“All your democratic language are belong to us”

The invocation of the language of liberalism to damage our democracies is not new. In a system in which ideas compete for legitimacy, simply artificially pumping up one idea to an unnatural level skews the debate, and leads to damaging outcomes. The success of authoritarians and anti-democratic nations in doing this in recent years is a key feature of our time. Consequently, the voices that crow the loudest about “freedom” and “liberty” — our values — are often doing so to hijack the conversation, to polarize it, and to render it a weapon against sensible debate.

My latest: What happens when the language of democracy is hijacked?

(Photo: anastasiasoboleva/tumblr)

Silicon Valley, innovation stagnation and US-China competition

Suppose geo-economic competition is the name of the game between a country like the US and a country like China. Suppose such a rivalry, using economics to advance geopolitical goals, is more important than the ability to produce war-making hardware because – in superpower terms – it underpins the nations’ ability to shape the future. From there, defense, economy, and even history, to a degree, fall into place by changing the way a superpower is treated by the world.

Peter Thiel
Peter Thiel

So suppose such eventual competition between a country like the US and one like China is built on technological possibilities. Basic scientific breakthroughs, the kinds that invent new industries, will be the foundation of that success. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel is among those in the US who see a crisis in the Western ability to generate the new kind of breakthrough technologies needed to for future robust US growth and the power it brings.

Thiel sees Silicon Valley as the place to find and hatch these new technologies, pointing to the talent the region today attracts increasingly at the expense of post-credit bust Wall Street and dysfunctional Washington. And yet I can’t help but think that looking for productivity increasing-breakthroughs in Silicon Valley is, frankly, looking for them in the wrong place. Wouldn’t the rise of Silicon Valley as the standard for technological progress coincide with the much-lamented post-1970s innovation-stagnation? So isn’t it possible Silicon Valley is, if not a dead-end of sorts, an unlikely source for groundbreaking future technological breakthroughs? I mean the sort that had increased quality of life and extending the reach of industry.

After all, historically the biggest scientific breakthroughs occur in an environment that is often divorced from a waiting, expectant market. Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, was a monk, for example. The father of microbiology, Antony van Leeuwenhoek, was a Dutch draper. Discussing inventive periods in the past, anthropologist

What ever happened to the Concorde?

David Graeber notes: “Britain [during the Industrial Revolution was] notorious for being just as generous to its oddballs and eccentrics as contemporary America is intolerant. A common expedient was to allow them to become rural vicars, who, predictably, became one of the main sources for amateur scientific discoveries.”  In other words, guys tinkering away at their own projects far from the dealing rooms of London, were a credible source of invention.

1961 illustration by Charles Schridde showing Motorola's
1961 illustration by Charles Schridde showing Motorola’s “House of the Future”

Big breakthroughs, in fact, are often happy accidents of scientists in a world of pure science and discovery.

US Wartime Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development Vannevar Bush acknowledged this way back in 1945, noting that “basic research is the pacemaker of technological progress. “ In the essay ‘Science The Endless Frontier‘ penned on the eve of the kind of multi-decade dramatic growth of the US economy and rise in living standards longed for by Thiel and Neal Stephenson and others, Bush wrote.

Industry is generally inhibited by preconceived goals, by its own clearly defined standards, and by the constant pressure of commercial necessity. Satisfactory progress in basic science seldom occurs under conditions prevailing in the normal industrial laboratory.

Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.

Bush even noted that “discoveries pertinent to medical progress have often come from remote and unexpected sources, and it is

Vannevar Bush
Vannevar Bush

certain that this will be true in the future.”

In other words, for real breakthroughs to occur, you can’t have investors and marketers breathing down the necks of the researchers and scientists in a place. Real breakthroughs tend to occur in free-range, not caged, conditions.

Yet today, the triumph of monetized, market-ready applied science most visible in a place like Silicon Valley reflects a commercial mindset rather than a more universal abiding push for scientific discovery. The broader experience of significant scientific breakthroughs is different, as well. True scientific progress leading to technological wonders goes hand-in-hand with the myth of our human destiny, of being the one species that can shape its own environment and ultimately, our own destiny. Rolling out tweaks and updates foretold in investor updates and SEC documents that try to quantify the ka-ching is not the same.

