A spectre is haunting us — the spectre of politics. All the powers of world have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre…
Many people seem to be afraid of politics – especially its democratic variants. It’s not just a mild skittishness, it’s full on revulsion.
Now let’s be honest. Politics is not elegant. It is a bruising, compromised business conducted by comprised people (i.e. everyone but especially politicians) who bruise readily. Democractic politics are especially messy. No one ever gets exactly what they want all the time. That is the pact you make.
“I’d have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for you meddling voters”.
Now these politiphobes can take many forms but there is one variant that we will discuss here.
Software engineers like certain kinds of solutions. They prefer things to be both rational and elegant. Messy v1.0 code is refactored into something tidier. And when you are coding this stuff matters. Irrational code may be difficult for others to maintain and improve. Inelegant code may impact system performance. Or, worse, other developers may make snide comments about your pull request on Github.
However politics is not rational – in a number of senses.
- At the individual level, human beings are both rational and irrational – driven by naked calculation and furious, unconscious drives. We vote for candidates who will immiserate us financially but confirm our superiority to those with a slightly different skin tone. Our drives conflict and clash. If we get what we want then we don’t get what we want (which is why democracy is such a good fit for us).
- At the collective level, individuals find themselves in strange coalitions. Religious moralists must do deals with those they see as sexual deviants if both face a common enemy. And of course politics is a social activity, a tribal activity – a matter of belonging as well as believing and behaving (or misbehaving).
- At the institutional level, bodies such as parliaments, senates , government departments and courts develop over time – created to solve one problem, they morph into something else. They exapt. Sometimes into the solution to further problems, sometimes into the cause of them. However once they are established, they are often hard to dismantle because they form part of our infrastructure.
This lack of elegance and rationality disgusts engineers. Hence their constant desire to replace it with an engineered solution.
Someone must be able to create an app to fix this.
Now as we will see in a later post, there is an app that can fix this but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
So what do our new techno overlords think? Greg Ferenstein has spent time surveying them and has found the following:
- The tend to believe all change over the long run ends up being good.
- They tend to believe that education can solve all or most problems in society.
- They reject the notion that there are inherent conflicts of interests between citizens, the government, corporations or other nations.
The popularity of these ideas among the tech elite is based on their own biased experiences:
- Change has been good for them. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so rich and powerful now.
- Education has been good for them. Even if they dropped out of college, they were generally raised in environments that not only prized education but viewed it as accessible and made it accessible to them.
- Silicon Valley is basically an incestuous ecosystem / echo chamber (eco-chamber?) where universities, corporations, start-ups and incubators play a game of musical chairs with money (until the music stops – and the music has been going since 2001).
These core beliefs lead to some… problems:
- A view of change that neglects negative outcomes means that you don’t bother doing anything about them because, well, hey, everything will work out fine in the end. However in any change there are inevitably winners and losers and big changes tend to mean large numbers of one or both. Those losers are going to be really pissed off.
- A view of ameliorating change that focuses primarily on education means that even if you do tackle negative outcomes, you will be ineffective. Don’t get me wrong, I love education. I have 2 degrees and I teach at a university for larfs. But getting trained to do a new job only works if the new jobs are there in the first place. Otherwise you’ll end up a piece of paper (or these days probably just a PDF) that not even your mum wants and a massive pile of debt to One-Eyed Vinny The Student Loan Agency.
- This rejection of conflict prevents a productive engagement with politics. Chuck Tingle might believe that Love Is Real (as do I) but so is Conflict. People disagree – and not just because they have access to different information sources. They also have different fundamental interests. Politics is the negotiation of those interests and the first step to that negotiation is to admit they exist.
The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The tech elite appear to be still in denial. With these thoughts in mind, I would suggest the following:
- Admit that change creates winners and losers. Argue that your proposals will create more winners than losers. And give the losers something.
- Stop banging on about education – be it college or code camps or being Peter Thiel’s cabana boy. By all means do those things, they are still worthwhile. But accept that education is not all of the solution. What else are you going to do? What structural changes are going to make beyond expecting the losers to skill up? What are you personally going to sacrifice?
- Accept that political differences cannot be solved solely through increased information dissemination. If I haven’t had a pay raise in a decade then don’t tell me that the iPhone 6 has 8 times as much RAM as the 2007 original and therefore I must be 8 times as wealthy. “Let them eat hedonic pricing” is not a winning strategy.
Most of all, recognize that building a platform is not primarily a technological challenge. A platform is an institution made of human beings, of people. These people may be linked to each other by technology but they remain people with their interests. What can you give them that will work for you and for them? Three obvious things are voice, money, and respect.
I’m not going to ask the tech elite to be unafraid, that’s too much to ask. Instead I am going to ask them to feel the fear and do it anyway.
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.
This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.