Empire and Innovation


I’m late in posting again this week, but this time I have a reason. Our discussion last time (and many thanks to David Eaves for visiting and leading the session) was about the interaction of the Internet and government. By coincidence, I had agreed to go to Washington, D.C. on Friday of last week to give a talk to interested Senate staffers about cyber security. So I thought I’d wait until after the trip to see if going to the seat of the federal government would trigger any thoughts.

The trip was fascinating– I had been asked to give a talk that was the conclusion of a month-long series of talks and panel sessions, organized by the Sargent at Arms for the Senate, on cyber security and social media. The Sargent at Arms is, essentially, the head administrator of the Senate, running all of the departments and groups that allow the Senate to do its work. My audience was made up of members of these administrative units, along with staff members for the Senators themselves. There were about a dozen people in the room, but the talk was also broadcast on the Senate’s own version of CNN, both within the Senate office buildings (there are many) and to the field offices of the Senators.

The room where I gave my talk was one of the (many) Senate hearing rooms. It was impressive, even by Harvard standards. Beautifully painted ceiling (with a zodiac motif), high ceilings and huge windows, lots of wood and carvings, and a raised area with a table and chair for the Senators (blocked off so no one would enter the space). After the talk I got a great tour of the Capitol itself, one-on-one with a staff member of the computer security group, which let me go all kinds of places that are generally not open to the public. The size of the place, the scale of the rooms, and the history recalled were all pretty awe inspiring and a bit overwhelming.

The only places I could compare it to that I have visited are the Coliseum in Rome, the Doge’s palace in Venice, and St. Peter’s in the Vatican. All monuments to their empires, all built at the height of that empire’s power.

But as I was feeling the awe (and pride) caused by seeing the Capitol, I couldn’t help but think of the places I knew out in Silicon Valley, in the New York tech scene, or in the tech companies around Boston. None of them were as beautiful and impressive as what I was seeing. But there was also a sense of ponderousness, of self-satisfaction, and of slow moving deliberation in the halls of the Senate that contrasted sharply with the feeling of excitement, experimentation, and energy that I remember from the tech companies.

All of which makes me wonder about the effect and interaction between the world of government and the world of technology. We talked some in the seminar about how technology can improve the delivery of services by government, but often that is just government adopting technology that has been used in the rest of the world like reasonably designed web sites and APIs that allow access to information in a way that enables others to write useful applications. This may be new and different in the world of government, but has been the norm in the rest of the world for a decade or more.

David’s stated worry was that government could use technology to impose a surveillance state and become far more controlling than anything thought of by Orwell. We have seen some things (like the Snowden revelations) that might back this view up, but so far I haven’t seen evidence that the government agencies can more quickly enough or competently enough to really carry this off. Nor do I think that the government  believes that it has to…the environment in which those running the government, like the Senate, are designed to make them feel that they are already masters of the world. Why would they need to do something different?

I have a very different worry– that the tech companies will move so fast in comparison to what happens in government that they make the Senate and the rest of government pretty much irrelevant, at least on a day-to-day basis. Yes, we will need the government bodies that deal with defense and foreign affairs to continue dealing with those subjects, but our everyday lives will be molded and controlled by corporations that move so fast and change so rapidly that the government bodies that are supposed to regulate those companies, protect us from their abuse, and insure that they don’t overstep the bounds of law and ethics are simply left behind. It has taken a year for the federal government to even start investigating what role tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter played in the last election. Imagine how quickly a tech company would go out of business if it took a year to react to something like that?

I’m generally an optimist, and I don’t think that tech companies (or any other kinds of companies, for that matter) are actively evil. But they are currently pretty much unanswerable to the public, and this is beginning to worry that same public. We need to find some way of addressing these issues, but it won’t be by slowing down tech so that it matches the pace of government. The time scales are too different, and the incentives are too far out of alignment. We need a new approach to these problems, one that combines speed with responsibility. Our technologists need to think beyond the technology to the effects of that technology, and our legislators and regulators need to learn to understand both where technology is and where it is going. I don’t see an easy answer, but this is a problem we need to solve.

Projection and Confession
Who do you trust?

1 Comment »

  1. profsmith

    October 31, 2017 @ 5:35 pm


    I resonate strongly with what you’ve written here. Adding to what you’ve said, include the dollars that the rich tech industry is spending to lobby Congress (mostly to stay out of their way), and consider the era from which our senators hail. On this latter point, I came across this quote:

    “The current Congress is among the oldest in history: the average age of a senator is 61 and a representative in the House is 57. Democrats, who tend to be more pro-regulation, are also older than their Republican counterparts—the average age of the Democratic leadership and ranking members in the House is 68, for example, versus 59 for Republicans. (These are the members with the most power inside the party, who set the party’s agenda in Congress for the year).”

    Reference: https://qz.com/1089907/why-washington-dc-is-incapable-of-regulating-the-worlds-tech-giants/

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