Science & Technology

Dead-Tree Tyranny

Paper Age government marches on


The audio cassette tape was invented in 1962 by the Philips Corporation. It is infused with ferrous oxide that, when in the presence of the type of electro-magnetic field known to man for centuries, arrays itself in such a way that the metallic particles capture and reproduce electro-mechanical sound waves. The cassette tape is cheap and reliable and as of last week, our government was still unequipped to handle it.

News that a Federal Aviation Administration official with the all-too Kafkaesque title of quality assurance manager destroyed a tape recording of flight controllers discussing their recollections of the 9/11 flights they handled quickly tripped the hair-trigger minds of conspiracists, but plain fact is at once more mundane and disturbing than a mere cover-up. We all too often remain captive to a bureaucracy with its roots still firmly in the Paper Age.

Audiogate is just the latest in a string of howlers by our recording-averse public servants. The 9/11 Commission only wrangled appearances from George Bush and Dick Cheney by promising not to make any official transcript of that appearance. Supreme Court Justice Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had a federal marshal seize and destroy a tape recording of a speech he gave in a Mississippi high school. And it is a safe bet that somewhere right now a local school board or town council is retiring to executive session where the only record of what takes place will be some sketchy official minutes.

Given this trend, that the FAA might not be fully prepared for interviewees who use electronic crib notes to refresh their memories (If they had used a tiny digital Dictaphone, would our intrepid quality assurance manager have burned it at the stake?) seems par for the bureaucratic course. But it need not be so. Tiny Estonia is showing the way to post-Paper governance.

Estonian cabinet meetings are plug-and-play. Real time video conferences from traveling members are nothing out of the ordinary. As policy is made it is posted the government's Web site so the public knows what is going on. Citizens contribute their own policy ideas directly to the policy makers.

Long-winded, opaque bull sessions serve no purpose; the average meeting lasts 45 minutes. Decisions and positions are transparent, open for all to see, a thought that is noble in the abstract but terrifying in practice for politicians looking to never offend anyone.

So how can Estonia pull this off? Immediately the size disparity between Estonia and the United State jumps to mind. What a nation of only 1.5 million people can do to order and update its government is quite a bit different that what a nation of 300 million can contemplate. Even so, the truly relevant difference between Estonia and the U.S. does not seem to be size (Technology is scalable after all), but age. A government barely a decade old reflects the technology of its birth. Likewise we can date almost all of the U.S. government's process and structure to its period of most robust growth—the years between the start of the New Deal and the beginning of the Cold War.

Then, as now, reports were made on paper and delivered in person to a relatively small number of people all in the same room. Gathering information meant talking to people, taking notes, and writing up their comments in report form. This can take days, if not weeks. The Paper Age assumes and requires a sort of leisurely approach to governance perhaps reflecting a time when jousting with government with still a relatively rare occurrence.

It could also be the case that Richard Nixon permanently turned government officials away from making any concrete, impossible to deny records of their conduct. A taping system that was supposed to help Nixon wound up nailing him to the wall. And from Watergate through Iran-Contra to Monicagate, our chief executives have learned never to use email lest it create a record of what they knew and when they knew it.

Paper Age government is not inherently dysfunctional and it does not suffer from hackable vulnerabilities. It could serve us for many more decades. But if it does, government will slowly diverge from an increasingly Computer Age populace. Government will be that quaint, slightly bizarre place where people still shuffle papers around desperately trying to find something relevant to do.