Perspectives November 18, 2010

My Talk at the House of Commons

Governments’ future with digital technologies


I’m currently in the middle of an extremely interesting trip called Silicon Valley Comes to the UK, which Sherri Coutou and Reid Hoffman have organized for several years. it’s a fantastic trip so far, and I’ll write more about it, but wanted to share this.

Yesterday we were invited to the House of Commons here in London, and after a short speech by the Speaker of the House of Commons, 5 of us participated in a panel on the impact of digital technology on the future of democracies. About 100 people attended, including several MPs and members of the House of Lords, plus people involved in running the government and figuring out what to do with technology.

It was moderated by Jon Drori (fantastic job, and fantastic guy), and the Silicon Valley folks who participated were: Reid Hoffman, Megan Smith, Joi Ito, Nancy Lublin and myself. Each of the 5 of us started by giving a 5 minute ‘provocation’ to consider, then we ran it as a more traditional panel.

I’ll write more soon; for now, my provocation follows. Would love to hear what you think.

As I started preparing my remarks, I knew that I wanted to talk, in the main, about how technology can make our democracies better. But here, in the heart of British government, it’s impossible for me not to think about a couple of British authors and imaginers of future dystopias: George Orwell and Aldous Huxley.

With these 2 especially, it seems a particular talent of the British to imagine horrible dysfunctional futures. Orwell in his 1984, of course, with nightmares of totalitarian control and surveillance, and oppressive government imposed on unwilling citizens. Huxley, by contrast, in Brave New World, painted a completely different picture: a citizenry of sheep happily gorging themselves on the trivial, on entertainment — with no Orwellian Ministry of Information needed at all.

In a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death, an American named Neil Postman figured out nearly 30 years ago that what we were going to get wasn’t Orwell’s world at all, but rather a version of Huxley’s. And while the British seem to be adept at imagining dystopias, I have to say that we Americans seem to be pretty handy at creating them. In the US now, we clearly live in Huxley’s world: news has become entertainment; political discourse, when not an oxymoron, tends to be shallow. So many of the institutions and processes that have served us well for hundreds of years are breaking down.

Much of this is due to the nature of digital technology and the Internet, allowing massive amounts of new conversation, of news without context. The thing that digital technology is best at is closing gaps: in time, in space, in relevance — and that has put real stress on our institutions. Technology is not neutral — it makes many things easier, but also many things more difficult. There are winners and losers.

Clay Shirky, writing on the massive dislocations occurring today in the newspaper industry wrote: “That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in place.”

And things do feel broken today, in many ways — the forces of dystopia seem to be on the rise.
But even so, there is a lot — A LOT — to be optimistic about. The hints of a positive future show all around us. The seeds of utopia are in the ground, so to speak.

So clearly there are real opportunities here, shaped by the natural affordances of Internet and digital technology.

What we know from the work we’ve done at Mozilla on Firefox and other open source projects, is that the way we organize, the technology we use, and the customs we support — what Tim O’Reilly has called “architectures of participation” — matter greatly. Architectures of participation, like technologies themselves, aren’t neutral. Projects like Wikipedia and Mozilla Firefox have architectures that are designed to bring in collaborators from everywhere, at every level. We have very serious contributors who spend most of their time working on the core. We have nearly 100 teams working on localizing Firefox into their own language. We have entrepreneurs building companies based on extensions to the browser. We have tens of thousands of people who test our browser each night and report issues. And we have hundreds of millions of users. We’ve built architectures of participation to get people engaged in as many ways as we can.

So what’s the future utopia that’s possible with digital technology? Ideally what we get — what we create — is a system where citizens are engaged, where they feel valued and connected with their governments and each other. Where our leaders are accountable — and desire to be accountable. It’s a future where it’s just as easy to help your neighborhood as it is to help your country or your planet.
To get there, we’ll need to architect with a few key principles in mind:

  1. Transparency — where most of today’s efforts are, and critical to how we start
  2. Clarity — flip side of scale — not the same as transparency — often, transparency of information can overwhelm — without a narrative, without intent, it’s very difficult to understand the implications of the transparency itself
  3. Engagement — get everyone more educated and informed and contributing — get subject experts involved
  4. Scale — must consider neighborhood government to municipal to national to transnational
  5. Heterogeneity — life is increasingly cross-border, in all senses — trans-national — trans-company — mixture of public and private life

So my provocation turns out to be more of an exhortation, a call to action. As technologists and entrepreneurs and leaders of government, it’s our opportunity — and our responsibility — to imagine and articulate good, positive architectures of government, to engage with our colleagues and neighbors and coworkers and constituents to envision robust models for the future, in the context of ubiquitous, cheap, immediate information technology — and then to get on with making the world the way we want it.

“Ideally what we get — what we create — is a system where citizens are engaged, where they feel valued and connected with their governments and each other.”