Inside Out, Outside In, Perpetual Change

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Reihan Salam, blogging about the Change Congress launch I covered last week, links to an interesting kitchen-sink post by Jeff Jarvis. He's working on a book, WWGD? (What Would Google Do?), attempting to reverse engineer the company and apply the stuff that works to, in this post, democracy. The bullet points…

* Abolish the Freedom of Information Act. Turn it inside-out. Why should we be asking for information about and from our government? The government should have to ask to keep things from us.

* Government officials and agencies should blog. This ethic of openness should go beyond official documents and files. Openness should be part of the work habit of government officials and conversation with constituents should be an ethic of government.

* Webcast government. The government should put C-SPAN out of business by videoing itself. Obama has said he wants to webcast agency meetings. I say the same should be the case for Congressional meetings and, yes, court sessions, including Supreme Court hearings. I've suggested that radio stations and newspapers should get citizens to record and podcast all their local government meetings.

* Start GovernmentStorm. If Dell and now Starbucks can do it, government should. These storms, powered by Salesforce.com, enable customers to make suggestions and then to vote and comment on others' suggestions. In general, good ideas attract votes and conversations and bad ideas die on the vine.

* Personal political pages. Where we can, if we choose, reveal our stands, opinions, alliances, and allegiances and where we can—here I call on Doc Searls' Vendor Relationship Management project—manage our relationship with government, campaigns, and movements. Call it PRM, political relationship management.

* The dawn of the human politician. Speaking of Facebook… It will not be long before we see a candidate for office having to admit some youthful foible because it was memorialized on Facebook.

* Rule by engineers. At Davos, I was struck by the different approach to solving problems I saw from Google's founders. After hearing Al Gore trying to fix the environment through taxes and regulation, I heard the Google guys try to do the same through invention and investment in reducing the cost of power. Engineers don't waste their time with cool ideas. They seek a problem and solve it. And they are spoiled that in their world of technology, unlike the messier world of people, most problems do have solutions. Still, I look forward to rule by engineers. I think it will be more rational, more logical, less flashy (unless it's President Jobs we get). And because these are people of few words, we'll see more results than rhetoric. We can only hope.

I'd be lying if I claimed not to cringe at some of this. The "rule by engineers" concept seems periously close to the Simpsons episode where MENSA takes over Springfield. (It ended badly.) And I see an implicit lack of faith in the media's ability to root out failure and corruption in government. But maybe I'm not much of a reverse-engineer. I have trouble imagining transparency as a norm, and from there I have trouble imagining the vast majority of Americans making time to take advantage of this transparency. Voters split into two camps: those who want government to help them and don't want to watch the "sausage" being made, and voters who want government to leave them alone and are only interested in process as it illustrates why government should be butting out of their lives.

That said, the Calvinish elect who did take advantage of this hyper-transparency could do a lot of good. I'm not drunk on Jarvis's ideas, but I like where he's heading.

Related, here are Julian Sanchez's thoughts on the Change Congress launch.

UPDATE: Pseud confession: I thought of The Simpsons and it took Eric Alterman to remind me how Lippmanish this actually is.

Even "if there were a prospect" that people could become sufficiently well-informed to govern themselves wisely, he wrote, "it is extremely doubtful whether many of us would wish to be bothered." In his first attempt to consider the issue, in "Liberty and the News" (1920), Lippmann suggested addressing the problem by raising the status of journalism to that of more respected professions. Two years later, in "Public Opinion," he concluded that journalism could never solve the problem merely by "acting upon everybody for thirty minutes in twenty-four hours." Instead, in one of the oddest formulations of his long career, Lippmann proposed the creation of "intelligence bureaus," which would be given access to all the information they needed to judge the government's actions without concerning themselves much with democratic preferences or public debate. Just what, if any, role the public would play in this process Lippmann never explained.

The Jarvis difference is that the masses would still be making decisions, just more informed ones.

NEXT: Do We Owe Future Generations Anything?

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  1. Engineers don’t waste their time with cool ideas. They seek a problem and solve it.

    I’m having a hard time getting past my anecdotal evidence that often some of the most ardent supporters of Intelligent Design are engineers…or at least claim to be.

  2. Inside Out, Outside In, Perpetual Change

    YES

  3. The government should put C-SPAN out of business by videoing itself.

    Or they can pay C-Span to do it for them.

    As it stands right now, what is said on the floor of the house/senate is public domain, but all the rights to videos of committes/hearings/etc are owned by C-Span. That seems odd to me.

  4. The “rule by engineers” concept seems periously close to the Simpsons episode where MENSA takes over Springfield. (It ended badly.)

    Agreed. For that matter, it was also the concept when the Marxists replaced the Czar. That too, ended badly.

  5. Old joke:

    Three people were arguing about the nature of God.

