Democracy With Unit Tests

I don’t listen to every episode of Freakonomics – it’s so chirpy – but Regulate This, on the disruptive approaches of tech firms monetizing underused resources owned by individuals, was excellent. It pulled together a number of different threads about innovation, regulation and consumer protection, to the point where a friend of mine was prompted to ask ”Does this presage the end of the regulationist government that has grown so steadily to protect us from any old thing?” … with all the good and bad that might imply.

So I don’t have a crystal ball, but this is an interesting swirl of forces. The basic problem with state regulation of this sort at the moment is it doesn’t scale down. It can deal with a taxi company but not renting out your back seat. It can face off against a hotel chain but not a spare room.

You also have two generations of bureaucracy and information technology facing off against each other. You have a Max Weber nineteenth century Prussian bureaucratic form of technology and organization, adapted through 20th century American progressivism, then dealing with a set of technologies and practices where a lot less of the machine is made of people, but instead code. Its a fight between two bureaucratic social elites with different traditions and texts and that is where much of the nastiness comes from.

Eg, the culture clash in the US Healthcare website rewrite … but also Nate Silver, also both Obama presidential campaigns and their use of big data and social network analysis.

Plus you have dynamics of actual consumer protection and consumer empowerment. The back seats of those cars in LA really are going to waste. My guess is for a while – like a decade or two – big government really won’t be able to deal with this sort of distribution. Big Government is the nearest shorthand for 20th century high modernist bureaucracy, that depends on lots of command and control and economies of scale. It just can’t scale down or move fast enough when put head to head with Internet-era tech. I imagine mostly an environment of benign neglect, but with horrible weird cases like suddenly living next to a popup brothel, which you can’t get the police interested in because everyone is renting out rooms on airbnb nowadays.

It was very interesting to me that New York and Chicago were big sites of regulatory pushback. They are both huge rich cities, with a lot of metro transport infrastructure, subways, buses and hotels. They have the population density economies of scale to make transport cheap already, even taxis. Whereas in, say, Brisbane, the trains cost an absolute fortune, and the taxis are basically non-existent outside of a very small square in the centre of town. Lift or Uber has a much bigger opportunity in Brisbane – or Phoenix, or Atlanta – because of the lack of competing infrastructure.

I think probably government will learn to adapt and use the new techs effectively, for better and worse, and will learn to scale down, so you can pay your 5% hotel room tax by smartphone for the three times a year you rent out your spare room. At its nicest it will look like GOV.UK, at its worst it will look like the CIA’s PRISM, and the latter will probably data mine the crap out of the former.

What about democracy and due process? There is a risk that in the rush to monetize every spare bit of capacity in our existing infrastructure, and routing around an elephantine bureaucracy with regulators that get new grads for a few years before they jump into the industries they were regulating, we screw up good processes of review and consultation just because they are slow. To me the only way around that doesn’t involve ignoring the tech is to exploit the legibility of software itself. Our regulations are code now. Well the regulations are public knowledge, right – why not the code? GOV.UK is on github (publicly hosted source control). Why not most civic infrastructure? Why not submit a patch for the local traffic light not leaving enough time for pedestrians, and argue about it in an issue system with your neighbours and the civil engineers looking after traffic design in that part of the city? It’s democracy with unit tests.

There are utopian extensions of this approach imagining using open software social and technical structures to reinvent corporations and government. One vision from Jessica Margolin and Jamais Cascio is to retool global business for resilience. The Jetpack Communist version is Terranova’s Red Stack Attack!: Algorithms of Capital and the Automation of the Common. Another vision might be using a structure like the W3C to fix climate change. I am drawn to these without being able to reconcile how they might live in the same world as gunboat diplomacy and social terror franchises like ISIS. There are visions in there, and a theory, and a kind of prototype, but not really a platform, yet.

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The Psychopathology of the Welfare State

My inner sociologist was prodded awake by an artful question and discussion at erudite horror blog And Now The Screaming Starts:

Would Obama style health care reform have prevented the creation of Jigsaw, the conceptual franchise-like serial-killer meme embraced by the various murderers of the film series?

Sadly, I am little qualified to directly answer such a question, possessing neither the critical nor the intestinal fortitude to endure a single Saw movie, let alone five. I let brave voyagers like CRwM, proprietor of ANTSS, run reconnaissance for these inky corners of our shared popular reality. Though the joy of the original article is of course its in-depth analysis of conjoined trivialities, I instead wondered to what degree social institutions determined serial killer types.

Let’s accept, for the sake of argument, that technical changes to medical coverage laws could point fictional villain John Kramer down another twisted path. And social institutions certainly influence the types of serial killers to emerge – from opportunity if nothing else. For instance, geographical, infrastructural and social factors made an Ivan Milat easier to emerge in Australia. Specifically, long, empty highways next to forest, between relatively distant population centres gave a certain pattern of opportunities. Similarly, figures like Ed Gein, hunter and babysitter, seem intertwined in the details of small-town American life.

If we take serial killers as a horrible symptom of humanity, or at least that they emerge in all industrial societies, presumably an Obamacare America will get the real and fictional serial killers it deserves, just as Bush and Eisenhower America did. But what would a socialized medicine serial killer look like?

Harold Shipman.

Shipman, embedded in the medical profession and the welfare bureaucracy. Silent before and after arrest, not admitting guilt, motives only fuzzily deducible in aggregate from a pattern of victims, leaving people to speculate on the mix of malice and a brutish utilitarianism usually only seen in cartoon villains. Professionally trained, but grubbing for jewelry in a sad post-mortem black market. He’ll get to you, but only after you make an appointment. This is the psychopathology of the welfare state.

Now, this isn’t just a chance to bag out the abused and beloved NHS. (Though honestly, Atlantic anglosphere, your health care systems all suck – please pay more attention to the French.) Before anyone gets all excited and declares that socialized medicine brings both communism and serial killers, note that Shipman, Gein and Milat were all freaks on the edge of the system. If anything it points to a rule of thumb for identifying a totalitarian regime: one where the psychopaths are on the inside, running the show.