Technology

Number Cruncher

Coffee and quantum physics with the Liberals’ digital savant

Illustration by Tom Froese

Illustration by Tom Froese

The herd instinct once brought young Conservatives to Hy’s Steakhouse in Ottawa, where they’d get their ties wet in ginger ale and talk about running the country. Then the Prime Minister’s Office told them to cut it out. Now power brokers of a certain age (under twenty-five; the city is full of them) cut their deals at Bridgehead Coffee on Sparks Street, alongside civil servants and panhandlers waiting patiently for the trickle-down effects of the free market. It’s all very democratic. And it’s not just Tories but Liberals and New Democrats, too, although they dress the same: pipe-legged cotton pants, too-small jackets, narrow black ties. They sit on orange Eames chair knock-offs, get frothed milk on their noses, and keep their voices down.

Adel Boulazreg is twenty-three and works for Justin Trudeau. Specifically, he’s a “national field strategist,” responsible for training constituency staff and volunteers across the country, from phone bank operators and door knockers to candidates. His skill is in using technologies the last generation of campaign workers haven’t heard of yet. He’s been described as a digital savant with an uncanny grasp of the tools of modern politics: data, aggregation, algorithms. Co-founder of a company called Groundforce Digital, he specializes in “bridging the online-offline gap,” which is one way of saying he knows how to find people on the Internet and sell them on political involvement in the real world. Before Trudeau, he worked for Barack Obama, Kathleen Wynne, and John Tory. “I really like numbers,” he says. The bell curve “is to me the Mona Lisa,” and watching him blush and lower his eyes I believe him—that he doesn’t just like numbers but loves them, the way older political players in Ottawa once loved rhetoric and debate. Numbers represent people, and people effect change. It’s at once wonky and weirdly radical.

As a student, Boulazreg had his eye on a career in New York at Goldman Sachs. Then one night he met a couple of homeless men on Bloor Street in Toronto—one was half-blind, half-paralyzed, and twice orphaned by the age of ten—and his life changed. “It got me thinking,” he says. “If a government can make the lives of its citizens easier, even an inch easier, why shouldn’t it? ” This is how a would-be capitalist became a Liberal: by accident. As he describes that night, one of the panhandlers at Bridgehead pulls up a chair at the table next to us and studies the strategist.

Boulazreg is interested in science, particularly quantum physics and how the universe (or many universes) grew from the Big Bang. I mention a New York Times article on the so-called quantum politician, a person whose ideological position is so indeterminate that he or she can claim to believe in anything and nothing at once, just as light behaves simultaneously as a particle and a wave. Take Trudeau, who last April told the Canadian Press that he was “maybe” open to a coalition with the NDP—if they somehow managed to shake Thomas Mulcair as leader—and then the next day announced that he wasn’t, as if he’d never mentioned it in the first place. That’s quantum politics, where uncertainty and indeterminacy make a politician seem nimble. They used to call it flip-flopping.

Boulazreg doesn’t buy it. It’s a metaphor, he says, but in the real world, mathematical models are what matter. Data doesn’t lie. “There is, though,” he admits, “chaos in politics, even with the best models.”

The panhandler finally sees his opening. “Do you work in government? ” he asks.

Boulazreg drops his eyes again.

“You’re so young,” the man says. “You sound so intelligent. Are you a politician? ”

Boulazreg thinks about it. “Not from up there,” he says quietly, pointing to Parliament Hill. It’s not a lie: Liberal headquarters are on Metcalfe Street, in the other direction. But he’s dodging the question.

“You look like Trudeau,” says the man. “I don’t trust him. He’s not old enough for me to take him seriously.”

That gets a laugh. The man, knowing a closed conversation when he sees one, gets up to talk to the barista. I start to wonder if there are homeless men following Boulazreg from city to city, setting him on some unknown course. But that’s a quantum idea: entanglement, the spooky connections between otherwise unconnected particles in space. There’s no mathematical model for it. There are no numbers. All I know is that these things never happened at Hy’s.

This appeared in the October 2015 issue.

Tom Jokinen is a writer based in Toronto. He frequently contributes to the Globe and Mail and CBC Radio.

Tom Froese (tomfroese.com) illustrates for Monocle, Wired UK, and Canadian Business.

THEWALRUS.CA IS FREE. If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a donation to the charitable, non-profit Walrus Foundation. Learn More »

SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER. Get the weekly roundup from The Walrus, a collection of our best stories, delivered to your inbox. Learn More »

Elsewhere on TheWalrus.ca