If you pull far enough back from the day to day debate over technology’s impact on society – far enough that Facebook’s destabilization of democracy, Amazon’s conquering of capitalism, and Google’s domination of our data flows start to blend into one broader, more cohesive picture – what does that picture communicate about the state of humanity today?
Next week I travel to Washington DC. While I am meeting with a wide swath of policymakers, thinkers, and lobbyists, I don’t have a well-defined goal – I’m not trying to convince anyone of my opinion on any particular issue (though certainly I’m sure I’ll have some robust debates), nor am I trying to pull pungent quotes from political figures for my book. Rather I am hoping to steep in the culture of the place, make a number of new connections, and perhaps discover a bit more about how this unique institution called “the Federal Government” really works.
(image) As I begin to dig into the work of my next book, I’ve found myself thinking about politics and government far more than I anticipated. (For initial thoughts and stats, see Government By Numbers: Some Interesting Insights). While the body politic was always going to be one of the main pillars of the book, I didn’t expect it to push itself to the foreground so quickly. Certainly the Occupy Wall St. movement is partially responsible, but there’s more going on than that.
Well before #ows became shorthand for class disparity in the United States, I began to formulate a hypothesis on the role of government in our lives. (I focus on the US for this exercise, as I am writing from my own experience. I’d be very interested in responses from those living in other countries).
The headline: Over the past five or six decades, we’ve slowly but surely transitioned several core responsibilities of our common lives from government to the private sector. Some shifts are still in early stages, others are nearly complete. But I’m not sure that we have truly considered, as a society, the implications of this movement, which seem significant to me. I’m no political scientist, but the net net of all this seems to be that we’re trusting private corporations to do what, for a long, long time, we considered was work entrusted to the common good. In short, we’ve put a great deal of our public trust into a system that, for all the good it’s done (and it’s done quite a lot), is driven by one core motivation: the pursuit of profit.
As part of the work I’m doing for my book, I’ve been working with my research manager, LeeAnn Prescott, staring at various charts and graphs related to how we’ve funded our “Commons” over the past half century or so. I’ve got a working hypothesis that we are in the process of transitioning very important portions of our “public lives” to private corporations, and that this transfer is related to our adoption of digital technologies and platforms. Examples include identity (from driver’s licenses and SSNs to Visa, MasterCard, Amex, and Facebook), delivery of important information and items (from the Post Office to Telcos, Internet, and FedEx and UPS), and protection (outsourcing both prisons and military jobs to private companies). Not to mention retirement (from Social Security to 401ks, etc.).
Of course, were such a hypothesis true, one might imagine that the over percentage of GDP represented by government workers would have gone *down* over the past few decades. However, as this chart shows, that’s not the case: