This is an edited version of a series of talks I first gave in New York over the past week, outlining my work at Columbia. Many thanks to Reinvent, Pete Leyden, Cap Gemini, Columbia University, Cossette/Vision7, and the New York Times for hosting and helping me.
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?
Technology forces us to recalculate what it means to be human – what is essentially us, and whether technology represents us, or some emerging otherness which alienates or even terrifies us. We have clothed ourselves in newly discovered data, we have yoked ourselves to new algorithmic harnesses, and we are waking to the human costs of this new practice. Who are we becoming?
Nearly two years ago I predicted that the bloom would fade from the technology industry’s rose, and so far, so true. But as we begin to lose faith in the icons of our former narratives, a nagging and increasingly urgent question arises: In a world where we imaging merging with technology, what makes us uniquely human?
Our lives are now driven in large part by data, code, and processing, and by the governance of algorithms. These determine how data flows, and what insights and decisions are taken as a result.
So yes, software has, in a way, eaten the world. But software is not something being done to us. We have turned the physical world into data, we have translated our thoughts, actions, needs and desires into data, and we have submitted that data for algorithmic inspection and processing. What we now struggle with is the result of these new habits – the force of technology looping back upon the world, bending it to a new will. What agency – and responsibility – do we have? Whose will? To what end?
Synonymous with progress, asking not for permission, fearless of breaking things – in particular stupid, worthy-of-being-broken things like government, sclerotic corporations, and fetid social norms – the technology industry reveled for decades as a kind of benighted warrior for societal good. As one Senator told me during the Facebook hearings this past summer, “we purposefully didn’t regulate technology, and that was the right thing to do.” But now? He shrugged. Now, maybe it’s time.
Because technology is already regulating us. I’ve always marveled at libertarians who think the best regulatory framework for government is none at all. Do they think that means there’s no governance?
In our capitalized healthcare system, data, code and algorithms now drive diagnosis, costs, coverage and outcomes. What changes on the ground? People are being denied healthcare, and this equates to life or death in the real world.
Can you get credit to start a business? A loan to better yourself through education? Financial decisions are now determined by data, code, and algorithms. Job applications are turned to data, and run through cohorts of similarities, determining who gets hired, and who ultimately ends up leaving the workforce.
And in perhaps the most human pursuit of all – connecting to other humans – we’ve turned our desires and our hopes to data, swapping centuries of cultural norms for faith in the governance of code and algorithms built – in necessary secrecy – by private corporations.
How does a human being make a decision? Individual decision making has always been opaque – who can query what happens inside someone’s head? We gather input, we weigh options and impacts, we test assumptions through conversations with others. And then we make a call – and we hope for the best.
But when others are making decisions that impact us, well, those kinds of decisions require governance. Over thousands of years we’ve designed systems to insure that our most important societal decisions can be queried and audited for fairness, that they are defensible against some shared logic, that they will benefit society at large.
We call these systems government. It is imperfect but… it’s better than anarchy.
For centuries, government regulations have constrained social decisions that impact health, job applications, credit – even our public square. Dating we’ve left to the governance of cultural norms, which share the power of government over much of the world.
But in just the past decade, we’ve ceded much of this governance to private companies – companies motivated by market imperatives which demand their decision making processes be hidden. Our public government – and our culture – have not kept up.
What happens when decisions are taken by algorithms of governance that no one understands? And what happens when those algorithms are themselves governed by a philosophy called capitalism?
We’ve begun a radical experiment combining technology and capitalism, one that most of us have scarcely considered. Our public commons – that which we held as owned by all, to the benefit of all – is increasingly becoming privatized.
Thousands of companies are now dedicated to revenue extraction in the course of delivering what were once held as public goods. Public transportation is being hollowed out by Uber, Lyft, and their competitors (leveraging public goods like roadways, traffic infrastructure, and GPS). Public education is losing funding to private schools, MOOCs, and for-profit universities. Public health, most disastrously in the United States, is driven by a capitalist philosophy tinged with technocratic regulatory capture. And in perhaps the greatest example of all, we’ve ceded our financial future to the almighty 401K – individuals can no longer count on pensions or social safety nets – they must instead secure their future by investing in “the markets” – markets which have become inhospitable to anyone lacking the technological acumen of the world’s most cutting-edge hedge funds.
What’s remarkable and terrifying about all of this is the fact that the combinatorial nature of technology and capitalism outputs fantastic wealth for a very few, and increasing poverty for the very many. It’s all well and good to claim that everyone should have a 401K. It’s irresponsible to continue that claim when faced with the reality that 84 percent of the stock market is owned by the wealthiest ten percent of the population.
This outcome is not sustainable. When a system of governance fails us, we must examine its fundamental inputs and processes, and seek to change them.
So what truly is governing us in the age of data, code, algorithms and processing? For nearly five decades, the singular true north of capitalism has been to enrich corporate shareholders. Other stakeholders – employees, impacted communities, partners, customers – do not directly determine the governance of most corporations.
Corporations are motivated by incentives and available resources. When the incentive is extraction of capital to be placed in the pockets of shareholders, and a new resource becomes available which will aide that extraction, companies will invent fantastic new ways to leverage that resource so as to achieve their goal. If that resource allows corporations to skirt current regulatory frameworks, or bypass them altogether, so much the better.
Now the caveat: Allow me to state for the record that I am not a socialist. If you’ve never read my work, know I’ve started six companies, invested in scores more, and consider myself an advocate of transparently governed free markets. But we’ve leaned far too over our skis – the facts no longer support our current governance model.
We turn our worlds to data, leveraging that data, technocapitalism then terraforms our world. Nowhere is this more evident that with automation – the largest cost of nearly every corporation is human labor, and digital technologies are getting extraordinarily good at replacing that cost.
Nearly everyone agrees this shift is not new – yes yes, a century or two ago, most of us were farmers. But this shift is coming far faster, and with far less considered governance. The last great transition came over generations. Technocapitalism has risen to its current heights in ten short years. Ten years.
If we are going to get this shift right, we urgently need to engage in a dialog about our core values. Can we perhaps rethink the purpose of work, given work no longer means labor? Can we reinvent our corporations and our regulatory frameworks to honor, celebrate and support our highest ideals? Can we prioritize what it means to be human even as we create and deploy tools that make redundant the way of life we’ve come to know these past few centuries?
These questions beg a simpler one: What makes us human?
I dusted off my old cultural anthropology texts, and consulted the scholars. The study of humankind teaches us that we are unique in that we are transcendent toolmakers – and digital technology is our most powerful tool. We have nuanced language, which allows us both recollection of the past, and foresight into the future. We are wired – literally at the molecular level – to be social, to depend on one another, to share information and experience. Thanks to all of this, we have the capability to wonder, to understand our place in the world, to philosophize. The love of beauty, philosophers will tell you, is the most human thing of all.
Oh, but then again, we are uniquely capable of intentional destroying ourselves. Plenty of species can do that by mistake. We’re unique in our ability to do it on purpose.
But perhaps the thing that makes us most human is our love of story telling, for narrative weaves nearly everything human into one grand experience. Our greatest philosophers even tell stories about telling stories! The best stories employ sublime language, advanced tools, deep community, profound wonder, and inescapable narrative tension. That ability to destroy ourselves? That’s the greatest narrative driver in this history of mankind.
How will it turn out?
We are storytelling engines uniquely capable of understanding our place in the world. And it’s time to change our story, before we fail a grand test of our own making: Can we transition to a world inhabited by both ourselves, and the otherness of the technology we’ve created? Should we fail, nature will indifferently shrug its shoulders. It has billions of years to let the whole experiment play over again.
We are the architects of this grand narrative. Let’s not miss our opportunity to get it right.
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.
Sifry’s book turns on this question, raised early in the work: “Is Wikileaks a symptom of decades of governmental and institutional opacity, or is it a disease that needs to be stopped at all costs?”
Put another way, if we kill Wikileaks (as many on both the left and right wish we would), what do we lose in the process?
Sifry argues that for all its flaws (including that of its founder and mercurial leader Julian Assange, who Sifry has met), Wikileaks – or at least what Wikileaks represents, is proving a crucial test of democracy in an age where our most powerful institutions are increasingly unaccountable.
Sifry argues that the rise (and potential fall) of Wikileaks heralds an “age of transparency,” one that can’t come fast enough, given the digital tools of control increasingly in the hands of our largest social institutions, both governmental and corporate (not to mention religious). And while it’s easy to fall into conspiratorial whispers given the subject, Sifry wisely does not – at least, not too much. He clearly has a point of view, and if you don’t agree with it, I doubt his book will change your mind. But it’s certainly worth reading, if your mind is open.
Sifry’s core argument: We can’t trust institutions if that trust doesn’t come with accountability. To wit:
“We should be demanding that the default setting for institutional power be “open,” and when needed those same powers should be forced to argue when things need to remain closed. Right now, the default setting is “closed.”
Sifry gives an overview of the Wikileaks case, and points out the US government’s own position of hypocrisy:
“If we promote the use of the Internet to overturn repressive regimes around the world, then we have to either accept the fact that these same methods may be used against our own regime—or make sure our own policies are beyond reproach.”
Sifry is referring to Wikileaks much covered release of State department cables, which has been condemned by pretty much the entire power structure of the US government (Assange and others face serious legal consequences, which are also detailed in the book). Even more chilling was the reaction by corporate America, which quickly closed ranks and cut off Wikileaks’ funding sources (Visa, Mastercard, Paypal) and server access (Amazon).
In short, Wikileaks stands accused, but not proven guilty. But from the point of view of large corporations eager to stay in the good graces of government, Wikileaks is guilty till proven innocent. And that’s a scary precedent. As Sifry puts it:
“If WikiLeaks can be prosecuted and convicted for its acts of journalism, then the foundations of freedom of the press in America are in serious trouble.”
and, quoting scholar Rebecca McKinnon:
“Given that citizens are increasingly dependent on privately owned spaces for our politics and public discourse … the fight over how speech should be governed in a democracy is focused increasingly on questions of how private companies should or shouldn’t control speech conducted on and across their networks and platforms.”
But not all is lost. Sifry also chronicles a number of examples of how institutional misconduct has been uncovered and rectified by organizations similar to Wikileaks. Sifry believes that the Wikileaks genie is out of the bottle, and that transparency will ultimately win over secrecy.
But the book is a statement of belief, rather than a proof. Sifry argues that the open culture of the Internet must trump the closed, control-oriented culture of power-wielding institutions. And while I certainly agree with him, I also share his clear anxiety about whether such a world will actually come to be.
(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.
A corollary to this hypothesis is that this shift has been made – and possibly engendered – by the ever increasing role of digitized information as the central driver of our society. But that’s probably another post.
Now before you start calling me an aging, anti-corporate hippie, remember that I’ve started several companies, consider myself a free market capitalist, and I’ve done pretty well so far. I’m simply pointing something out here, not making any judgements (at least, not yet).
So let’s consider some key areas:
– Identity. We are increasingly going to the Web/Interent as the platform for our lives. There, our identity is not managed by the government. It’s managed – in the majority – by Facebook. When we buy things, our identity is managed by PayPal, Amazon, and Amex/Visa/Mastercard, not to mention a raft of pretenders to our identity throne, including Facebook, Google, and startups like Square. All of these are private corporations. None of them ask us for our government issued identity cards before allowing us to make a purchase. Some do ask for our SSN, of course. But online, the “government layer” is melting into the background of our identity – rather like DOS melted into the background of Windows 3. I expect this to be the source of some serious conflict in the coming decade(s).
– Control. It used to be the only entity that was legally allowed to track citizens on a regular basis was law enforcement – agents of our government. Now, of course, we happily leave digital breadcrumbs everywhere, and private corporations, driven by profit, are far more advanced than the government at profiling and tracking us. Again, I expect this fact to be a source of conflict in the future.
– Delivery/Communication. For most of the past couple of centuries, you’d use a government agency if you wanted to get something important – either information, goods, or money – from one place to another in our country. That agency was called the United States Postal Service, and it worked really, really well, considering all it had to do. Now, the Postal Service is broke, and we use UPS or FedEx for physical goods, and the Internet for information. While the government built the infrastructure for all these companies (airports, roads and Interstate highways, DARPAnet, commonly owned airwaves), it has now receded DOS-like into the background, and we now entrust the function of delivery to private corporations driven by profit.
