In the era of Total Information Awareness, representative democracy as we practice it in the U.S. is looking more and more quaint and out-dated. The Obama administration continues the Bush post-911 paranoia with increased surveillance of “we the people”. While the government's ability to collect data on it's people (more than 99.9999% of whom have done absolutely nothing wrong) increases so does the paranoia, creating a feedback loop of diminishing civil rights.
As rights-infringing technology has advanced exponentially, the technology of democracy has not. Our leaders make decisions very much in the same manner that they have for the last two centuries. They travel to a central location and meet in committees. They pound the needs and desires of their campaign contributors into a slurry of semantic abstractions. They ad heaping spoonfuls of pork-fat earmarks, appropriations and amendments, obfuscate the intent with archaic legalese, then force-feed the resulting pablum to the public while claiming victory for their party. With any luck, these franken-laws, stitched together from the putrid flesh of dead ideas, rise to zombie-life in the course of several months- but more likely several years.
Despite information technology's rapid advancements, those advancements have yet to be applied to the decision making process but only to the command and control structure. Hyper-specialization within the bureaucratic class has lead to the establishment of an American Apparatchik. These political functionaries desperately fight to preserve their territorial power through the maintenance of the status quo. The resulting Kafka-esque system virtually guarantees that laws are outdated before they are passed, assuring – nothing.
Virtually every “hot-button” issue in the American political discourse right now is an example of lawmaking that is trailing far behind the public. By dropping the anchor of policy, politicians are holding the ship of state in position, trying to hold back the flow of society- but they cannot control the flow- our culture has proceeded far downstream, leaving government behind.
Examples are endless:
- “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” - polling among troops show clearly that this is a non-issue. Most people under 30 have grown up in the post “metro-sexual” era and simply don't give a shit.
- Gay Marriage- Why is marriage defined in law? By replacing all “marriage” laws with civil contracts, the rights of all people are protected, leaving the marryin' to the preachers.
- Cap and Trade Legislation – In the years between Kyoto Protocol (1997) and it's implementation (2005), the renewable energy sector grew exponentially. The push to add a dubious financial market based on carbon trading has gained more detractors to clean energy technology than it has fans.
Because of this growing disconnect between the people and their rulers, more and more citizens are choosing to practice “selective obedience”. By simply choosing not to observe certain laws, boundaries are stretched and eventually they become irrelevant. For example, many (if not most) young people in America today violate copyright laws. They download music and movies from pirate sites overseas, and most never experience any legal issues. It has become the norm. Persecuting a few poorly chosen individuals to make “examples” out of them simply makes the entertainment industry and their friends in the new Apparatchik look that much more foolish. Drug prohibition, clearly a long-standing example of the total failure of policy-making, serves only to profit the prison-industrial complex, while the vast majority of casual users continue to enjoy altering their realities un-hindered by big-brother. Speed limits? They only matter if you get caught. Taxes on barter, trade or cash payments? Yeah right.
The governments response to all of this is to increase the authority of agencies under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. They are using information technology against citizens in order to make up for the governments inability to deal with it's own obsolescence. By collecting information on EVERYONE, they are working under the premise that the larger the haystack, the more needles they will find. But as Cory Doctorow points out in his 2008 article for the Guardian:
“The problem of sifting through vast amounts of data was highlighted by the US 9/11 Commission, which concluded that the American intelligence community knew in advance that the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were in the offing, they just didn't know they knew it. The pieces were all there for anyone who knew to look for them, needles buried in a haystack of irrelevancies. “
Today, we are all potential needles. Your anomalous behavior makes you look more and more like a needle. Your donation to a charity, your phone calls to an overseas relative, your purchase of allergy medication, all can potentially add to a profile that makes you look more like a needle. Your commuting habits- tracked by your transit pass. Your regular meals at the neighborhood middle eastern restaurant- noted on your credit card record . Increasingly, any variation from the mainstream is suspect behavior.
As we know from our countries history of locking up non-violent “offenders”, criminalization of anomalous behavior creates criminals. Persecution leads to aberrant behavior. What we need is not to be increasingly surveilled to make sure that we are not violating norms, but to be given the freedom to rise to humanities highest potential. When given the opportunity, people generally choose to work for the common good. Is it any wonder that a recent study shows that people who download pirated music are also 10 times more likely to buy music? This knowledge has lead savvy music business executives to rethink the way they deliver their product and to profit from it, rather than suing their customers. Civil unions and gay marriages, as it turns out, are good for the economies of the states who recognize those unions as a civil right. Decriminalization of marijuana and the use of marijuana as medicine is good for everyone except large drug companies and the prison industry. Opening up the monopolistic electric utility industry to innovation by solar and wind development will bring about emissions reductions faster than a byzantine financial trading scheme.
In the world of computing, operating systems are continually improved. Problems are located, patches written and updates issued. Occasionally, a completely new version of the OS is warranted. In the “open-source” software community, that source code is open to anyone who wishes to work on it, and their improvements can be freely adopted to the benefit of all. This dynamic system assures that the system is constantly improving, and that everyone has the freedom to customize the system, adding new ideas, taking away things that don't work.
In government, fixes take the form of new patches, in a never-ending additive process. Nothing is ever subtracted, no new source code is ever written. Innovators do not go into government, because there is no room for innovation in government. By forcing people into “the middle”, our government is suppressing individuality and grinding off the rough edges of society where innovation lives. They have institutionalized mediocrity, stifling any hope of advancing as a civilization. The fallacy of “the middle ground” is dragging us down. The term “moderate” increasingly refers not to people who carefully consider both sides of an issue, but rather to people without conviction or imagination. The “middle ground” is not where we should choose to live- it should be where we meet to set a few ground rules that allow us all to live and work unhindered as individuals.
Until we agree to addressing the issue of our out-dated government source code, there is no hope for cultural evolution in this nation. It is up to individuals to adopt “selective obedience”, to hack the system and accept the mantle of peaceful dissidence.
“People who live in the post-totalitarian system know only too well that the question of whether one or several political parties are in power, and how these parties define and label themselves, is of far less importance than the question of whether or not it is possible to live like a human being.”