Seeing Past the Wreckage: How Trump’s recklessness might benefit us all – Part 2

Technophile or technophobe, it’s easy to slip into an Orwellian panic when considering a highly-connected, technocentric government. For years now, we’ve all seen the dire reports about government databases being joined together and made accessible to every civil servant with a badge. We’ve heard about the potential horrors of mandatory federal identification cards and the types of tracking such a system could facilitate. Then there’s the matter of our votes. They’ll be hacked and we’ll never be able to prove anything!

Given the current state of technology in our government, these are actually quite valid concerns and there are a great many more to boot. The central problem, from which all of these issues stem, is that you cannot build a trusted system atop an untrusted one (for the purists, yes it’s actually possible but the degree of isolation required is practically unachievable in this context).

For purposes here, we’ll define an untrusted system as one that was not designed from inception with external auditing and monitoring capability for all components.

In addition to a trusted foundation, complex systems must be designed, from the outset, to be modular and scalable. Computer science has learned a lot about these design facets over the past 20 years. In the past, vertical scaling (making a single computer ever-more capable and resilient, usually through the addition of expensive, specialized hardware) has given way to horizontal scaling (distribution of computing tasks across a large number of standardized computers).

Writing applications for a horizontally scaled environment happens to lend itself well to the creation of a secure, highly accessible, highly distributed platform for facilitating democratic governance. As the smoke begins to clear and the ashes begin to settle in the post-Trumpian wasteland, there will be a void to fill and a renewed longing for a viable trust model for our government. This will be a golden opportunity to implement just such a platform.

By starting fresh and designing a modular, scalable system that employs open standards and secure design principles, we can restore faith in government through assured transparency (or opaqueness, where appropriate), accountability, and efficiency. In spite of the fact that technology has consumed our everyday lives, there are still individuals who are cynical toward any sort of technology-heavy approach to government. The fact is, though, that we’re already awash in computers, databases, and electronic ID. Unfortunately, none of it has been thought through holistically, it’s wildly insecure, and it’s ripe for abuse due to a woeful lack of controls.

Why wouldn’t we want to step back, design it right and make it do what we need? Design and deployment of a ‘democracy technology platform’ at the federal level would be expensive, no doubt. What’s the cost, though, of the millions-per-instance identity theft cases that we now routinely hear of (or fall victim to), election uncertainty, uncaught waste, etc. that will continue to undermine our government and financial institutions? At this point we really only have two options: continue to fall victim or get working on a viable solution.


Seeing Past the Wreckage: How Trump’s recklessness might benefit us all

I’m not really a ‘silver lining’ kind of guy. Although I do try to keep things constructive, anyone who knows me is aware of my innate, critical tendencies. Occasionally though, a few sparkling rays of natural optimism manage to pierce the otherwise impenetrable haze of critique. While speaking with an old friend yesterday, who happens to be an alderperson in a city of approx ~100k, I surprised even myself as I began to consider the very real benefits that Trump’s monkey-driving-a-bulldozer tactics could have when it comes to modernizing our democracy.

That the machinery of our government is broken is a notion that is, it’s fair to postulate, broadly accepted. To be sure, the foundation of our government, in the way of the Constitution and its basic structure, is holding together, however tenuously, and remains viable.  The machinery, though – the polling processes, tax levying and collection, public access to government data, general accountability – has had all manner of problems creep slowly in.  From technological advancements to rapidly shifting geopolitical realities, the lumbering and relatively disconnected nature of American democracy has led to chronic disillusionment on the part of the citizenry.  Our democracy may well be on the cusp of death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts, even as we desperately wrap our arms ever tighter around our founding principles.

Far too many people believe that you’d have to be crazy to waste your time voting in even the most important of elections, as is evidenced by the 90 million registered voters who didn’t bother to show up for the 2016 U.S. general election. It shouldn’t be a shock, then, when crazy people wind up with outsized representation in our government.

When you further consider that, in the history of the U.S., there have been five occasions where a loser of the popular vote in a presidential race has still managed, nonetheless, to secure the office, things look seriously askew. Of those five instances, two have occurred within the past five election cycles. Before George W. Bush’s contentious electoral college win in 2000, it had been 112 years since this phenomenon had reared its insidious head in our Republic.

There’s not much room for arguing that things are actually going well or that this is all just another routine, generational crisis. The world has changed dramatically in just the past 20 years but the machinery of our democracy hasn’t. How many political campaigns are founded on the vague premise of ‘change’. Regardless of a politician’s sincerity in their commitment to righting whatever wrongs they set their sights on, the system has become inexorably gamed against them. While ‘politics as usual’ may be part of the problem, it’s becoming clearer by the day that we’ve been saddling up our elected representatives in a Model-T and then expecting them to contend in the Daytona 500.

This is where Trump comes in.

He’s fond of the term “drain the swamp.” He misses the mark with that expression though, and not just because replacing career politicians with obscenely ignorant billionaires doesn’t actually count as draining anything other than our dwindling faith in the system. No, he’s not draining the swamp, he’s burning the forest down.

Imagine the U.S. government as…well, what it is….an ossified, overgrown, moss-covered forest where little of anything new can possibly thrive. The status quo is so deeply ingrained and self-preserving that fundamental change is simply not possible. Nature has an astonishing method for dealing with this type of stagnation. It strikes quick and unexpectedly. When all is through though, a smoldering blank canvas is laid bare and from the ashes is born a reinvigorated, lush new forest.

With his all-too-brazen eschewing of political norms, established alliances and data-driven rationale, Trump is burning the forest to the ground. His intentions may not be pure, or even comprehensible. His methods may not be orthodox, or even sane. However, just as with an out-of-control forest fire, all of the dry old tinder will succumb and soon be out of our way.

The challenge we face now is to see the framework of our government through the most intense challenge it’s known to date. If we can maintain the foundation while undertaking this massive rebirth of its machinery, we can prove the worth and beauty of our way of life through a highly efficient, resolutely democratic form of self-governing.