I have a question I’ve been pondering for years. Perhaps one of the people who read this blog can answer it–or at least shed some much-needed light on it.
Here’s the thing: I am constantly coming across news items about technological progress that is incredibly impressive, innovations that promise to solve real problems faced by real humans. Here’s just one recent example: an effort to bring electricity to almost half of Africa’s 1.3 billion population, which currently lives without it, and not by replicating the way most electricity is generated and transmitted in countries whose populations are almost universally served today.
As the article reports,
The results of fossil-fuel-based, centralized, power-plant strategies of the past 50 years speak for themselves: high levels of pollution and slow rollouts due to high construction and fuel costs. Instead, we need to focus on minigrid-based electricity powered by solar power and batteries, which can provide 24-hour clean energy. And because they are decentralized—with the electricity that each community needs provided by solar farms in the area (optimized through artificial intelligence and Internet of Things technologies) and without long, expensive transmission lines—minigrids are often low-cost and deployable in weeks. Already, Energicity has brought solar-powered electricity to 40,000 people, and our goal for 2022 is to reach 250,000 more, across four countries in West Africa.
You can read more detail at the link.
Reading about new methods of providing clean energy, or new ways to communicate, or new ways to pay for goods and services (many of which are also new) is hardly a unique experience. I see similar reports on an almost daily basis, and they make me applaud the ingenuity and scientific “know-how” of so many of my fellow humans. We’ve come a long way from inventing the ax by attaching a stone to a wooden handle!
Good for us! We’re resourceful creatures!
So why–why–are we unable to apply that ingenuity and intellectual rigor to the mechanisms of communal life–to systems of government?
I don’t hear our retrograde politicians criticizing the folks who invented the iPhone, or developed the Internet. Even our insane anti-vaxxers aren’t pontificating against the discovery of penicillan. They aren’t refusing to board airplanes (at least, not pre-pandemic). They have computers. They drive cars outfitted with the newest features, and use GPS to get from point A to point B. They talk to Siri and Alexa. I could go on and on.
And they use these things without the dimmest idea of how they work, or “what is in them.”
Our relationship with technology is evidence of respect for talent and expertise. You don’t see the men and women who are creating these new tools boasting that they don’t really know much about whatever their factories produce; recruiters aren’t out looking for employees who have absolutely no prior experience with, or training relevant to whatever widget the factory is producing. The managers of those factories don’t level their most withering critiques at workers who actually know what they are doing.
Only in political life do people consider ignorance of government and the policy process a virtue. Only in political life do we award our support to people who are clearly clueless about the imperatives and mechanics of governance–at least, if we think we’d like to have a beer with them.
Only in political life do ideologues encourage their own followers to reject the products of expertise–most recently, to risk dying rather than take advantage of the knowledge of others if that rejection is thought to advantage the know-nothings who aspire to elective office.
Bottom line: For every genuine innovation in governing, like the “doughnut economy” that is a subject of experimentation in Amsterdam and a few other places, there are literally thousands of innovations in technology. We humans are really good at invention, at subduing our environments, making daily life easier and more interesting. Not only that, most of us applaud those innovations; we consider them evidence of progress.
Why don’t we approach our governing systems that way?
26 thoughts on “Technology Versus Governance”
In America, there is far too much theology involved in political life. Beliefs rules over facts. Science and Technology deal with what is known and provable. Politics is more like church. Belief based – not fact based. I have no idea how that changes.
The results of technology and science are more immediate, concrete and visible. The results of governance are more long-term, value-laden and esoteric.
In a feeble attempt to answer patch’s question, the “belief” politics are fueled by MONEY. The fact that our politics is allowed to take money for favors is the root of our political demise. Take Joe Manchin, please. Newscasters and pundits all wonder why so many politicians suddenly change their tunes over certain issues. Easy Peasy: They got paid to do it. So, until bribery is removed from politics, nothing will change, except it will get worse. Once again, I refer you all to read Rebecca Costa’s great book, “The Watchman’s Rattle”. I’ve cited in every one of my political, non-fiction books to the point of today’s blog.
I wrote a research paper many years ago that described the alternate energy possibilities, their good and bad points. Yes, solar is excellent, but it requires significant surface area. So is wind, but requires significant infrastructure to install and maintain. Liquid metal, direct current batteries are rarely mentioned, but are marvelously efficient and have little impact on surface area or infrastructure. A LM battery the size of a shipping container can provide enough electricity for a thousand homes. Its top surface is covered with solar panels to supply the electrons for the process and an AC alternator turns the DC into usable electricity for home use. Then there are tidal generators that use the movements of the tides’ waters to spin the dynamos. Geothermal is yet another source of power generation.
So, yes, there are many alternatives to fossil fuel power generation. But there’s the rub. To the point of my answer to patmcc’s question: The fossil fuel industry is one of the chief purchasers of government officials, funders of election lies and the 40,000+ lobbyists that create the zombie apocalypse in Washington and Indianapolis and everywhere else their interests lie in maintaining the status quo.
Not very satisfying, I know, but that is the state of the human condition today: MONEY DIRECTS WHAT WE DO, NOT LOGIC.
Progress does not always mean improvement.
I doubt the world will ever be able to totally do away with use of fossil fuels; alternatives, until fully established are expensive and not available for all. Government and utilities always find a way to increase cost or tax alternate fuels. The first situation I came up against regarding solar power was in 1982 in Las Vegas when my husband and I agreed to meet with a salesman to explain the benefits – technical progress – by using his wonderful solar powered water heater. The culmination of the meeting was when he told us the water heater cost $5,000.00 and would need electrical backup at night and on the rare days sun didn’t shine in Las Vegas. We opted to retain our old fashioned electric powered water heater.
“Only in political life do ideologues encourage their own followers to reject the products of expertise–most recently, to risk dying rather than take advantage of the knowledge of others if that rejection is thought to advantage the know-nothings who aspire to elective office.”
The current Covid-19 Pandemic would be less problematic – and fatal – if the virus would stick to those who refuse to wear masks or take advantage of vaccinations, namely the Republicans. But, the virus in its many variants strikes the nearest victims; including those who have tried to protect themselves and others. The medical technology of life-and-death has become a political issue/choice; governance is in a quandary due to a warped belief in one’s personal choice vs. common sense. And the beat goes on!
All large organizations suffer from their bigness. You can’t turn a battle ship on a dime. But as long as that ship keeps turning, there’s a chance it will get where it needs to be.
I believe the answer is rooted in the very nature of democracy and “representation.” Technology, invention, and production rely on and require objective/scientific knowledge to exist and advance. Not so for democracy & representation — where all that is required (by design, and at its best) is the consent of the governed. Since the “governed” includes everyone of every education level, belief system, and crackpot idea, democracy/representation doesn’t “require” proof, excellence, expertise to exist — if voters have low civic education and significant numbers of them are passionate nut jobs, should we be surprised when our legislatures become populated with such people? Even worse now, the “rules” for democracy have been perverted and deformed to such an extent that representatives now select THEIR nutjob voters (gerrymandering) and election finance has been perverted so very few (corporations/cultists) are able to get their messages out (thanks Supreme Court).
Ultimately, though, these “tweaks” to democracy do not explain as much about the difference between technological progress, which requires expertise, knowledge, etc and Democracy, which simply requires “representation” — of “the people” by “the people” — which at base doesn’t “require” anything but convincing ppl you will “represent” them.
I agree with the above–power and money are involved. Another possibility is one that is encountered in education. What is called “the apprenticeship of observation” leads people to think that anyone can teach without knowing any learning theory, intellectual development theory, or research on the effectiveness of various teaching approaches. Because people are around educational settings, they assume that their familiarity is expertise, or worse yet, that the act of teaching is so simple that it doesn’t require expertise. Perhaps because the issues involved in government are somewhat accessible to folks (unlike the scientific knowledge required to understand technology) they think anyone can be effective in a governing role.
How about: We’ve become expert with inanimate stuff (esp. technology), but we’re still lagging with anything living and living systems, and hampered mightily by the dualistic thinking that sees humans as separate. It’s only been comparatively recently that the social sciences have started to see the interconnections and get better at understanding human behavior as fully interconnected.
