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The peculiar junction of politics & technology

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Kay Wise

Principal Consultant

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Politics deals with ends, goals, objectives, policy outcomes.  Politicians argue about ends, in language that promises action, but by action they mean talking, writing, and legislating to achieve desired ends.  To reduce highway deaths, politicians legislate speed limits and use of seat belts.  To improve healthcare, politicians rule on insurance, pharmaceuticals and research. Politicians are concerned with opinions, with influence, and with what their friends, their opponents, and the public think. 
Science and technology deal with means, actions, procedures, sequences.  Tech nerds argue over alternate means in language only another cognoscenti can comprehend.  Science and engineering measure, construct, test, and amend to process more than 10,000 transactions per second or harvest over 300 bushels of corn per acre.  Technology maneuvers through a world of physical laws and precise conventions
Political and scientific careers attract persons with different skills and inclinations; different approaches to problem definition and problem solving, both necessary for civilized society.  The juncture of politics and science has always been fraught with difficulty, but it grows more and more challenging because technology is increasingly the province of narrow specialists and politics requires legislating for increasingly diverse populations. 
Issues such as global warming, evolution, immunization, genetically modified crops, cloning, electronic surveillance, etc. require sophisticated conversations between legislators and scientists.  These conversations are most often mediated by businesses that lobby to get government to buy their technology, reduce their taxes, fund their research and give them an advantage over the competition. While each business lobbies in its own interest, who mediates the technical conversation in the public interest?  Who stands at the juncture of politics and technology to serve the interests of society?
The lead may come from politicians.  President G.W. Bush ruled on stem cell research.  Al Gore spoke on climate change in an impassioned video.  Politicians tackle scientific and technical issues using their strengths they rally public opinion and legislate. 
Enter Edward Snowden, a techie with a political mission, but true to his nature, Snowden used technical tools, not political ones.  He did not tackle the problem in the bully pulpit as Al Gore would have. Snowden did not get on the lecture circuit.  He did not try to influence legislators opinions to change the rules.  Snowden concentrated not on the political ends, but on the technical means.  He collected data, then shared it with the world like a typical geek assuming that if others see what he sees, they will surely do what needs to be done.   But, his na ve actions caused very real damage to security, not only in the US, but around the globe.  
Snowden did call attention to questionable uses of technology that is serving political ends.  He bridged a communications gap so enormous that the entire world took notice.  But at what cost?  What are the options?  How can politicians monitor the use of technology in a manner that protects the public?   Just because a technician can do something doesn t mean he should.  But writing the rules to govern science is fraught with difficulty.
At the time politicians legislate on science policy the technology may not exist to serve the policy.  Even if the technology exists, and even if politicians understand their options, the next technical discovery could render the law obsolete.  Particularly difficult is writing laws to restrict technology. 
Consider the problem of genetically modified organisms.  One political solution is to ban GMOs in a particular territory.  But GMO science is complex and public opinion can be easily swayed by businesses who stand to benefit financially.  In the Philippines, GMO protesters ripped up a field of rice genetically engineered to address Vitamin A deficiency among the world s poor. 
If the ends don t justify the means, what does?  Should we legislate an end to all research on crops?  Or only genetic research?  Should politicians legislate on whether to research GMOs, whether to plant GMOs, whether to sell GMOs, whether to put them in food, or whether to label the food they are in?  Such laws are possible to write, but when it comes to restricting research, politicians have a much more difficult challenge.  They have to define the boundaries of what is and is not permitted.  They have to consider the costs and benefits of the research.  And they have to arrange to pay for someone to monitor the research and determine when one scientist or one farmer in a field has acted illegally.  
Now consider the political need for spying; and the technical means to collect personal information from electronic devices. The political end is to uncover a terrorist attack and stop it before innocent lives are lost.  The technical means involves building a complex infrastructure to stream data from multiple sources into a central database where sophisticated algorithms can mine the data and pull out patterns for analysts to consider.  Setting up such data flows on a case by case basis is simply not practical. It s much smarter to collect everything then sift through it to find what you need. 
Governments around the world have been spying for centuries and will continue to spy to the limits of their technology whether Snowden likes it or not. Just as it is impossible to monitor every crop scientist to prevent creation of a GMO, it is impossible to monitor every effort at electronic eavesdropping.  Better to legislate against unethical and illegal use of information rather than legislating against collection of information. 
Technology will advance; if it can be done, someone will do it. Increasingly politicians and scientists need to work together, trusting each other to minimize the damage done by evil and crazy persons. 
 As Thomas Friedman described in The World is Flat, technology empowers the individual and shrinks the globe, giving Snowden access to the conversations of Angela Merkel; but also, giving individual soldiers access to chemical weapons of mass destruction.  Unprecedented international cooperation is in motion to rid Syria of chemical weapons, a great example of political and technical minds working together for good.  
Let us hope that political and technical minds across the globe can come up with workable procedures to monitor and manage the use of personal information in a manner that safeguards lives and property without unduly restricting personal freedom.  


Kay Wise is a consultant for b'huth, previously  Director of Finanacial Systems & later Director of the Software Engineering Process Group for First Data Corporation.

Photo Credit: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)

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