    The first said: “God must be a sculptor. Look at the beautiful shape of women and the perfection of the curves.”

    The second said: “God must be a dancer. Look at the grace of women’s movement and expression.”

    The third said: “God must be an engineer. Only an engineer would put a playground next to a sewage outlet.”

  6. I have trouble imagining the vast majority of Americans making time to take advantage of this transparency

    The vast majority wouldn’t. But a dedicated few would and disseminate that info in easy to parse ways to anyone who wants it — if they wanted it.

    Better than not being available, no?

  7. Steve: Engineers are as dogmatic as anyone else out there. If anything, the can be even worse, because they have a tendency to take disagreement as a personal affront. See any random Slashdot thread about [Java/BSD/XML/etc…].

  8. I’m also surprised you didn’t mention re: #2 the much heralded TSA blog. (Seriously, I think the blogging and the webcasts are the two best ideas up there.)

  9. Um, didn’t we try the whole “rule by experts” thing back in the early 20th century? I know that this guy didn’t explicitly say “social engineers”, but still a little too close for comfort for me.

    I’m also not sure that a flood of ephemera and blogs from the thousands upon thousands of government employees would really be an aid to transparency. Seems more like a way to just generate so much information that gleaning anything meaningful from it becomes impossible. If we slashed the size of government by a good 80% or more it might have more value, but then if we could to that then we wouldn’t have so many problems to begin with.

  10. Warty,

    True enough. On the other hand, they’re capable of explaining the rationale behind their dogmatism, twisted and circuitous though it may be. Most dogmatists can’t get beyond “‘cuz God said so!” or some such.

  11. Be very careful what you wish…I’m an engineer and I wouldn’t want anyone like me or the other engineers I know in charge of anything. Besides putting engineers in charge generally just ruins perfectly good engineers.

  12. What, no youtube video to link the headline to?

  13. Hehe. The version I saw was different types of engineers, and it was (I believe) the civil engineer who would have routed a waste disposal pipeline through a recreational area.

  14. Timon19: I’ve been rereading Cryptonomicon, and there’s a great line in there about how younger nerds will get incensed when somebody nearby starts uttering declarative sentences, because it implies the existence of a gap in the nerd’s knowledge.

  15. For that matter, it was also the concept when the Marxists replaced the Czar. That too, ended badly.

    For that matter, we’ve had an engineer as President before, Herbert Hoover. That too, ended badly. I don’t necessarily want my politicians to be looking for problems to fix too much.

  16. peachy,

    That’s the form I always heard. CivEs are commonly referred to as those who couldn’t cut it in any other engineering discipline.

    DADIODADDY,

    You speak the truth. Most engineers I know (and work with) who have any management responsibility truly hate it, and also are fully aware of the skill-sucking effect being in charge has.

  17. Warty,

    I think many engineers (myself included) show signs of that. It’s an occupational/character flaw.

  18. While a congress of all engineers would be a bad idea, replacing half the lawyers with engineers would only make things better.

  19. Engineers don’t waste their time with cool ideas.

    Sure they do. The business world is littered with companies founded by engineers, or based on cool ideas that staffs of engineers worked on but couldn’t get to work.

    Besides putting engineers in charge generally just ruins perfectly good engineers.

    The skill set required to be an engineer and the skill set required to manage people and organizations are very different. Ask anyone who ever had an engineer for a boss.

  20. There are a couple of points that have been touched on already, but I thought I’d wrap them all up in a bow.

    -All laws are social engineering.
    -Most engineers like to overdesign things.
    -Therefore, rule by engineers would be unlikely to increase freedom. If anything it would probably decrease it. Engineers (myself included) have a tendency to focus on the solution to the problem and ignore/discount the viability/desirability/implications of said solution. And that will probably lead to utilitarianism at best, and really extreme “solutions” at worst.

    I do agree with robc, however, that if we were to introduce a minority (say 10%) of engineers into Congress, it could only get better. Of course, you could say that about any non-lawyer profession…

  21. The key to using engineers effectively is be to define the “problem” in the most advantageous terms possible. Otherwise, the engineers will be looking to maximize efficiency, growth, recycling, whatever. But tell them to maximize freedom, and you’d probably be happy with the results.

  22. Abolish the Freedom of Information Act. How are they suppose to ask to keep something secret without telling us what it is?

    Government officials and agencies should blog. Blogs have become nothing more than streams of well-disguised press releases. We really don’t need more government press releases.

    Rule by engineers. Ohhhh man, that’s a good one. You’ve clearly never had to deal with engineers. Furthermore the idea that “Engineers don’t waste their time with cool ideas” is just bullshit. Google’s Labs is the perfect example of that.