It’s easy to view advancement in technology as advancement in overall civilization, but that is far from the truth. Nothing in technology improves/changes the attitudes of reactionaries and their bigotry, hatred, retrograde faith systems, etc. How people treat other people is the real evaluation of civilization and that cannot be improved via technology and typically only enables the powerful to further abuse and/or kill those they view as “less than”. BTW, I’m an engineer so I am a big proponent of the STEM disciplines, but I also have a good grounding in the liberal arts. That is what helps me interact with other people in a positive manner.
Someone once said that technology allows us to benefit from the world, without actually experiencing it. One reason it works that way is because the “gadgets” were designed and assembled by experts, so when you turn the key in the ignition of your car, it starts (usually). You don’t have to be an electrical engineer to close the circuit that powers the starting motor.
In politics, things are different. The government was designed by experts, but every few years it is reassembled by amateurs, all of whom think that they are experts. So they tinker with things in ways that their feeble understanding suggests, and most of the time, the system does not respond the way they were sure it would. Their “expertise” is imaginary, so they cannot run the system flawlessly. That is a serious problem with a democratic system – You do not have to be an expert. You just have to convince the voters that you are capable. And of course, the voters have no way to distinguish between capable and culpable.
Of course, that explanation ignores the fact that some of these amateurs are stupid, others are venal, others are power-hungry, and some are combinations of all of the types.
You seem to think that we are actually exploiting technology, i.e. using it in an appropriate and beneficial manner. We’re not. We can’t. And the reasons are connected with the false contrast that motivates your original question.
The tragedy of humanity is that we have the intellectual capacity to build toys, but absolutely no emotional capacity to process the implications of possessing them or the consequences of using them.
First example: the steam engine. Before the invention of the steam engine, human communities had a balance between work input and work output. Above a threshold and to within specialization, N persons’ work supported N persons. It had been so for the entire existence of the species and that fact had been internalized at a profound, unconscious level, so that no one could imagine that it might ever change. It came to be expressed as a moral imperative: everyone must work. “He who does not work shall not eat”, etc.
The steam engine made hash of that. All at once, it took much less than N persons’ work to support N persons. There was nothing for the others to do. There was not enough work to go round, in terms of the moral imperative, and there never would be again.
This happened toward the end of the 18th Century. Now look at the politics (everywhere) of the 19th and 20th Centuries. It all comes down to pretending that this change did not happen, that the old moral imperative is still valid and somehow enforceable, whereas in fact, in the blink of an eye, it had become merely a sadistic trap and would never again be anything else.
The implication should have been universally understood, in a split second, and then acted upon, unanimously. We had the intellectual capacity to do that; but no emotional flexibility at all, wherefore we, as a species, took refuge in pretense and performance, which is to say, in infantility, which is to say, in sadism. And here, ~~250 years on, we are. The accumulated emotional stress of cognitive dissonance finally compelled us to destroy our educational system, which lit a 70-year fuse to devolution to zero.
Second example: radio. What was the effect of the invention of radio? It made national borders untenable. Formerly, it was understood — had always been understood, since the emergence of the concepts that eventually developed into nationhood — that national borders were things that neither persons, nor money, nor goods, not information, should routinely cross. The key word is routinely: not that there should never be any such crossings, but that in principle, each one required awareness and approval at sovereign level (suitably delegated). Radio made hash of all this. Ask any dictator (and there is always a dictator, be it an individual, a faction, or an ideology): if information can cross borders, then it does not even matter whether or not persons, or goods, or money can also can. Do you want to “control” your borders? Very well then: all radio-based technology must be put beyond use. Again, over a hundred years of pretense that this change did not happen.
You may readily supply the third example for yourself.
Having worked in IT my entire career, I am going to say that it is not always automatic that somebody accepts the things in their life that make things run smoothly. This holds true for all of that magic stuff that makes IT happen, and it holds true for all of that political stuff that keeps the wheels on a functioning society.
In the last several years in IT I had a terrible manager. He had promoted too many times just because he was the longest term employee. He technology training was stuck in the 70’s. He was a yes man saying what the bosses want to hear (maybe a better politician than IT manager?). For years we begged for more budget to do infrastructure upgrades. This is stuff on the back end that nobody notices when it is working fine, but if it can’t support what you need to move forward, or worse yet becomes unreliable then suddenly even the CEO is breathing down your neck. At some point upper management wanted to upgrade the phone system. We were paying ATT $50,000+ every month for basic dial tone, and the call center wanted new technology. We could have cut over from the old Analog telephones to Voice over IP (VoIP), but guess what? The Infrastructure to make it somewhat reliable as the old hard wired telephones was not there, and was going to cost $1,000,000+ dollars.