Thiel’s VC group, Founders Fund, has a manifesto ‘What Happened to the Future?’ that points to the slide in the scope of technology visible in just the last 20 years:

In the late 1990s, venture portfolios…still supported transformational technologies (e.g., search, mobility), but venture investing shifted away from funding transformational companies and toward companies that solved incremental problems or even fake problems (e.g., having Kozmo.com messenger Kit-Kats to the office).

The statement continues

Not all technology is created equal: there is a difference between Pong and the Concorde or, less glibly, between Intel and Pets.com. Microprocessing represents real technological development, peddling pet food on-line, less so.

The presumption that technology has an immediate market value is another lesson learned after decades, yes, decades, of free-market ideology, embraced in the post-Cold War US. So there is an irony that libertarians, like Thiel, hold the primacy of private enterprise over government as an article of faith, particularly when government can have a crucial role in promoting scientific achievement which leads to productivity-gaining advances.

Apple: Not Different Enough
Apple: Not Different Enough

The final word on the matter is really for historians to debate. But we can say today that the current system is failing. We now have a situation where government has been robbed of basic tools it needs to assure a vibrant, competitive technology sector: Don’t believe me? Consider the case Office of Technology Assessment. Without it, now there is concern government agencies and committees in charge of regulation can be overwhelmed by new technology. It means more clunky and inefficient direction for industry. It’s already happening in areas like civilian drones. Uber is another case study.

Ironically, China, an authoritarian capitalist state, doesn’t have to cope with such ideological blinders on technology, science and results. There was a time when science in a communist country would be shoehorned to fit an economic outcome foretold by the political system. The People’s Republic of China in past times pushed its own population to starvation in the drive to develop its steel industry – as a sign of communist progress. Now, a nation like China can simply gather its best scientists into a room and fund them – market be damned – and look for results.

A recent photo from a Chinese moon mission, (Xinhua)
A recent photo from a Chinese moon mission, (Xinhua)

China’s space program is a clear example of this. While not breaking new ground (yet), it is winning the very real admiration of the world’s space scientists in the process. Moreover, China’s focused space program speaks volumes about China’s civilization, about its place in world affairs and about its destiny – all of which is closely watched by the international community. At its current pace, China will eventually begin to chalk up breakthroughs, and the story China can then tell will be, to a use a word from Silicon Valley, “transformative.” Another more universal description for China’s expected success might be “transcendent” – which is what big technology can do: transcend boundaries, borders, expectations.

Illustration by Charles Schridde
A future postponed (Illustration by Charles Schridde)

Meanwhile the US may still be debating what happened to the unbroken period of productivity-gaining inventions associated with American ingenuity. The sense of crisis in the US is palpable. But that, as Thiel noted in a 2011 New Yorker article, is not necessarily a bad thing. Says Thiel:

“It seems like we’ve not been thinking about the right issues for a long time…I actually think it is a big step just to ask the question ‘What does one need to do to make the US a better place?’ That’s where I’m weirdly hopeful, in spite of the fact that a lot of things aren’t going perfectly these days. There is a very cathartic crisis that’s gone on, and it’s not clear where it’s going to go. But at least everyone knows things are rotten. We’re in a much better place than when things were rotten and everyone thought things were great.”

And that kind of crisis thinking may be what’s needed to get back on the track to technological progress, the sort that reflects the possibilities of people, and that extends a sort of arc of meaning forward into the future.

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The problem with Edward Snowden

My problem with Edward Snowden is the stunning contrast of his judgment.

On the one hand he is an articulate, some would say, fearless critic of unapproved, secret mass surveillance. He worked within US intelligence circles and saw unchecked excesses and acted alone to try to remedy them. Clearly, Snowden is a bright, well-motivated guy.

But when you read his defense of his appearance on the Putin show, there is not even a mention of the East-West crisis over Ukraine. I can understand Snowden’s omission so as to not cross his Russian hosts, or his unwillingness to allow his cause to be muddled by the thorny consideration of the real world politics.

But to not even acknowledge the biggest crisis in Russia-US relations playing out seems a glaring omission. Is he kept in a bubble in Russia? Does he want us to trust him on all things NSA, but to pretend, along with him, that there isn’t a whole lotta US-Russia context that has to be viewed alongside his actions – even if there is no direct connection?

Setting aside the possibility that he is being controlled by Russians, something else may account for the jarring gap of his awareness.

It may be that Edward Snowden is just a typical American-style libertarian. In this view, it is simply the individual versus the state- no matter what the state is. Really, the only political unit that matters is the individual. There is no Ukraine issue because there is no Ukraine, in this view. There is simply the state and the individual (and guess who the bad guy is?).

