If you work in tech and haven’t seen it already, I highly suggest glancing through the sneak peek of Greg Ferenstein’s “The Age of Optimists” posted on Medium last week. It highlights an emerging political ideology within the technology industry — one that merges the libertarian pursuit of meritocracy and efficiency with the “we’re all in this together” attitude of traditional liberals.
Truthfully, it was a little unsettling to see my own beliefs so neatly categorized as a “civicrat.”
There’s a hidden irony in this label. Yes, many tech workers believe in the potential of targeted government action to stimulate innovation, equalize opportunity, and increase our quality of life. At the same time, there exists a paradoxical but deep-rooted cynicism about government’s competence. By and large, my peers don’t believe in the existing system or its current actors to enact anything resembling positive change.
First, let’s look at the way our elected leaders talk about something as fundamental as the Internet.
But that’s one (now deceased) man in 2006, you say? Well, let’s look at the breakdown of a more recent 113th Congress (January 2013–January 2015).
90% of the people debating whether or not science and technology legislation becomes law have no background in it whatsoever.
Defying all odds, things somehow get even more depressing when you look at who is actually charged with writing this legislation.
Before we move on, let’s meet the chairman of its subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness.
How can we expect Congress to regulate things that so few of its representatives truly understand?
Like it or not, our lives as citizens are becoming increasingly intertwined with technology. Right now, this is mostly limited to specific issues like net neutrality and Internet privacy, but the social problems we’re going to grapple with are about to get a lot more technical. Soon, it will be the liability of deaths caused by autonomous vehicles. Not long after that, it will be the moral implications of genetic engineering. Within our lifetime, it might even be the agency of artificial intelligence. We’re completely fucked if we don’t start electing people that know how these things work.
To be fair, many of our most pressing present social problems are not deeply technical. Surely we can make progress on those!
Wrong. As a 24-year-old, most of my life has been under a government marked by gridlock — from Clinton vs. Gingrich in the 1990’s through Obama vs. Boehner in the 2010’s. Today, brinksmanship has become such a common tactic that we don’t even bat an eye when the government closes for a few days. The federal government has been shut down due to “funding gaps” (i.e. failure to pass a budget) for a full 42 days since I was born, and absolutely zero were because of an actual inability to fund operations.
That’s not okay.
Even short of full shut-downs, “by any means necessary” has become the accepted philosophy toward undermining the governing party:
Meanwhile, we rank middle of the road at best in most major health and education rankings amongst industrialized nations (for example, life expectancy and math and science scores). We’re global leaders in incarceration rate, health care expenditure as a % of GDP, and ignorance of social issues.
But really, let’s spend more time on antics like this:
Looking ahead to the next presidential election, I fail to see the situation getting much better. The leading candidates on both sides are racist, liars, unelectable, or certifiably insane. It’s no wonder many of America’s most ambitious youth are going into technology — not government — to improve transportation, health care, education, and other areas that were once considered to be the domain of the public sector.
Yet, in spite of all this, Ferenstein’s work shows that tech workers still believe in government’s potential. That’s exactly why we’re so frustrated. We see potential, but not action. When we do see action, we see frightening ignorance.
We just don’t think it needs to be this way.