Long story short, nobody want to spend any money, time, or effort, on things they can’t see and don’t exactly understand how it works, and without it things seem to do fine.
Government is that Infrastructure of society. On top of that, you have so many people invested in telling you that you don’t need that Infrastructure/Government, because it will get them promoted to higher positions of power.
This is just human nature and there are too many people out to exploit it. (See yesterday’s blog and the higher your income level is, the more likely you are to be unethical).
in the transport area,trucks we.d like to believe the industry could swap over to electric trucks. maybe in a short haul. in my area,500 plus miles a day, its not happening. the infrastructure of repower/charge will take decades. travel to rural texas,wyoming,utah,nebraska. theres alot of nothing in many areas. the fact,truck stop chains like loves,buy,process and refine crude to diesel. mega stops like pilot/flying J are into futures on the market,for crude,buy and sell. they are not interested in changing,unless,, you the tax payer,anti-up the cuts or literally hose down them with cash incentives(ghey get a tax write off for increasing truck parking places,its a joke, they dont do anything but build more truckstops with fewer parking places). in my life time ive delt with repairing trucks ,working and modifying them for diffrent types of work,to driving them for a living. the infrastructure to do this is established,as the places to repair them. when states like wyoming who allowed the building of a huge wind tower area along the southern tier,then passes a law,making it illeagal to use that power in wyoming,says enough. unless some sort of small,efficiant stand alone green power source is readily available to these out side areas, it will never come to be. the best scenerio,is a bridge of natural gas now,for a short term to eliminate coal. in NoDak we have hail,storms, severe, we call it the great white combine.. if it can mow down tall corn by the square mile. imagine the solar farms. im not defending fossil, but we will never see a total change in our lifetimes. but, the easy way to convert, your own vehicles. home charging is readily available as a large swath across America. its a reasonable,wide range start. yesterday on c span,some so called speaker for,the electric car manf industry slammed the BBB Bidens try, she said that only two domestic car manf were the only models to get a $12k incentive if you buy thiers,whereas, if you buy a non union one,its only $8k..( when asked who they were she went on to another subject) her beef was more related to the union people over the need to change. seems the US chamber of cons must be speaking thru her mouth.. instead of defending what we need,shes worried about someone getting a living wage, to buy one….
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary* depends upon his not understanding it!” – Upton Sinclair
*(expand to include self-identity, tribal affiliation, social power)
“ why–are we unable to apply that ingenuity and intellectual rigor to the mechanisms of communal life–to systems of government?”
It’s obviously a rhetorical question, but the answer is that government chaos is expedient and profitable to the rich, because it allows them to legislate lower taxes and fewer regulations, and power to themselves.
It occurs to me that, if we used technology, we’d actually collect data and know what’s going on. And we can’t have that!
Vernon, thank you!
I would have to agree with Vernon’s assessment wholeheartedly. And, being an avid reader and having an interest in Vernon’s books, I definitely agree that he has had quite a bit of foresight concerning this matter. Possibly much to Vernon’s chagrin I absolutely agree with him much more than not. And, I would suggest reading Some of his offerings, they are quite enlightening.
Technology is definitely a morphing and evolutionary process.
If we look at artificial intelligence, We can see the fear People are dealing with concerning This game changing technology.
How about a technology that can think and Create? Maybe a technology that can’t be swayed by money like humans. That kind of makes it appealing doesn’t it? The fear of artificial intelligence is, it could replace a lot of these politicians and others who are in it just for the money.
Artificial intelligence is just a product of its creator, and, If you have corruption, or ulterior motives and specific agendas, If those are actually put into the programming of robotics and artificial intelligence, That’s what you’re going to get coming out. I would venture to say that humanity in its current capacity does not have the ability to create something with a value system above his own.
