Technology is literally exploding: that’s a good thing isn’t it? PDAs, Twitter, iPods that do everything but cook, social networking and constant connectedness: all of it making our lives more in-touch, immediate, visual and interactive. There is, however, another side to this amazing progress. I like to call it the "technology imperative" and it grows from the fact that as technology and its use grows, it usually follows paths driven by consumers’ desires and willingness to spend money–whims if you will. Once unleashed, these technology-triggered, consumer driven appetites tend to return the favor, pointing the way to where and how their technology providers will go next. Sometimes the process literally becomes circular, taking the technology and its uses into a spiral no one would ever have predicted and for which no one is fully prepared. If you’re designing chips, selling gadgets or trolling Best Buy for the next version of the iPhone, this looks like the best of all possible worlds. The problem comes when non-consumer sectors of the culture begin to feel the impact of this race to connect. Technology is Neutral but its uses are Often a Poor Guide: In effect, consumer technology becomes the de facto guide for areas of our culture far from the environments for which it was designed and the modes in which consumers use it. For example, as we saw the rise of the Blackberry, instant email and messaging, we eventually saw workers, even in meetings, with their eyes and attention spans glued to their devices, scarcely even aware that they were supposed to be a contributing part of the meeting and its decision making. The situation became so widespread and vexing that many firms have literally banned PDAs from company meetings, and in 2006 a new condition known as Continuous Partial Attention Syndrome was identified in which the individual becomes so distracted by the overload of available information that any attempt to focus on a thought or subject is seriously degraded if not lost. In its extreme form, this syndrome sees the individual succumbing to a virtual addiction to instant information gratification, leading to a mind wandering in a sea of tidbits with no logical relationship to the subject at hand, even if that subject involves controlling a 4,000 pound automobile. Should Government Use Technology or Technology Drive Government? Today, technology has progressed far beyond those days, rudimentary by comparison, into a world of constant connectedness that can deliver not only the linkage but an intense, and seductive, visual, auditory and activity experience. With it, we are seeing an entirely new impact, especially pronounced in government sectors. Should government agencies, for example, put their important decisions out on Twitter and other social media to inform and elicit feedback from citizens? Sounds like a good way to improve the governing process, but in practice it has all manner of problems, not the least of which are mass responses that can overwhelm the agency’s ability to make sense of them, egalitarian leveling that makes everyone’s opinion on every subject of equal weight if not value, group influenced or generated responses that masquerade as individual opinions, and so on. In the intersection of government and technology, the technology is likely to come out on top, driving the governing process in directions it should not take, but becomes powerless to avoid. So what are we to do? Like Ulysses stuffing his crew’s ears with wax to avoid the clarion call of the Sirens, we must ignore how technology is taken up by the consumer world, no matter how enticing the outcome, concentrating instead on how the governing process may be improved by increased transparency and responsiveness. This concentration should be based on a healthy respect for the unintended consequences of any fundamental changes in the governing process coupled with an even healthier skepticism for any of the brave new world claims of the technological community. As we better understand what is broken in our governing process and what can be accomplished more effectively, we will have a foundation to consider, evaluate and adopt technology in a way the improves government as it was envisioned by our founders, always remaining mindful that government as we conceive it is not supposed to be slick or interactive but solid, fair and resistant to both individual whim and mob rule.

Share