I think many editors at the Guardian and non-American well-wishers of Snowden would find this element of the Snowden profile foreign. Because this is the strain in America that scoffs at gun laws and considers national access to healthcare not a right but an insidious threat. In this view of the world, not only is government, in the words of Ronald Reagan, the problem but society doesn’t really exist.

In this way, any struggles between the US and Russia are irrelevant.

This is a strain of American libertarianism has accelerated since the time of Nixon — not without huge financial benefits for big corporations. Big commercial interests thrive in places where there is no concept of society, or of common good. Bear in mind, Snowden’s US experience would have coincided with the highwater mark of US corporate power.

I believe it’s hard for people outside the US to understand how this libertarian mentality has contributed to the decay within the US in recent years.But supposing that what we see is what we get with Snowden, his behavior is very much a cousin to the deadbeat rancher Cliven Bundy who has made headlines in the US because he simply doesn’t believe he should have to pay grazing fees on federally owned (that is, owned by the citizens of the US) land.  After all, it’s only the government he’s trying to rip off.

And so, it’s very possible for Snowden that any issue between Russia and it’s neighbors or Russia and the US, simply does not, or cannot come into focus because Russia and the US are the same; they’re both governments. So they are always bad. And libertarianism, well, that’s a radical philosophy that has simple solutions for any issue. So simple in fact, that an American privacy advocate could delude himself into thinking that by aiding Russia, he is somehow helping the people at home.

Meanwhile, what hangs in the balance is the world order that was left in place at the end of the Cold War. And in the US, roads crumble, public school kids get stupider, corporations act and the legislators follow behind them, all because of the pat political philosophy that the individual is right, the government is guilty and no amount of explaining or justifying will change this. Snowden was taking down $100,000+ a year while his fellow Americans struggled to keep stay employed and keep their kids fed, but, well, hey, that’s their individual problem. Welcome, world, to American libertarianism in action.

Cyber defense and Snowden

One of the casualties of the Snowden revelations will certainly be a planned cyberdefense from the NSA. In the short term this is a set-back for US defense, as cyber threats continue to emerge.  It might take a dramatic episode, at least causing the lights to go out in half the US or something, for the public to accept the need for a robust cyber defense that would include wholesale sifting of metadata in realtime.

In the longer-term, the Snowden drama may be good news for the US defense efforts. Just as the Snowden revelations are causing some needed public scrutiny of the NSA, they may force the US to take a more constitutional-friendly approach to US cyber-defense. Eventually, policymakers may possibly embrace the Schneier model, which is more about robust defense, less about the ability to strike out. The problem, Raytheon, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is that the US public just doesn’t trust you – and with good reason. Sure, the US needs you in war-time, but the US should not be put in a permanent wartime footing.

Another underlying factor in the cyberwar between the US and China is that neither country can afford to destabilize the other. Neither the US nor China want to grind each others’ economies to a halt through aggressive action for the impact it would have back on their own economy. (That’s not to say China won’t try to siphon off as much IP as they can get). But given the tug-of-war behind the scenes, and recent revelations against constitutionalism by China’s leadership should be a lesson for free trade utopianists in the US. You can be assured that once either the US or China wrest themselves free of the other’s economic dependence, trouble may increase.

In this way, the need for cyber defense is there. And the need for a coordinated approach is there too. It just must find a way to sit well with US law and the culture of law (this blog has argued this before).

But the Snowden revelations, while sparking the debate with in the US, are simply damaging the US abroad.

Just look at the US-Brazil relationship – and look at the impact that could have on Silicon Valley.

His single-mindedness in the pursuit of his goal, to me, shows the fault of the oh-so-simple ideology of libertarianism, which is built around the individual while disregarding the importance of society. And Ed Snowden, if he ever gets back to the US, can have a nice drive over some crumbling US bridges and have a nice informed conversation with some of the product of the US’s failing public school to see the benefit of a philosophy that treats its own government with contempt.

You might argue that the relative attractiveness of an overly-simple philosophy rises as the general level of education
falls. People aren’t capable of embracing contradictions – the need to protect the individual while supporting the group,
say. Instead, it’s an overly simple ideal. And that’s some impact for a political philosophy which didn’t even rate a
mention in the 1982 World Book Encyclopedia.