was very secretive. Iowa did not share the app with the department of Homeland Security who had asked to take a look. They didn’t let security professionals vet it and they didn’t really teach people how to use it, even. It was sort of bizarre. I think that you’ve got this conflicts of things where even under the best of circumstances, using this app would have been a bad idea, but they sort of went for the worst of circumstances, instead.
Another example of that, you can keep ticking them down, but they made it so that you couldn’t get the app through an app store. You had to side-load it through sort of Apple and Android’s enterprise system, which it’s like. .. It’s a complicated process for people who are not natively tech-interested. And even for people who are, it can be a few more hoops than you’re used to. It was just a mess. So you had an app that was hard to use by people who didn’t know how to get it and didn’t want to use it, which after all that, ended up breaking and not reporting the results the way that it was supposed to.
So sort of a mess on top of a mess on top of a mess. And I will say the silver lining to all of this, and I think the real valuable lesson going down as you look at future primaries and even for states that caucus, is that Iowa kept a paper backup of every single vote. And that’s the one thing that every election security person will tell you. That is the only way to ensure the integrity of the vote. So if you are going to pile on ridiculous, unnecessary tech to things, which God knows in America, we love doing that, at least keep that paper back up because that’s the only way you’re really going to know that you got it right at the end. And fortunately, Iowa did that.
LG: Brian, do we have a sense of why the Iowa Democratic Party did want to try this more technical version of counting votes? Like what’s the impetus for this if we’re ultimately just going to end up relying on the paper ballots or some type of scanning system?
BB: Yeah, so I guess the app came… I believe it was probably well-intentioned and they wanted to streamline the process. The app came from a company called Shadow, which was funded by another company called Acronym, which was founded by a bunch of former Clinton digital staff from her 2016 campaign. And you can sort of imagine the pitch, right? It’s like, look, I know you’ve got this crazy complicated caucus process. Instead of doing stuff by hand and calling on the phone, why don’t you just have this app where you can just punch it in and go, and then be done with your night.
So you can see the intention of saying, well this will clearly make things faster. And you can see also, especially if you are not especially tech savvy, that sounds great. But if you understand that these things invariably have issues, especially if you don’t take the time to test them, especially if you don’t dig into their functionality and make sure the users know how to use them, you’re going to run into trouble. So I can see how the pitch might’ve worked. It is baffling that Iowa did not let more people poke and prod this thing before it went into live use.
LG: And what are the results so far? We’ve seen trickling out, like 62% of the vote was in a couple days ago. What’s the latest?
BB: I think as we’re recording this, it’s still undetermined. And actually the latest, latest is that the head of the DNC, Tom Perez, has called for Iowa to re-canvas the results. So not re-caucus, but count all the votes again and go through all of the things again because there are so many irregularities just in terms of … It’s sort of a little bit of a tricky mathematical formula that they use. So we might be looking at a recount full-stop. I think right now Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg are both basically in the lead but … And a recount will probably hold that up, I assume. But we don’t really have exact numbers yet, still.
LG: And we should know that our WIRED colleague, Gilad Edelman, has written about how New Hampshire has come out and said that it plans to go totally low-tech in its upcoming caucus. Mike, what’s your take on this?
MC: Well, you know, I think it’s really interesting that as a society we have been sort of trained to get results immediately. You know, like you press a button and you get a result? And voting has been pretty quick over the years. Like we pretty much know who’s going to win by the end of the night just because the people who study these things can make the most accurate predictions and based on not everybody reporting. And you know, the important thing to note here is that everybody’s vote did get counted, as Brian, as you said, you know? There was a paper backup and there was no problem with people’s votes actually being tallied.
It’s the reporting of those votes back to the mothership that got slowed down and they had to do it by phone. They had to do it the old-fashioned way. And with the news media and with the people actually in Iowa and the candidates themselves, everybody just itching to get the final result and they had to wait days and days to get it. It really felt like why is this happening in 2020? This feels like a problem that they had in the 1940s. But in fact it’s like that is the way that you can guarantee that these things are going to get done properly, is doing them slowly and carefully. And I think that’s fine. It just felt really in Congress with the way that we expect information to be delivered to us in today’s society. The other thing is that it really underscores the lack of faith in technology for voting.
Like mobile voting is something that has been on everybody’s lips for the last few elections. Voting machines that tabulate votes electronically instead of mechanically or manually with a pen are things that we are constantly dealing with security problems around. You know, we’re sort of slow to adopt them for that reason, and I think that a situation like this is only going to make it more difficult for us to move forward into electronic voting because our trust in the process when electronics are involved have been eroded. It also gives opponents within the party and opposition parties an opportunity to point and say they don’t know what they’re doing.
