America’s operating system needs an upgrade
Countries around the world are applying a platform-oriented approach to their own social structures in novel, promising ways.
As America enters another political season, the parties remain as divided as ever on nearly every issue — but are more or less united in their animus against Silicon Valley. Because of this mutual distrust, both parties fail to make a distinction between technology as it is deployed and marketed by corporations, and how it can be leveraged on the broadest possible scale, for the greatest possible good.
It’s why, for instance, there are now many calls by both sides to regulate Facebook, but few beltway discussions about how the social network’s troves of data might be better leveraged for public good. It’s why even forward-thinking, tech-savvy millennial leaders like Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez expound at length about expanding Medicare live on social media with her smartphone— but say little about using the very technology in her hands to totally reinvent government-managed healthcare. It’s a painful failure of imagination.
We need to start thinking about our very country as a platform, and our liberal democratic traditions as an operating system. While that might seem like airy techno-utopianism, the exact opposite is the case. Countries around the world are applying a platform-oriented approach to their own social structures in novel, promising ways. Consider a couple examples which relate to problems the US currently faces:
- Immigration: What happens when you think of America not just as a constitutional democracy, but also akin to a publishing platform like Apple’s App Store? You take a cue from Estonia, the tiny, former Soviet nation which now boasts a huge portion of its workforce in the tech sector. The country recently introduced an e-citizenship program, open to people around the world, enabling them access to government services and the banking system -- contingent on establishing a tax-paying corporation there. (Essentially Delaware, but for the entire globe.) The United States could adopt a policy like this, and make e-citizenship contingent on incorporating in America -- and hiring a local workforce. This would ensure that the advantages secured through successful industrialization are carried over into a networked economy, while also minimizing much of the resentment over immigration.
- Budgeting: Ukraine might not be the first nation most would mention for progressive reforms. But in one very specific case, it has leapfrogged us all. Recently, the country introduced the latest machine learning technology-- basically, complex algorithms capable of identifying patterns from massive troves of data -- to detect graft in government contracts, flagging irregular budget allocations for deeper review by human auditors. The program is so powerful, the European Union plans on adopting it. Considering the many dubious allocations in our own budget, we would do well to follow the Ukraine’s lead.
Contrast this with how most Democrats and Republicans debate the future of this country. Rather than propose non-ideological, tech-driven solutions like these, they fixate over social programs and institutions that have existed since World War II. In this approach, technology is considered, if at all, as an afterthought — something to allocate only after the budget is finally approved.
Applied this way, tech is rarely applied to improve our institutional infrastructure, which is visibly grinding. This is largely why Silicon Valley has been innovating around government inertia -- Uber capitalizing on inefficiencies in transportation regulations, for example, or Amazon building an orchestration system to turbocharge an aging US postal system.
I have been researching how organizational technology transforms whole societies for my entire career. But my sense of urgency reached an apex during a recent trip to Shenzen, a city that is very consciously run by Chinese state officials as an operating system. While the many dystopian applications of tech in China are well-known here, we often overlook how it’s also being used to supercharge the country’s infrastructure. I vividly remember standing, stunned, outside a massive warehouse, watching software orchestrate the movement of disparate electronic components from hundreds of independent vendors, so that computers and other high-end devices can be assembled in minutes. The United States has never had industrialization that agile. We are falling behind.
If there’s room for optimism, it’s in the very bipartisan backlash against Silicon Valley we’re experiencing now. It opens up an opportunity for us to work together, and create public options for the technology platforms we’re currently railing against. The logistics systems which made Uber and Amazon giants, integrated throughout our government departments; the machine learning and massive processing that made Google and Facebook near-omniscient, applied to mountains of government data, to optimize social outcomes as never before.
Working together this way, we can update our country’s underlying operating system, one that retains the best principles from the original OS (version 1789), but updated to thrive in the near future -- when nations will compete not on the battlefield or even in the market, but on the platform level.