    My bet is that “WWGD?” is another one of those pop-psuedo-smart books, like that book about the long tail and blink.

  23. Representative Bill Foster is the first of our new geeky overlords. I, for one, welcome them…with the Vulcan salute.

  24. Rule by engineers = technocracy = THE F’N NEW DEAL!

  25. The 2 US Presidents who were engineers were Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. Nuff said.

  26. Stinky Italian Cheese,

    Don’t insult engineers like that. We’re not socialists who like make-work projects. If anything, we’d want to create as FEW jobs as possible for realizing our solutions/projects. Efficiency and all that.

  27. Speaking as an engineer/manager, fuck y’all.

    (Just gotta represent).

  28. More seriously, do you really think we’re better off being represented by lawyers? Doctors like Frist? Cops? Ex-military? Economists? Dogma-spouting philosophers?

    I mean, jeez.

  29. hamilton,

    So you’re one of the miserable fucks who can’t use your primary skills for good because you’re busy generating shitstorms above and below you?

  30. Absolutely. Now go write me up a goddamn project plan with three backup contingencies, not to mention a failure analysis in both fishbone and FMEA format. If you need help, remember F=Ma. I’ll be in my office prepping for my Senior Staff presentation. Don’t worry, I won’t commit to anything we can’t handle.

    Jeez, I really SHOULD be president.

  31. The “rule by engineers” concept seems periously close to the Simpsons episode where MENSA takes over Springfield.

    Ooh! That reminds me of another bullet point:

    * More gazebos for shemales.

  32. “Rule” by anyone is asking for trouble. Engineers included.

  33. I’m having a hard time getting past my anecdotal evidence that often some of the most ardent supporters of Intelligent Design are engineers…or at least claim to be.

    From your About page, it looks like you live in the South. If that’s right, you need to correct your anecdotal evidence for local conditions.

  34. hamilton,

    Fishbones….

    Evil!

  35. I don’t think any profession should have a near-monopoly; indeed, it might be advantageous to structure the system to encourage diversity.

    This was actually one of the arguments in favour of retaining pocket (or ‘rotten’) boroughs during the great series of debates over Parliamentary reform in merry olde England (the during the 1780s and 90s especially) – the more electorally legitimate county seats skewed very heavily towards ‘country gentlemen’, so the boroughs were usually the only route in for lawyers, merchants, military officers and so forth. Despite the eccentricities of the system, many thought it provided a pretty good balance – a solid foundation of gentlemen with a healthy leavening of professionals.

  36. Just don’t put software engineers in charge. You’ll end up with a government that works great at first but becomes an unmaintainable mess within five years — with no documentation.

  37. Utek,

    Carter has a physics degree, not engineering.

  38. Yasser Arafat was a civil engineer before he went into politics, and look how far that society got.

  39. Episiarch,

    “Rule” by anyone is asking for trouble. Engineers included.

    People included, too.

  40. I’ve suggested that radio stations and newspapers should get citizens to record and podcast all their local government meetings.

    Better yet, if they could pick out the most interesting clips and make them available. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a local government meeting where the important issues on the agenda were reached before folks with kids had to go home.

    My hometown newspaper could do something like this on their website, if their editor weren’t so busy writing editorials about how awful it is that the newspaper industry is being taken over by Big Corporations.

  41. Just don’t put software engineers in charge. You’ll end up with a government that works great at first but becomes an unmaintainable mess within five years — with no documentation.

    So that’s what happened to Our Fair Republic!

  42. For that matter, we’ve had an engineer as President before, Herbert Hoover.

    Ah, that’s right. And to further your point, so was Jimmy Carter

  43. Kolohe,

    see my post at 1:35. Carter was not an engineer.


  44. Just don’t put software engineers in charge. You’ll end up with a government that works great at first but becomes an unmaintainable mess within five years — with no documentation.

    Yes, but if you shut the country down, count to 5, and then re-establish it again, everything will be working fine.

  45. No, no, wait one minute, not count to five.

    Or, if you have the United Nations wonder, you don’t have to wait at all. Whoops, wrong allusion.

  46. As another engineer wasting time at work…I’d like to point out that we aren’t a hive mind. You have good engineers and bad engineers. Some engineers could be quite good at solving technical problems that plague society. In fact they do on a daily basis (sewage managmement, traffic control, other systems). However, NO ONE is truly qualified to rule a nation of millions of individuals. The dynamics are too great. That why our own government is wrong 99% of the time. They can only take in so much information to make decisions and so its pretty much a miracle if they find the right path to follow. The best we can do is try and limit the number of wrong decisions they make by taking away power from them. Its not that engineers are worse at government than anyone else, its that they are seen as experts sometimes and allowed to make more decisions because of that, and they are wrong 99% of the time.