MC: It’s a huge mess.
LG: Look how dysfunctional this is.
MC: And not only that, but this election can be called illegitimate because of that.
LG: Exactly. I think that with technology, there’s an assumption sometimes, psychologically, that because time has passed and certain things have evolved that it’s just better. I mean there was some usage of this kind of technology in the 2016 Iowa caucus. I think Microsoft had an application or some type of software that was deployed then, and there were some reports of glitches, but for the most part it was certainly more functional than this turned out to be.
So the assumption would kind of be that over the past four years, as technology has evolved, improved, gotten better, we’re all … More of us are using smart phones, right? I mean literally around the world, more of us are using smart phones and more of this technology has become mainstream that therefore it would it become … Or, sort of just assimilated into our lives in different ways and we’re more capable of handling it. That’s actually not the case. If anything, technology has gotten more complicated. There are more concerns about the effects of platforms and software on our lives, and people are overwhelmed by how much technology is in our lives. So you can’t necessarily expect that just because a portion of the population has become more digitally savvy that, therefore, this kind of app should be used in any type of critical voting process.
BB: I think one, just one last little notice to make everybody worried cause why else would I be here? There was paper this time. There are lots of states that have no paper backup and don’t plan on having it. And our study from last fall from the Brennan Center out of NYU estimated that 16 million votes are going to be cast in the 2020 presidential election with no paper backup, whatsoever. And a lot of those votes are going to be on systems that are still running, say Windows 7, or even Windows XP. Neither of which Microsoft supports with security backups. So when things go wrong, because they will go wrong, the important thing is being able to fix it. We’ve got way too many places in the US right now where there’s no way to fix it.
MC: That’s a very sobering thought. Thank you for that, Brian.
BB: I’ll see you guys in a year and a half.
MC: I’m happy that you’re going to stick around for the second half of the show because we’re going to take a break now and when we come back, we’re going to talk about the coronavirus outbreak with WIRED science writer, Megan Molteni.
MC: Welcome back. As the coronavirus spreads, it has caused panic and chaos across the world. Of course, there is a human toll. By official counts, 563 people have died so far, all but two of those in mainland China. While more than 28,000 people have been infected worldwide. But the virus has also destabilized places far away from the infection zones. Joining us to talk about this is WIRED staff writer, Megan Molteni. Hello Megan.
Megan Molteni: Hey Mike.
MC: Please tell us more about what’s going on with the coronavirus today.
MM: Yeah, so it’s really hard to believe that it’s only been five weeks since Chinese health authorities first reported they were investigating this cluster of mysterious pneumonia-like illnesses. And as we were kind of following along, it went from being just a couple dozen of these cases that we were watching in early January, to this thing just absolutely exploding. And the worst of it right now really is in the city of Wuhan. There’s about 11 million people in central China. They’ve seen the majority of cases, the majority of deaths. That area, which has been on government lockdown now for a few weeks, is in full crisis mode. So the hospitals are overwhelmed, people are forced to stay in their homes. They’ve been racing to erect these designated coronavirus field hospitals and makeshift shelters. And so as those have actually gotten finished this week, the latest is that officials just ordered a round-up of all infected residents of Wuhan.
So we’re kind of expecting to see a mass movement of people to these quarantined camps starting soon. So that’s what’s happening in Wuhan. Kind of elsewhere, the virus has spread to 28 other countries, but so far those cases have been quite limited and there’s been limited local transmission. The US, here we only have 12 confirmed cases so far and only one of those was a case that was unrelated to travel in China. But nevertheless, the US officials have said last week that they were preparing as if this were a pandemic. And so they’ve actually announced a series of aggressive measures in the last week, including mandatory 14-day quarantines for any US citizens returning home from travels to the province that Wuhan is in, which is called Hubei. And they also instituted a travel ban. So they’re refusing any non-citizens who’ve been to China in the last two weeks entry into the country. So that’s kind of where we’re at right now.
MC: So one of the things that we’re tracking here at WIRED is the ripple effects that the coronavirus outbreak is having across the economy because of these travel bans that you mentioned in the forced quarantines. It oddly happened right during the lead-up to the Lunar New Year, which happens all over Asia. That started on January 25th and it ends the… It’s like a holiday. It’s a two-week holiday and it usually ends right around now, the first weekend in February. First or second weekend in February. And there’s always a big push in manufacturing and in shipping inside of the electronics industry. Things like computers and smartphones and OLED panels. The factories that produce those things, which are largely concentrated in China … There’s usually a big push right before the Lunar New Year where they ramp up production because the factories shut down and everybody goes home for the holidays and then comes back two weeks later.
