Meditation of a Poll Official

On Thursday I worked as a poll supervisor for Elections Ontario. I have joined election teams for the last couple provincial and federal elections. I cannot fully explain my enthusiasm for working election days. The days are long and mentally exhausting, and yet strangely rewarding and enlightening.

To be a poll official is to spend a day devoted to serving your neighbours — and a day focused on the technical challenges that arise when serving so many fellow citizens in a friendly and efficient way.

Elections are political. The act of voting tends to stir convictions with cortisol. When my focus is on my ballot, my attention is wrapped up with ‘my side’ winning the election. But the work of elections staff is very different: it is all about neutrality, accountability, and customer service. Assuming this role makes for an entirely different way to experience and participate in an election. ‘Winning,’ for a poll official, means making democratic participation as accessible as it can be for as many people as possible.

I think everyone who lives in a democracy should try serving their compatriots at the polls. Try it at least once in your lifetime. The concern for elections staff is executing the practical logistical requirements of a functioning democracy, and in this context you find yourself working alongside people of every political ‘colour’ who come together and set everything aside to get a job done.

Stop wasting other people’s lives

10 Timeframes by Paul Ford is a beautiful essay. Ford asks a deceivingly simple question: when you spend a portion of your life (that is, your time) working on a project, do you take into account how your work will consume, spend, or use portions of other lives? How does the ‘thing’ you are working on right now play out in the future when there are “People using your systems, playing with your toys, [and] fiddling with your abstractions”?

It is good to think about how to negate wasting other people’s time in the here and now. Straight to the chase, I can’t say it better than Jason Fried: “If you have a meeting coming up and you have the power to do so, just cancel it.”

But what about the future users of your products, platforms, systems, and knowledge? Are you honouring their lives and time, too? I often think about this when editing video: does this one-minute section respect the time of future viewers? A minute multiplied by the number of times a video might be viewed suddenly represents a sizeable chunk of collective human resources. In this respect, ‘filler’ is irresponsible: if you know something is not adding value or meaning to future ‘consumers,’ then you are, in a sense, robbing life from them. It seems extreme to say that, yes, but hopefully contemplating the proposition has not wasted your time.

An Unexamined Dictum

‘An unexamined life is not worth living’ seems like it might be a rather classist thing to say.

Who has access to the time or extra mental bandwidth to conduct an ‘adequate’ examination of their life?

Who determines the degree of examination required to make life worth living?

Does it follow that people who have spent the most time in rigorous self-examination truly have the most worthwhile lives? Should we think of tenured, ivory tower philosophers as leading the most worthwhile lives on the basis of the time they have to devote to self-reflection?

If someone cannot achieve the ‘ideal level’ of self-examination, does it make sense to say their life is truly worthless? According to who? According to whose metric of adequate self-examination?

Whose class, caste, and careers are validated by this dictum — and at the expense of whom? Whose existence is labelled as the apparent ‘victim’ of this advice? Do we suppose Plato meant this maxim to be as relevant to all the slaves of ancient Greece as was to the propertied aristocrats?

What do people mean when they say, ‘Science’?

What is science, exactly? Today we talk a lot about ‘evidence-based policy’ in government, academia, and in the media, but is there a widening gap in the way we define ‘evidence’ as a society?

Is ‘science’ just another segment on the evening news? How do we, as a general public, decide when to trust science? Do you believe the studies that say chocolate and coffee are good for you…or the other ones? How do you validate your beliefs about immunizing children?

Nadine Wathen (@nadinewathen) is a Full Professor in the Health Information Science Program in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies at Western University. She is a Research Scholar at the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children in Western’s Faculty of Education. Nadine holds an affiliate appointment in Western’s Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research and is also cross-appointed to the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing. Her research develops and evaluates interventions for women and children experiencing violence, and seeks to enhance the science of knowledge translation and exchange (KTE) to ensure that new knowledge emerging from research is made available, in appropriate ways.