How New Technologies Can Transform Government
Aneesh Chopra, 2014
Like too many public policy books, Innovative State suffers the problem of simultaneously being both too long, and too short. Too long because, once the scaffold of Chopra's case is laid out, much of the book consists of filling it with examples that don't actually drive new insights. Too short because Chopra's keen eye for history lets him hint at some more fundamental, transformational ideas about the role of government in the technological age, which are unfortunately not fully developed, and left as little more than hints.
More than twenty years ago, Jim Pinkerton wrote What Comes Next, an attempt to start the conversation about the changing role of government in the information age. At the time, Pinkerton's book was derided by reviewers, most using language such as 'extreme', 'science fiction', or (my personal favourite) 'cybernetic jargon'. Two decades later, Innovative State serves as a field dispatch from the world those reviews said would never come.
One of the neatest concepts from Pinkerton's book, now picked up by Chopra, is the idea of government as an operating system for society. It's a shame that the concept is used only once as a throwaway line in Innovative State because I think that, with a bit more fleshing out, the concepts of computer operating systems design have some genuine insight to provide on the functional roles and workings of the modern state. Technological neophytes would be well served here by reading Neal Stephenson's masterpiece In the Beginning... Was the Command Line for a wonderful introduction to the workings of operating systems, and paleophytes should take the time to read it as well, if only to enjoy what is surely the single greatest piece of writing in existence on the topic of computer design.
At their very core, operating systems serve two principal functions. They manage shared resources, and they provide valuable abstractions for commonly used functions. Not every single programmer wants to replicate the functionality to write data to a magnetic disc, so they're happy to outsource that work to a single 'SAVE' utility provided by their operating system. Providing a central repository for these commonly used functions enables individual programmers to focus on what they're actually experts at, and the powerful modern app ecosystem is the result. In much the same way, having a government helps me avoid the burden of needing to negotiate separate "let's not steal from each other" contracts with everyone I meet, and this is the necessary framework for the free and open transfer of capital and labour in the modern economy. See Bagehot's Postulates of the English Political Economy for the best concise expression of the importance of this idea. The irony of the modern technolibertarian culture is that a group of people who owe their livelihoods to the existence of shared abstractions fail to realise that the concept was still a good idea when it was invented thousands of years ago.
As for the management of shared resources, the analogy to government is fairly obvious. In public choice economics, public goods are taken to be those which are both non-excludable (non-payers can't realistically be excluded) and non-rivalrous (one individual's consumption does not substantially reduce the amount available for others). National defence, highways, and low Carbon emissions are all canonical examples of public goods, though one of those might appear in the economic literature more often than it's acknowledged in government policy. By providing these common resources, government can act not only as a distributor but a facilitator, an enabler of individual ingenuity, allowing private enterprise to generate the diverse solutions required for complex problems. Chopra understands the underlying logic of public goods, and cleverly casts the current push for technology platforms in government as the next generation of this classic idea. At the same time, he remains clear that the historical context does not diminish the radical changes made possible by the torrent of information now available to every citizen, and that's what makes this an exciting book to read.
Along these lines, Innovative State hints at the potential for technology to expand Hoover and Wilson's dreams of the associative state, but the idea is far too vast for this book and is not pursued through to its conclusion. Chopra is neither the Max Weber nor the William Blackstone (that would be Benjamin Wittes, in my humble opinion) of the information age, but he is ahead of his time in raising the questions that will be answered by those greats in years to come.
Much appreciation here for the magnificent Strand Books in New York. In a city packed with enough sights to fill a lifetime, Strand Books stands out as a must see.