Humanity has a conscience, a guardrail system that should prevent mankind from mistreating his fellow man or misusing resources as a weapon to cause injury to his fellow man. As Vernon states, basically, follow the money. Where is the money in microgeneration? And, where is the profit in making sure that people have a better life? Why should we be concerned about The poor being able to have electricity? or, water? or, food? The infrastructure of these things do not lend itself to being profitable towards big businesses. Therefore, people die of thirst, people sit in the dark, people starve! Man’s inhumanity to man Really knows no boundaries and is driven by financial gain and greed.
If we go to the religious aspect of the situation, We can see the effect money has on those who claim to believe in God or Their specific religious dogma. Let’s face it, money in of itself is a god which is worshiped and venerated by so many over and above human life.
Luke 12:15 reads: “keep your eyes open and guard against every sort of greed, because even when a person has an abundance, his life does not result from the things he possesses.”
Greed is just another form of idolatry, Which, denotes something that is made by men, is also worshiped by men. Ephesians 4:19 reads, “having gone past all moral sense, they gave themselves over to brazen conduct to practice every sort of uncleanness with greediness.” So, here we go, morality is not profitable! If morals are not profitable men cast them aside Just like rubbish in the burn pit.
Artificial intelligence is based on logic, and logically artificial intelligence would deduce that humanity is the problem Rather than the solution. So, If artificial intelligence IE technological advances, reach a point of some sort of control, What would that artificial intelligence deduce? Would it cast a side All illogical premise and behavior that it has learned from a flawed creator? Or, would it continue on with the creators agenda? Either way, it would be a time of reckoning.
Selfishness and greed have always controlled mankind, way more than mankind’s own collective conscience. So many resources are put into debilitating ones neighbor unnecessarily or plotting the demise of one’s perceived enemies. The amount of energy and treasure put into This endeavor could change the entire outlook of humanity. Unfortunately, Mankind has proven through his history that this will never happen. And, the demise of humanity is right on the horizon.
Part of the reason we don’t approach governing that way may be that, unlike technology, governing is a “soft” discipline.
“Discipline”may even be too vague a term for it. In electronics, and other technology we can experiment with new developments
and tweak them to move towards our hoped for goal. In governing, there are no basic laws of nature, such as dictate what electrons
do, or where they can go (your GPS is a quantum mechanics marvel, for example). We have theories of governing, as of economics,
and these are used and bent according to human whim, and manipulation,
And, before we even get to the discarding of “expertise,” based on that manipulation, we have to contend with, or at least accept,
people’s capacity for evidence-free belief in imaginary things, like unicorns, Bigfoot, etc.
I like Frank Wilhoit’s explanation of what has happened to us. Robert Fulton did us no favors, or did he with his supplanting of human labor via his invention? The answer is not available to us via new and better technological invention; we are called upon to attempt such an answer via the collective means of what we call government, yet another invention of tribal humans each competing for his/her own socioeconomic view of how things should be run, a process we call politics.
We have been far more successful in coming up with new and better technological means of creating wealth and leisure than we have in managing such accelerating change as we continue to leave Fulton’s world in our wake and I confess that I have no answer beyond guesswork to the dilemma Professor Kennedy has posed today. Thus we are told repeatedly that technological progress redounds to the common good, but from the then socioeconomic stance it was not good for those whose labor became unnecessary in Fulton’s day, nor, one could argue, for those who are displaced today by the touch of a computer button. Supplantation of human labor continues to be in vogue today (see driverless trucks, pushbutton banking etc. etc. etc.). I have even read that Silicon Valley is teaching emotional intelligence to robots! Are psychiatrists next in the unemployment line?
How to solve or not to solve such a continuing displacement caused by continuing technological refinement via a government chosen by vote of the displaced may be resulting in the socioeconomic/political fissures we are experiencing today and, unfortunately, providing fodder for politicians to exploit in their eternal search for power.
I am not smart enough to venture an opinion on how all this is going to work out, whether a Fulton-like supercomputer will bring about government by scientific commission to manage irrespective of old fashioned ideas about democracy, dictatorship by individuals etc., or some other form of governance that fits the times. I very likely will not be here to see all of what transpires transpire, and in keeping with Vern’s frequent note, am “glad I’m old.”
Capitalism is fueled by the possibility of wealth redistribution up. In poor countries consumers have no wealth in currency to redistribute. They only have natural resources and their muscles to attract capitalism.
