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The Inevitable Collision Of Technology and Politics

2014 February 9

In The Wise Men, Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas portray a world in which business and politics flow together.  Prominent men, like John J. McCloy and Averell Harriman, floated between public service and commerce, performing both roles with honor and duty.

However, technology entrepreneurs have historically eschewed political life.  It was, at least in their minds, symbolic of the jaded and debauched establishment that they were seeking to upend, rather than the meritocratic ideal they aspired to.

Lately, that’s begun to change.  From intense lobbying on issues like SOPA and PRISM, to the Government 2.0 initiative and Mark Zuckerberg’s Super PAC that focuses on immigration issues, Silicon Valley has begun to mobilize and the impact on politics is sure  be substantial.  But the impact on tech itself could be even bigger and more important.

The Engineering Mind

As George Packer pointed out in an excellent article about the uneasy relationship between Silicon Valley and politics, tech denizens historically associate themselves with two heartfelt political beliefs.

The first is that they believe they can create positive change in the world through the innovations that they produce more effectively than through political action.

The second is what Packer describes as an “instinct for libertarianism.”  While perhaps not surprising given the tech world’s admiration of individual achievement, mixed with money, ambition and youth, this underlying philosophy can lead to an arrogance that borders on the pathological.

And that’s just what happened when Greg Gopman, a technology entrepreneur of no particular note, posted a rant last fall against San Francisco’s homeless population that included this little gem:

You can preach compassion, equality, and be the biggest lover in the world, but there is an area of town for degenerates and an area of town for the working class. There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us. It’s a burden and a liability having them so close to us. Believe me, if they added the smallest iota of value I’d consider thinking different …

It should be mentioned that Gopman is not representative of the tech industry as a whole and he was immediately asked to leave his company. The tech elite also moved quickly to denounce Tom Perkins’ controversial letter to The Wall Street Journal in which he likened progressive activists to Nazis.

Nevertheless, as Packer argues in his article, the technology industry does have a preference for engineered solutions and little tolerance for the messy conflicts that are inherent to politics.  That contributes to the libertarian bent and a certain lack of insight into things that don’t involve formulas or equations.

Yet I think that there might also be something more to the story.  Historically, technology has mostly pursued relatively simple problems.  Yet, as the industry turns its attention to issues that are more complex than building a better spreadsheet or mobile app, things could get a lot more interesting.

The Illogic of Everyday Use

Don Norman is, in many ways, the quintessential technologist.  With an engineering degree from MIT, along with a Masters and a Doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, he developed a deep understanding of how technology works at its most granular level.

However, he often found that, despite his impressive credentials, even simple gadgets were hard for him to use.  They were often confusing, counterintuitive and irrational and, he surmised, if he felt that way, then surely people without advanced engineering degrees must have even greater difficulty.

What Norman realized was that engineers often saw their jobs in the wrong way.  They were designing products to solve engineering problems, rather than for the people that use them.  Humans, in effect, were expected to adapt to machines rather than the other way around.

In 1986, he published The Design of Everyday Things, which is widely credited with starting the user centered design movement.  Today, the book is considered a classic (Google CEO Larry Page reportedly keeps a copy on his desk) and user experience (UX) is considered a crucial function at most, if not all, technology companies.

Fireflies and Cascades

When he was a graduate student in applied mathematics at Cornell, Duncan Watts was investigating a tricky problem called coupled oscillation.  The phenomenon, while relatively simple when observed in small systems like two pendulums swinging in rhythm with each other, becomes amazingly complex in large populations.

Nevertheless, coupled oscillation is relatively common and important in nature.  From thousands of fireflies blinking in perfect unison to millions of pacemaker cells that must synchronize each second to keep our hearts beating, it was a mystery that had puzzled scientists for a long time.

In 1998, Watts, along with Steven Strogatz, came up with the theory of small world networks, which greatly advanced the understanding of complex systems.  In the decade and a half since, social network analysis has been used to solve a number of important problems.

Watts now works at Microsoft Research, where he applies social network theory to organizational design, financial risk management and to understand how information spreads.  It’s still a relatively new science, but many consider it to be one of the hottest areas of research today.

The Rise of Cognitive Computing

When IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat world champion Garry Kasparov at chess, it was mostly for publicity.  In actuality the solution they devised was relatively simple, the system just had to calculate far more possible outcomes than a human could.

The seemingly more trivial game of Jeopardy is much harder, because it asks questions without a straightforward answer, like this one:

Hard times,” indeed! A giant quake struck New Madrid, MO., on Feb. 7, 1812, the day this author struck England.

To get to the correct answer, “Who is Charles Dickens?,” you would have to understand that “Hard Times” is a hint (in this case, the title of a novel), not a reference to the earthquake that hit Missouri and also know that Charles Dickens was likely to be born in 1812.  Simple equations and powerful processing are unlikely to get you very far.

Nevertheless, IBM’s Watson system was able to beat the world’s best players by mixing a variety of techniques, such as genetic algorithms, Bayesian nets and Markov chains.  It doesn’t search for the “right answer,” but the most probable answer.  What’s more, the system learns and becomes better over time.

In other words, the new generation of technology doesn’t assume the world is simple, but that it’s messy and can accommodate multiple approaches to solving a problem.   It treats illogic not as a bug, but as a feature.

What Happens When World’s Collide

The technology industry produces billions of dollars in profit every year and, according to at least one report, is growing at three times the rate of the rest of the economy.  Clearly its newfound interest in politics will have a profound impact, especially in the areas of immigration, education and the environment.

But what is probably more important is the potential impact of politics on technology. Real world challenges can’t be solved in a lab.  They are messy and involve complex networks of people who make illogical decisions.  In short, they are not the type of problems that can be figured out during a two-day hackathon.

So while I don’t think Silicon Valley should be vilified—after all, any industry that showers young people with money and privilege is bound to have its share of jerks—I do think the recent political awakening is a very positive thing.  Give some very tough problems to a lot of very smart, highly driven people and something good is bound to happen.

– Greg

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Buddy Teaster permalink
    February 9, 2014

    Greg: thought provoking, as usual. however, one thing that concerns me in your analysis is that messy and engineering dont always go together. when i think of some of the horrors of the 20th century, for example, they were made more horrific by the rigorous application of engineering principles (concentration camps come to mind but there are many others). the far trickier part will be to help tech/tech leaders recognize that some part of messy is at the very core of who we are. i know you know that but i bet we have a more cycles to go through before the arrogance/naivete match up with happens in the real world.

    keep writing!


    Greg Reply:

    Yes, I think that’s true, but tech is getting much better at messy:-)

    – Greg


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