Well, this year workers were sent home, factories were shut down early and then they’re probably not going to reopen this week or next week because of the fears that it could help spread the virus if they come back. Also if there’s a travel ban, that means that planes and ships carrying things to other countries are not taking off. People who would normally fly to China for business meetings and Chinese who would be flying to other countries for business meetings, that’s not happening. So it’s really, in Asia, a lot of things have just ground to a halt.
And the impact of that on the US is not theoretical, at this point. And there’s this weird juxtaposition that’s happening now where we are talking about something that could be classified as a pandemic and people are dying and yet you know, people are like, but what about the economy?
LG: And we’re in the middle of earning season. There are tech companies right now that are reporting… Over the past couple of weeks, they’ve been reporting their quarterly earnings and we’ve seen that at least a quarter of them have, if not more at this point, have mentioned the coronavirus as something that could impact the next quarter of business. And we’ve seen Google shut down its offices in certain regions in Asia, Apple shutting down its stores. And I mean, yeah, there are days when we see reports like the latest report on what’s happening with the coronavirus and then it’s … Oh and AirPods production will be impacted, too. So there’s a pretty serious sort of trickling-down effect that’s happening here.
But Megan, one of the themes that we’ve been exploring this week is not just about what happens when something goes wrong, like when a virus breaks out or when a hugely symbolic democratic election process fails. But also what happens when information about these kinds of events gets scrambled online. And our colleague, Emma Grey Ellis, has a story on WIRED.com this week about all the different conspiracy theories that have been floating around about the coronavirus. And some of them are pretty wild. So I guess I’m just wondering how people can sort through all of this information and determine what’s real and what’s not. Especially when some of the source information is coming from China, where we know that there is a bit of a wall when it comes to the media.
MM: Yeah. So, we’re relying on official reports coming out of the Chinese National Health Commission for these numbers. There are a number of scientists and epidemiologists who believe that those numbers are actually much higher. In part because we … With a new virus, we don’t really understand what some of the early signs are. And so maybe people with mild symptoms weren’t going to hospitals. But at this point in China it’s really because those hospitals are overwhelmed and there’ve been reports out of Wuhan that there aren’t enough diagnostic testing kits. And so doctors actually, there, feel that the real numbers are much higher. So that’s kind of one thing to keep in mind. You know, here in the US, I think we tell people to rely on sources like CDC, the WHO, kind of these organizations that have a reputation as being kind of health authorities.
The WHO did say in a meeting this week that as part of their trying to combat a lot of the misinformation around the coronavirus, they’re working with a number of tech companies including Facebook and Google to try to make sure that their stuff is showing up in search results and just trying to kind of stop a lot of the misinformation that is being spread. You know, for Chinese residents there’s the added issue of censorship or of the media. So there was actually a report this week that one of the doctors who had tried to blow the whistle about this virus and was arrested for spreading rumors was basically vindicated as saying that this was what it was. And he actually just died this morning. And so there’s … I think there’s … There are real reasons for there to be mistrust about the official information coming out of China.
But it’s hard to … That sort of thing is pretty hard for us to parse on this side of the wall. What I will say is that there are some big … Part of the reason this is getting driven is also that it’s a new virus. We don’t know stuff about it and we don’t know where it came from, and that kind of central mystery is, as Emma very aptly describes it, kind of the perfect recipe for this state of fear in which we’re willing to believe whatever hypothesis we come across.
MC: Megan, I guess what I sort of have been wondering with this is I think there’s… And I think you’ve spoken to this already pretty well, but there seems to be people aren’t really able… Even beyond the misinformation aren’t really able to calibrate how concerned they should be. And there’s… Especially at the… You see a lot of people saying, “Well influenza. Much worse than it.” But is that even a useful way to think of it? I think comparing it to other… like influenza and other common diseases or is… How should people try to grapple with it and when did you have any sense of how long it takes for that sort of better grip on that mystery might take?
MM: You know, I think unfortunately we’re still very much in the beginning of this. Like we have a lot more data than we had two weeks ago, but there’s still a lot that is unknown. So some of the big questions that remain are how do asymptomatic people pass on the virus? We’ve seen a few. There was a… We’ve seen a few cases in Germany and Japan that suggests that that’s possible, and that would drastically change what the projections have been about the transmissibility and how many people might be impacted. So you know, everyone cautions at the beginning of an outbreak, like whatever numbers you see, they’re going to change. And I think we’re still very much in that period. You know, that being said, flu does kill 1000s of people. And on the same token, we have a flu vaccine, we don’t have a vaccine for this coronavirus. We don’t have any treatments.