That leaves socialism as the only economic system left standing for the people. In the specific case of Africa, most of the taxes go to wealth redistribution up too. That leaves only charities of many wealthy people and countries.
On the other hand the people of poor countries lives could be markedly improved by simple things like bicycles, or a little light at night, or perhaps a pump, or, in some cases, a simple cell phone or tablet and the means to charge it.
All of that can be accomplished by low tech localized combinations of energy sources, like a few photovoltaic cells or a very simple windmill.
The point is that people survive comfortably with very little at certain places on the globe with only what’s already there. Improving their lives requires very little more.
However most of humanity exists in more hostile environments that require more technology, energy and resources for the same level of survival.
As an example improving more marginal lives in North America given what we already have often require huge complex infrastructure. Consider Amazon or cell phones or entertainment media or any kind of transportation or communication improvements.
Here’s the future though. Climate change is reshuffling the deck on favorable places to live in what will appear to us to be random ways. Many places will become uninhabitable, some so hostile that enormous quantities of energy and resources per person will become table stakes. Consider living in Antartica now.
While all that is underway humanity will add 50% more of us looking for survival at the very least.
Looking down the road dystopia will be reality while in “developed” countries comfort is all we know.
We are already on the outskirts of that future and we feel the foundations of civilization crumbling already.
We procrastinated way too long in our comfort to address these dilemmas and every day we cast more dystopia in concrete.
Not a pretty picture.
90% of politics is fueled by emotion. 90% of technology is fueled by need, real or created. Different motives….different outcomes.
Regarding Nancy Chism’s comment on education. I see the same problem in industry. My husband loved his job at a major Indianapolis employer for years. Until they decided that a manager can manage anyone, even with no skills or experience in that field. Apparently they learned that from Business Education, but I disagree. His new manager made arbitrary changes that eliminated the best parts of my husband’s job.
In answer to your question:
One add on to Vernon’s comment – One possible contributor to energy is putting solar panels everywhere. You don’t need huge expanses of land, the land is already taken with houses, and remember, the hottest summer day and the coldest winter days have clear skies.
Two problems – the minor one – If a solution just “contributes” but doesn’t “solve” it is ignored (if cloth masks don’t protect you 100%, they are worthless) – the major one – It is assumed that all solutions must be owned and controlled by big business (as Vernon points out)
On the main topic – I am not so certain the dichotomy is that strong – I’ve had many people point out to me that Bill Gates was a Harvard dropout – never mind that his rich high school gave him more computer time than most Harvard graduate students had at that time – he was a DROPOUT – see – those educated elites are no good – dropouts rule
Also – those people who “use” technology, also said “keep your government hands off of my Medicare” – they are happy to use government – Social Security, Medicare – even food stamps – They seek folk (and quack) remedies for medical issues, so it isn’t only government where idiots are chosen.
Good point! Teaching emotions to artificial intelligence would just Grease the skids of them looking to eliminate humanity as a problem rather than a benefit.
Absolutely! “Not a pretty picture.”
Excellent observation. You really nailed your point!
I bet if you ask your husband how many times he’s seen some hot shot come in and reinvent the wheel, and a few years later, it’s changed back to where it was originally, then a few years later, another one is reinventing that same wheel. If it wasn’t so pathetic, you’d have to laugh at it! Unfortunately, as you so articulately brought out, it affects the lives of those who are employed by the doofus squad.
It’s apples and oranges. Tools vs. systems. Tools are there to be used. As a technology worker, I do respect the people who worked on those tools. I would be willing to bet that the right-wingers don’t care in the least about the origin of the tool, or the people behind them. (Sheila, you’d suggested they respected those innovators, but I don’t think you’re right. If they think about them at all, it’s with contempt, generally, as “pinheads” or whatever.) The only “innovators” the right likes are the Elon Musks and Jeff Bezos’; those who lean far into libertarian thinking and clearly care most about making money. In any case, the tools are agnostic of the bigoted culture wars the right really cares about.
But _systems_ (like those influenced by government policy) could be used to specifically help those the right don’t like, so they must be opposed on principle. It all comes back first to bigotry and power, and ultimately, money.
It seems perfectly understandable to me. It’s also very, very depressing, though.
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