It will be up to people, not tech, to make government not relevant

Peter H. Diamandis penned an article recently that discusses whether technology, particularly artificial intelligence, will make government irrelevant. Failure to keep up with private sector digitization combined with declining trust on the part of its citizens, argues Dr. Diamandis, contributes to emerging technology knocking government off of its dominant perch.

While I see government remaining behind the private sector in the adoption of artificial intelligence, I don’t see the concept of government going away anytime soon.  If anything, at least in the short and intermediate run, emerging technologies are going to be used to augment what government does.

In addition, at the risk of sounding metaphysical, until humans can abandon corporeal form, they will always need access to physical infrastructure in order to get to work or entertainment venues or have goods transported between physical points.

Part of government’s role, the role that allows it to maintain its dominant perch, is its responsibility for maintaining and administering physical space.  Government in the United States, through its public works initiatives, leverages less than five percent of total national capital to carry out this role.

The American Public Works Association defines public works as the following:
“Public works is the combination of physical assets, management practices, policies, and personnel necessary for government to provide and sustain structures and services essential to the welfare and acceptable quality of life for its citizens.”

Public works is an increasingly information intensive endeavor and rather than allowing an emerging information economy disrupt government’s public management of physical jurisdiction, I see government using the information markets to strengthen its influence and control.

Some local and state governments are at the crossroads when it comes to extracting, organizing, and leveraging information and information technology in order to maintain their viability.  As Michael Ward wrote in 2015 during an assessment of the use of information technology by local and state government in Massachusetts, many of the Bay State’s agencies were not taking full advantage of data especially when it comes to determining how effective their local and state government programs are.

What Mr. Ward found were local and state agencies in general and public works agencies in particular using inadequate work order systems, relying instead on antiquated technology such as Post-it notes and e-mail.  He also found that in the era of big data, machine learning, and deep learning that not only were data entry skills lacking, but also lacking were the skills necessary for analyzing data.

But government, at least on the local and state level, doesn’t appear quite ready to abdicate its role in developing or deploying public infrastructure due to a failure to use data adequately.  One example is local government exploration of the use of geographic information system technology for public works projects.

National Geographic defines a geographic information system as a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface.  There is an efficiency resulting from this type of mapping tool as it allows various amounts of data, i.e., vegetation, buildings, roads, etc., to be shown on one map. Combining various types of data allows easier analysis of patterns and relationships.

ESRI, in a 2006 white paper, provided examples of best practices for local governments that choose to use this tool for data gathering and management.  Extracting and sharing data within public works agencies and with other local government agencies is one benefit.  According to ESRI, public works employees can tap into data collected by GIS in order to create maps,, design new projects, build infrastructure, and manage existing assets.

But if information technology such as GIS exist, why the concern that government may become irrelevant as a result of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, deep learning, and machine learning?  Is it just wishful thinking on the part of libertarian-leaning technologists?  Is it a belief that technology is deterministic of how political power is going to be balanced or exercised? Is it the perception that government is notoriously slow to respond to change?

The answers to the above questions may be “yes”, but I believe that the existence or relevance of institutions such as government lays in the hands of the humans that created them.  Government and politics are social relationships that may be enhanced by technology.  Technology does shape how social and political actors engage each other, whether from attending a town hall meeting in person in 1960 to listening in via telephone in 1984 to streaming it live and watching on a smart phone in 2018. It won’t change, however, the need for humans to form factions that compete against one another for the control and management of public resources.

Government will remain relevant. In what form is always the question.

 

 

 

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Government’s role in regulating access to personal data

Yuval Noah Harari recent wrote an article for The Atlantic where he posed the question, “How do you regulate the ownership of data?” Professor Harari argues in the article that data is the most important asset today, moving ahead of land and machinery.  “Politics will be a struggle to control the data’s flow”, says Professor Harari.

Last spring saw the United States Congress’ struggle to at least map out a course through the turbulent waters of data privacy as members of the House of Representatives and Senate took the opportunity to grill Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about his company’s handling of personal data obtained from the social media giant by a consultancy.

Part of this struggle may be due in part to the popularity of social media network platforms. Facebook has climbed from a digital bulletin board developed in the early 2000s in an Ivy League college dorm room to a global subscribership of over two billion people.  Former president Barack Obama’s Twitter following is in the millions while the current president, Donald Trump, is not shy or slow to taking to Twitter to either connect with and inform his base of supporters or attack the traditional media for what he perceives as unfair coverage of his administration.

Professor Harari notes that users of social media network platforms have not reached the point where they are ready to stop feeding the “attention merchants.”  Speaking on the difficulty subscribers may have in exchanging personal data for “free” services, Professor Harari points out that:

“But it, later on, ordinary people decide to block the flow of data, they are likely to have trouble doing so, especially as they may have come to rely on the network to help them make decisions, and even for their health and physical survival.”

Professor Harari offered up one solution, nationalization of data, to stem the abuses that corporations may impart on addicted social media and internet consumers, but admits that just because an asset is in the hands of government doesn’t mean things will necessarily go well.  Hence the question, how should the ownership of data be regulated?

The question will require public policymakers and politicians go through the exercise of defining “personal data.”  Would personal data be any characteristic about you? Would it be about any marker, no matter how temporary or permanent, that can be attached to you?  Must the “data” be something that the consumer actually produced?

Politically, attention merchants would want a narrow reading of the definition of personal data.  A narrower reading of personal data means being able to obtain more information pursuant to fewer restrictions. While this outcome would be ideal for corporate entities in the business of brokering data, I don’t see Republicans, even with their mantra of promoting business, enthusiastically endorsing less restrictive collection of personal data given the public’s concern for privacy.