Friday, October 31, 2008

Technology Policy Chutzpah

Yesterday I took a parenthetical jab at Google's Philistine grasp of the subtleties of matters of governance. If Google wanted to retaliate, they could easily point to any number of government insiders who are just as Philistine. I would probably not disagree, but my reaction would be to take any of their examples who are still actively involved in government and short-list them for future Chutzpah of the Week awards. Anyone that close to the inside is either blissfully ignorant of how things work or should just know better.

Reed Hundt used to be such an insider. He was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 1993 to 1997, appointed to that position by Bill Clinton. According to Stephanie Condon's latest Politics and Law report for CNET News, he is jockeying to be an insider once again, which, in my book, means that his philistinism, if serious enough, constitutes grounds for this week's award. The grounds to be considered can be found in Condon's opening paragraphs:

Even Republicans will probably concede that Barack Obama's campaign made good use of the Internet in the last year. Now an advisor is saying that an Obama administration would do the same, even turning to wikis to discuss topics like privacy.

Bureaucrats in Washington will have to confront a number of issues in the next few years such as how to regulate private, portable electronic health records, said Reed Hundt, a technology policy adviser for Obama and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

"That's the kind of thing that shouldn't be decided by one person in the new administration," he said on Thursday. "There's not anything wrong with a collaborative process that could literally include hundreds of thousands of people."

It was supposed to be a debate here between Hundt and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, chief economic policy adviser for John McCain and former director of the Congressional Budget Office. But the McCain guy never showed, giving Hundt--someone who Wired magazine once said had "as much sincerity as a photocopy machine salesman"--plenty of opportunities to jab at his absent opponent.

As a sidebar (hence the smaller font), I need to point out that nowhere in her article does Condon say where "here" is. Her byline is "Washington;" but that is not particularly helpful. Her photograph of Hundt suggests that the New American Foundation was the site of this would-be debate; but she seems to have forgotten to provide any more substantive background. This minor detail was missed by her editor (assuming that she has one).

I could care less about sincerity. Where any level of government is concerned, I continue to live by the wisdom of Mr. Dooley:

Trust everybody, but cut the cards.

However, when it comes to an understanding of the "collaborative process," that "photocopy machine salesman" simile may be appropriate. Indeed, the commission-based world of the salesman (escalated to the level of high drama by David Mamet) is so cutthroat that it is hard to imagine anyone in sales capable of uttering the word "collaborative," let alone embracing it in practice.

This brings us to Hundt's chutzpah. It all comes down to a single sentence:

There's not anything wrong with a collaborative process that could literally include hundreds of thousands of people.

It would probably be naive (if not arrogant) to suggest that anyone being considered for government service be required to take a test on the Federalist papers, whose results would be made available to those doing the considering; but those documents provide any number of challenges to Hundt's proposition. I am willing to grant his point, if he can refute all of those challenges; but my guess is that he never took the trouble to recognize that someone, even from the 200-year-old past, might have valid grounds for disagreement. That is where his chutzpah resides.

Ironically, Number 51 of The Federalist (whose author may have been either James Madison or Alexander Hamilton) provides the critical precondition that would lend more plausibility to Hundt's claim:

If men were angels …

Federalist-style angels might at least be able to set aside the impediments of petty egotism in favor of effective collaboration; but, even if this impossible precondition were granted, there would still be problems. (Bear in mind that there are those, like George Balanchine's biographer, Bernard Taper, who believe that angels, as little more than carriers of divine messages, lack not only egotism but any evidence of personality whatsoever, in which case, if men were angels, we would be little more than a gathering of zombies, no longer worthy of the noun "society!") I am more concerned about whether or not Hundt has even the foggiest idea of what it would be like to manage the operations of "a collaborative process that could literally include hundreds of thousands of people." Does he have in mind any existing collaborative process that does this effectively? We do not have to look any further than the Central Intelligence Agency for evidence that Wikipedia is far from a model example of that "wisdom of crowds" mantra. Furthermore, there is the more general problem that most of the "social software" that enables collaborative processes does little, if anything, to impose regulatory safeguards against participants who willfully behave badly; and bad behavior is at the top of a slippery slope, which descends to malicious behavior and ultimately to pathological behavior. Hundt's "solution" appears to be that the very question of regulatory policy should be left to the "wisdom of crowds," which seems to indicate that he is as ignorant of Plato (and possibly Juvenal) as he is of The Federalist!

I have no idea whether or not Hundt has a personal stake in promoting such social software; but, even if this is not the case, his cleaving to the Web 2.0 evangelism of collaborative processes cannot be seen as anything other than faith-based chutzpah of the highest order, for which he deserves this week's Chutzpah of the Week award.

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