Government is a technology, so fix it like one

This essay also ran in TechCrunch.

The Roman Empire, the Iroquois Confederacy, and the United States of America are human inventions as surely as airplanes, computers, and contraception are. Technology is how we do things, and political institutions are how we collaborate at scale. Government is an immensely powerful innovation through which we take collective action.

Just like any other technology, governments open up new realms of opportunity. These opportunities are morally neutral: humans have leveraged political institutions to provide public eduction and to murder ethnic minorities. Specific features like explicit protections for human rights and civil liberties are designed to help mitigate certain downside risks.

Like any tool, systems of governance require maintenance to keep working. We expect regular software updates, but forget that governance is also in constant flux, and begins to fail when it falls out of sync with the culture. Without preventative maintenance, pressure builds like tectonic forces along a fault line until a new order snaps into place, often violently. Malka Older points out that, “Democracy is not a unitary state that can be achieved, but a continuous process. We need to keep reinventing and refining government, to keep up with changes in society and technology and to keep it from being too easy for elites with resources to exploit.”

What might the future of governance actually look like? Older is both a sociologist and a science fiction writer, and science fiction offers some interesting possibilities.

Older’s Infomocracy imagines a future in which governments are geographically distributed and compete to earn citizens, not territory—as if every nation were a sub in a geopolitical Reddit. In Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lighting, people voluntarily join one of seven Hives—each with its own distinctive political, cultural, economic, and social characteristics—whose legal systems interact via a shared baseline protocol. Palmer is a Renaissance historian at the University of Chicago and her rigorous study of the past informs her richly imagined future. Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon features a decentralized direct democracy supercharged with AI that automatically distributes public policy decisions to small groups of citizen experts—laws written and applied by ad hoc juries instead of professional politicians. In my own Breach, a tech giant leverages its ubiquitous digital platform to declare sovereignty, prompting escalating confrontations with nation-state powerbrokers:
"The feed ignored national borders, and Commonwealth had negotiated open immigration for all feed users. If you were on the feed, and essentially everyone was, you could move wherever you could afford to move. Seamless international mobility was no longer the province of the elite. The apocalyptic prognostications of nearly every government had not borne out. After an initial uptick, immigration rates had returned to relatively normal levels. The economy was already global, and people's lives and families were still local. The impact might be important over the long term, but it was undramatic in the short term. Or at least undramatic to demographers. It mattered far more to the millions of refugees whose status was rendered legal overnight, and to nativist groups whose riots laid waste to the homes they professed to protect."
Of course, you might not want to live through the scenarios these books extrapolate. Harkaway tweeted that Gnomon “is *supposed* to be ghastly, but as the world goes progressively into the dark it starts to look rather cosy.” The more apocalyptic the present feels, the more utopian certain dystopian visions appear to be.

But there’s another factor at work here too. Widespread adoption renders technology invisible, its ubiquity revealed only when it breaks. That’s why science fiction plots so often hinge on systems breaking, and explains Wired Senior Maverick Kevin Kelly’s approach to futurism: “I'm looking for the places where technology is abused, misused, or unsupervised in order to get a glimpse of its natural inherent leanings. Where the edges go, the center follows later.”

If you’re worried about the demise of democracy because you see how the system is being abused, congratulations! You have just discovered a way to make democracy stronger. Ask any programmer: Nothing clarifies software development like a major bug report. Follow that edge. Sharpen, blunt, or redirect it as necessary. The center will follow.

Complement with imagining new institutions for the internet age, this podcast interview about tech and geopolitics, and my conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson about science fiction and the crisis of representation.

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Eliot Peper is a critically acclaimed novelist who writes speculative thrillers that explore the intersection of technology and culture. His Analog Novels grapple with what it might mean for a tech platform to become sovereign and democratic. His writing has appeared in the Verge, Harvard Business Review, VICE, and the Los Angeles Review of Books and he has given talks at Google, Comic Con, Future in Review, and SXSW.