There are clinical trials that are already underway in China for some antivirals, but right now people had… If they are sick, they’re just being kind of treated as best they can for the pneumonia or whatever symptoms they have. So I think in the US, the risk is still quite low and there’s no reason to panic. There’s no reason to buy masks. There’s no reason to think this is going to grip. Our public health system is quite strong and robust. But it is definitely … I have never seen a CDC official refer to something as a pandemic potential in my lifetime. So I think that’s worth keeping track of, but no reason to panic at this point.
MC: All right, well, thank you Megan Molteni, for bringing us up to speed on the coronavirus and where we stand.
MM: You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.
MC: Are you going to join us for recommendations?
MM: Would you like me to join you for recommendations?
LG: We would love it.
MC: Let’s take a quick break, and then we’ll come back.
MC: All right, welcome back to the show. This is the final segment where we all recommend something from our lives that we have been loving and enjoying that we would like to tell other people about. Megan, why don’t you go first?
MM: Sure. So I’ve been trying to de-stress a little bit by watching season two of Sex Education on Netflix. And so far, I am four episodes in and it is just as awesome as season one was. There’s already… We’ve already got some incredible new additions to the cast, but of course the old stalwarts are back at their usual shenanigans. And it’s just like… It’s just the most… I still don’t understand where in England this takes place where it’s sunny every day and it’s like a Pacific Northwest rainforest and everyone’s beautiful. That’s like my only quibble with the show. Other than that, it’s perfect as far as I’m concerned.
MC: And it’s on Netflix, is that right?
MM: It’s on Netflix, yeah.
MC: Nice. Brian Barrett, what is your recommendation?
BB: I’m going to go with a throwback of a book. I recommended a book a previous time I was on this podcast that Mike, I think, did not like that much. So I’m going back in for another book recommendation.
MC: Wait, was it The North Water?
MC: Oh no, I love that book.
BB: Oh. Oh good. Well then I’m trying to go two for two.
MC: All right. I was just surprised that somebody as delightful to hang out with as Brian Barrett was recommending a book that was so emotionally traumatic.
BB: Yeah. Well that’s just what’s on the inside here, Mike. That’s just the bleakness shining through. This is less violence and has less to do with whaling. It’s called The End of Vandalism by a guy named Tom Drury, who is just a phenomenal, and I think underappreciated writer. It came out in the mid-90s. It reads like a sort of … a small town narrative, but it is incredibly deadpan and funny and off-kilter and great. So I would recommend people to start reading Tom Drury. Start there, and but really all of it’s good.
LG: Let’s add it to the WIRED book club.
MC: Lauren, what is your recommendation?
LG: My recommendation is Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, season three on Amazon Prime Video. I’m a little behind on this. It became available in early December. It dropped in December, as the cool people say, and I’m just catching up. And I’m actually only through episode four at this point. It’s a little predictable, but the show is so … It’s stylized so well and the dialogue is so perfectly executed that it’s really a delight to watch and a nice break from stories about Iowa caucus apps failing and pandemics. Mike, last but not least, what’s yours?
MC: I would like to recommend a podcast. It is called Freak Flag Flying. And it’s an interview podcast between a WIRED contributor and author, Steve Silberman, and songwriter and rockstar, David Crosby. Crosby and Silberman are friends. They’ve been friends for a couple of decades, and they sit down to talk about David Crosby’s career. It’s an interview show, basically, intercut with music because they talk a lot about David Crosby’s music and the music of the people that he works with. And they talk about his entire career, which is The Byrds, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and then Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and then a solo career. And then a period of time where he had a very terrible drug addiction.
And then he’s come out of retirement in the 21st century and put out some really great contemporary music. So it’s like two old friends sitting down and one of them just happens to be a rock star who has lived this incredible life of big highs and big lows. And it’s just a delight to listen to. It’s also very well-paced, very well edited. It’s not chronological, it kind of hops around all over the place. They talk about politics. If you are a David Crosby fan, you probably already know about it and you’ve probably already listened to it. If you’re like a casual fan, like maybe you know some of his music and you know who he is and you’d like to learn a little bit more about him, it’s a great way in. Steve Silberman really knocked it out of the park with this one.
So Freak Flag Flying. And it’s like four episodes. You can listen to the whole thing in under five hours.
LG: That’s great. You can listen to it on your commute.
MC: That’s right. If you have a five-hour commute.
LG: That’s right. Or an hour every day for a week, or something like that.
MC: Something like that.
LG: All right.
MC: That is our show for this week. Thank you to Megan Molteni.
MM: Thanks for having me.
MC: And thank you, Brian Barrett.
BB: Thank you guys.
MC: And thank you all for listening. If you have any feedback, you can find us all on Twitter. Just check the show notes. This show is produced by Boone Ashworth, and our consulting executive producer is Alex Kapelman. Goodbye and we’ll be back next week.
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