  47. The reason rule by engineers (I am one) is such a phenominally apalling idea, is how they think. Most engineers (particularly software engineers, such as you find at Google) live in a deterministic, obedient and comprehensible universe. They do not negotiate or compromise, they command and control.

  48. Carter was trained as an engineer by the navy nuclear power program, (as was I)

  49. but I wouldn’t make a good president either.

  50. Kolohe,

    Carter was trained as an engineer by the navy nuclear power program, (as was I)

    I dont mean to be insulting with this (thats never a good lead in, is it?), but while getting my NukE degree I had classmates who came out of the Nuke Navy. I wasnt impressed.

    That said, I would make a good president, up until the point I was impeached and removed from office sometime early in the 2nd year of my term.

  51. Still, I look forward to rule by engineers. I think it will be more rational, more logical, less flashy (unless it’s President Jobs we get). And because these are people of few words, we’ll see more results than rhetoric. We can only hope.

    Thanks Weigel. I look forward to being your overlord.

  52. Being an engineer and a libertarian, I am always struck by the anecdotally disproportionate amount of libertarian engineers taht I find. Even in places outside the States.

    I should say that it is a function of being logical, but my heart tells me it’s because we are nerds.

  53. However, NO ONE is truly qualified to rule a nation of millions of individuals. The dynamics are too great. That why our own government is wrong 99% of the time. They can only take in so much information to make decisions and so its pretty much a miracle if they find the right path to follow. The best we can do is try and limit the number of wrong decisions they make by taking away power from them. Its not that engineers are worse at government than anyone else, its that they are seen as experts sometimes and allowed to make more decisions because of that, and they are wrong 99% of the time.

    Excellent comment. One of the things that continually pushes me towards minarchist libertarianism are my experiences in control systems. Malfunctions and unintended behavior are the rule, not the exception. Expect things to go wrong.

    The point being that even well designed control systems fuck up sometimes, in which case the control system ceases to be well designed. The prospect of unintended consequences is too great in an overly complex system. These systems also have a tendency to lose flexibility with increasing levels of complexity.

    And sometimes…shit blows up. When dealing with peoples lives, money and liberty that prospect is too much risk.

  54. Speaking as yet another libertarian engineer, I will gladly accept the responsibility of governing you unruly fuckers. I’d just like a ‘no lynching’ clause in the contract. I figure impeachment is a sure thing, but I’d like to live through the experience.

    Honestly, I am the last guy you would want running the country. Most engineers fall into the category of next-to-last. Don’t we already have enough arrogant bastards convinced of their own intellectual superiority running things?

  55. While engineers may not have been the best presidents, land surveyors (Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln) haven’t done too bad a job.

  56. One of the things that continually pushes me towards minarchist libertarianism are my experiences in control systems. Malfunctions and unintended behavior are the rule, not the exception. Expect things to go wrong.

    I see it this way, too, based on years of software experience. There’s just no way in hell our representatives have the bandwidth to gather all the data nor the computing power to process all of the information to do a good job managing everything going on in our society.

  57. robc-
    FWIW, I think there’s a lot of ‘you must unlearn what you have learned’ factor in play – in both directions. My impression is that the people that had Nuke E degrees seem to have had a harder time than average with the pipeline. And one of my buddies, who’ll probably be an admiral one day, failed the engineer certification exam the first time he took it despite being having a nuke e degree.

    Also, the pipeline differences between enlisted and officer are substantial; the officer side is more theory based, while for instance the enlisted side tries to get away without ever teaching calculus.

    And I probably won’t vote for you 🙂

  58. I read this article at work the other day. While not directly applicable it seems to give some insight into potential unexpected behaviors that the engineering mindset might produce. As a practicing engineer I say leave it to the politicians. It is the natural order. Engineers with political skills give me the creeps. Consider a zebra with spots!

    http://www.nuff.ox.ac.uk/users/gambetta/Engineers%20of%20Jihad.pdf

  59. I suppose it depends on what kind of engineer. I work with Mech E’s everyday, and dear God, I haven’t met a group of people so enamored with regulations, traditions and habits in my life. If it isn’t documented and certified, it doesn’t exist. There’s zero room for deviation, improvisation or experimentation. It sounds a bit like a libertarian nightmare to me. I’d wager that engineers would rule as utilitarians, which doesn’t bode well for liberty.

  60. I should also add to my statements that I think engineers would make disastrous leaders.

    We are doers. It’s noble. We should be happy about it, but let’s just leave it at that.

  61. I work with Mech E’s everyday, and dear God, I haven’t met a group of people so enamored with regulations, traditions and habits in my life. If it isn’t documented and certified, it doesn’t exist. There’s zero room for deviation, improvisation or experimentation.

    Software Engineers are the opposite. Of course, we Software Engineers aren’t really engineers.

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