All Technology is Politics

Watching Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) volunteer at a food bank in Texas last weekend (while also raising millions of dollars for disaster relief), I thought of the legendary Tip O’Neill. In 1982 (when I was five years old), O’Neill was trying to get a giant infrastructure bill passed. The Republican Leader of the era, (Robert H. Michel, R-IL), opposed the bill… so the ultimate Bostonian O’Neill traveled to Peoria, Illinois to give a speech in Michel’s district where he explained how the bill would repair the local infrastructure (bridges, etc), wreaking havoc on Michel’s re-election prospects. All politics is local, and government can be good for people’s lives. That is a narrative for the ages.

I’ve written in the past about the danger of letting the margins drive our politics:

We must get away from politics decided on the margins and towards a politics decided by a more fundamental shift in worldview… How do we tell a different American story, one that reshapes the political landscape so we’re not chasing vanishing slivers in an ever-shrinking world?

AOC, that despised New York City liberal, headed to Texas to work at a food bank while ostensible Texan Ted Cruz headed to the Ritz-Carlton in Cancun. This should be a high chance for a clear cut narrative victory, but instead Cruz used the right-wing grievance-media complex to turn this mistake into a victory, callously boasting about it at CPAC as a badge of honor. While the reliable right-wing media lionized Cruz’s Cancun victimhood, the so-called “mainstream” media ignored AOC’s narrative — or worse, treated it as self-serving politics. But what did voters see?

Not just the Texas turn, AOC’s re-election campaign this past Fall was also a lesson in Tip O’Neill-style politics. Despite a guaranteed giant margin of victory, she didn’t sit on her laurels or spend that time advancing her national political prospects. She turned to her district, where she and her campaign volunteers made 200,000 community check-in calls, delivered 80,000 meals, distributed 100,000 masks and recruited more than 11,000 tutors for students in remote learning. And she didn’t stop there: “With a sliver of the almost $19 million that she raised on her glide to re-election, AOC bought and gave away 200 Thanksgiving turkeys [in her own district].” Politics this local means building bridges between people, a kind of human infrastructure too.

Emmett Soldati, in his bid to be the New Hampshire Democratic party state chair, wrote a great op-ed on this subject (albeit from a different direction):

Too often, the organizing principle of our state party is to ask, “How does this activity help us connect with voters?” when we should be asking “How does this activity help voters connect with each other?”

Ironically that question brings me to my other obsession: technology. It may feel like a random turn to talk about the semiconductor chip shortage — but it really isn’t. The chip shortage is arguably the most important infrastructure challenge facing the United States in decades, and it is so local it will ruin your life if it persists.

As you settle into your Sunday with a cup of powdered mushrooms (instead of coffee) you must be asking yourself, “why should I care about semiconductors?” The next email in your inbox could be on a more interesting subject, like who created the most viewed image in human history — so maybe you should move on. But stay with me and I promise it will be worthwhile.

The only thing computers understand is electricity or no electricity; everything you do on your various screens ultimately breaks down into zero (no electricity) or one (electricity). All those zeros and ones get added and subtracted and abstracted and eventually you’re able to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cryptocurrency on digital images of a lactating Mickey Mouse. Ah, progress!

The tiny chips inside our devices manage all those pulses of electricity, creating the complexity of our modern digital lives. A shortage of semiconductor chips puts a real crimp in things, from your daily dose of addictive social media to the future of your 401k (ARK merchandise, anyone?).

The problem with the current chip shortage is that it has been a long time coming. I have spent almost two decades tracking the decline of chip research and development, as well as chip manufacturing. We’ve gotten lazy and decided to let other countries develop the bedrock on which the post-industrial economy is being built. Chips are essential to everything from our banking system to our cars to our cancer screenings; not only that, but the demand for chips is dramatically, logarithmically increasing as our code gets smarter and needs more zeros and ones — and faster. That’s before we even get into artificial intelligence, decentralized finance, and robots. (Yes, pretty much everything is going to get outsourced to robots and machine learning over the next couple of decades, even police brutality — not kidding.)

All of which explains why the Biden administration is treating the chip shortage like a 5-alarm fire. All politics is local, and today all technology is politics. The challenge is that both technology and government are layered in abstraction, disappearing into the background, and we don’t connect them to our daily lives. When we need to build solutions to urgent problems, we don’t even see the potential (or the latent threats) of both technology and government. Micah Sifry’s latest reminded me:

Ten years ago, Cornell University political scientist Suzanne Mettler wrote a book called The Submerged State, where she explored the disconnect between American attitudes toward government and their actual lived experience benefiting from government programs. Polls often show that majorities want smaller government, and believe that they’ve never used a government program, even as nearly everyone has benefited from Social Security, unemployment insurance, mortgage interest deductions, student loans, along with basic government-funded infrastructure like public roads, parks, water and sewage systems. She wrote, “Americans often fail to recognize government’s role in society, even if they have experienced it in their own lives. That is because so much of what government does today is largely invisible.”

Like the obscured story of government in a divided, hyper-partisan era, much of what technology does today is also invisible. We ignore both — government and technology — at our own peril. The challenge lies in making the invisible more visible, the under appreciated more appreciable, to see and face the challenges (and opportunities) of today.

“Everybody, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences”. Supposedly this quote is from Robert Louis Stevenson (who I have been obsessed with since I was 8 years old and discovered pirates), but seeking a citation I learned it is a loose paraphrase (focused unsurprisingly on storytelling) from his essay “Old Mortality”:

Books were the proper remedy: books of vivid human import, forcing upon their minds the issues, pleasures, busyness, importance and immediacy of that life in which they stand; books of smiling or heroic temper, to excite or to console; books of a large design, shadowing the complexity of that game of consequences to which we all sit down, the hanger-back not least.

And with that, I’ll return to my reading — lots of love, nicco

PS. I could go on and on about machine learning. This past summer OpenAI released “Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3”, also known as GPT-3. Basically, it is computer code that can write like a human. Why should you care? For a practical example of how this particular piece of code could help, check out how GPT-3 translating “legalese into plain English”; a good write-up for the non-technical is here. Just wait until the AI starts to work the other direction, translating plain English into legalese. I hope my six-year old the budding solicitor doesn’t discover that particular opportunity; the chores-dessert negotiations will get even more convoluted. GPT-3’s full version has a capacity of 175 billion machine learning parameters — and if that number sounds large, it still pales in comparison to the size and scope of the federal budget.

formerly of @LATimes & @Kennedy_School - author of The End of Big - lots more at http://nicco.org

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