Friday, March 12, 2010

Interacting with Government

By virtue of the way in which my radio listening habits are organized, from time to time I find myself listening to The Interview on my BBC World Service Radio satellite feed. I am usually drawn into these conversations, even if I enter them in the middle of the broadcast. However, having just read the summary (on the BBC News Web site) of the latest Interview with Evan Williams, co-founder to Twitter, I doubt that I shall be as patient with the broadcast as I usually am. I suppose it speaks well for the BBC that I read this account through to the end, but that was where I found my greatest aggravation. It all came down to what may have been the final punch line delivered by Williams:

I think Twitter will be a fundamental part of how people interact with their government.

Whether or not he is correct (and, on the basis of the rest of the summary, I suspect that this was one of those off-the-cuff zingers that did not necessarily have any serious warrants behind it), it scares the daylights out of me.

More specifically, however, it left me wishing that, rather than wasting their time with yet another shoot-from-the-hip technology entrepreneur, the BBC had chosen instead to interview Erik Hersman, about whom I wrote at the beginning of this month. For those who forgot (or never read the account), Hersman is a volunteer who contributes to maintaining Ushahidi, a software tool that facilitates the use of information gathered from digital communications (such as Tweets) in crisis management situations. Ushahidi received their first significant global attention by contributing to the relief efforts following the Haitian earthquake; and, by the time of the Chilean quake, their operations were effective enough to get up and running in less than an hour. I repeat all this to make it clear that technologies such as Twitter definitely can be advantageous.

What Williams and other technology evangelists may not appreciate, however, is that the advantages of Twitter reside not in Twitter itself but in those volunteers like Hersman, who provide an element of governance within which this particular usage of Twitter is situated. Even in times of crisis, the premise of Number 51 of The Federalist still holds:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.

In other words we do not all become altruistic angels when others are suffering. Without the intervention of government, those who are victims face the risk of being further victimized by those more interested in exploiting than assisting.

I would propose that the lesson of this situation stands as a corollary to the principles behind our constitutional republic:

In addition to securing the "unalienable rights" of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, governments are created to facilitate communication among those who seek to exercise those rights.

In other words it is through government that citizens can interact at all; and to claim that a communication technology such as Twitter can be "a fundamental part of how people interact with their government" amounts to viewing the relationship between government and communication through the wrong end of the telescope. This point of view highlights another of Williams' more specious observations:

What we're working on is technology that has the power to change things, and that's very, very exciting and motivating.

Once again, a paraphrase from National Rifle Association motto is in order:

Technology does not have the power to change things; only people can change things.

With a system like Ushahidi, people are doing the changing, because the change has to do not with the technology but with the "heavily lifting" of not only putting the technology to use but also imposing a layer of governance to secure that usage is beneficial, rather than malevolent. Unfortunately, when we see the extent to which communication has broken down in the fundamental operations of government (and not just our own), we see that just having government is not, in itself, a safeguard against abusive practices; and, in such a setting it is just as likely that changes brought on by a technology like Twitter will further the diabolic side of our human nature, rather than the angelic one.

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