– Investment. Do any of you remember when your grandparents would give you a government bond as a birthday gift? Or when people actually believed that they could retire on the government-mandated benefits of Social Security? I do. I have two parents who are drawing on those programs right now. But as the economy has turned to one driven by information and financialization, we’ve entrusted our retirement and our investment to private corporations as well.
– Education. Once almost entirely the realm of the government, we’ve watched our public education system crumble, and we’re still not really sure what to replace it with. However, one could reasonably argue that private companies will take this over in due time. Some – like Edison and Phoenix – are already well on the way.
– Healthcare. The US has always shied from government-run healthcare, and some might say “Obamacare” is proof we’re moving in the opposite direction from the other trends I’ve outlined. But I’m not so sure. I have a gut feeling the numbers – in terms of Medicare etc. – may prove something different, and as I understand it, the recent legislation was, in the main, about regulating the private industry, not creating a government alternative. I have a lot more to learn here.
– Security. This is the one area of government that we all seem to agree should stay in government hands. However, even this realm has been increasingly privatized – from private prisons to vast armies of outsourced mercenaries and support teams for our military.
I could go on, but instead I’d rather that you do, in comments. What other aspects of our lives did we once entrust to government, but now entrust to private corporations?
No matter what your politics, it seems clear to me that most of us no longer trust our government to do anything particularly well. In short, as a culture we seem to be punting on doing anything well if it doesn’t have a profit motive. We are very good at is making corporations that are very good at making money. Is that enough? I don’t know.
I am not judging this trend, but rather pointing it out. It’s something I plan to lean into as I write the book, and I am simply a curious amateur when it comes to understanding the space of government and the commons. To that end your input and suggestions as to sources and readings are gratefully welcomed.
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:
If we’re depending on government less and less, as I hypothesize, how on earth could government employees go *up* by ten percent in the past six decades?
Either my hypothesis is wrong, or there are devils in the details. And indeed, as you drill down further, some interesting things start to pop up.
For example, check out this chart of what’s growing in our government, and what’s not:
Aha! Turns out, the Federal Government has actually shrunk by more than half, but we, as a society, have simply moved the burden to State and Local Governments. I wonder how the folks at the Tea Party HQ would respond to this data: They spend an awful lot of time talking about Big Government, but they seem overly focused on the Big Bad Feds. They might take aim at their own backyards instead.
Let’s take a look at some detail:
Ahh….Education. Very interesting. As local governments have taken over the once Federally run education system, payroll there has skyrocketed (has performance? Nope. But that’s another story).
Also interesting to note how dramatically our Military spending has dropped, but, given we’re comparing to Cold War, Korean War and WWII eras, that’s not too surprising.
Now let’s compare Government as a percent of GDP to private Industry. If my hypothesis is to hold water, I’d wager that private industry is taking over more and more of our GDP over time. Is it? Yep.
As one might expect, the numbers show the rise of the services industry, and the decline of manufacturing in our economy. But they also show a rise in percent of GDP by government, due in the main to state and local increases.
Here is more detail by industry on what’s growing and shrinking:
Check out that first item: Financial services has nearly doubled and now leads our nation in terms of contribution to GDP. No wonder 2008 was such a (continuing) disaster.
But it’s clear to me we have an education and healthcare problem on our hands (quite a surprise, eh?). Now, education is, in the main, a government enterprise. Healthcare, not so much (Obama’s plan is in essence private, folks). So the question then becomes, will education make the transition from public to private sector in the digital era, and might Healthcare move the other way? I can imagine an argument for both. I post these charts not to draw conclusions, but to open debate.
One last chart of detai on how our Federal Government spends money:
Huh. Social security has risen a lot. So has Treasury and Health. One might reasonably conclude that 1. Our population is aging, creating the demand for more Social Security services. And the two dominant private industries in our country – finance and health – require significant regulation, hence the rise of Treasury and Health.
But I’m not a government economist, so I’m just guessing. I look forward to interviewing many of them as I dig in. Meantime, I just thought it’d be fun to share these data points with you. Enjoy.