"Made in China" isn't our only problem

Listen to the podcast "Five things we should take as seriously as Facebook" from the April 7, 2018 episode

Is China just playing us? Their very clever use of politically-targeted tariffs (like the one on soybeans...which puts the pinch directly on Iowa) raises an old question: Are they better at long-run planning because of their single-party state? After all, China has 100-year plans while we Americans have notoriously short attention spans.

While we are certainly too short-term-focused for our own good, don't mistake shortcuts to consensus (which a single-party state will get you) for good planning and good rationale.

But let's not sacrifice this opportunity -- an opportunity elevated to the forefront because of tariffs -- to lay some appropriate groundwork just because we're busy doing the my-team-beats-your-team stuff of petty politics. Dwight Eisenhower wrote that "The doctrine of opportunism, so often applicable in tactics, is a dangerous one to pursue in strategy". So the tactical opportunity of the moment opens the door for us to think more strategically for the future.

If I had to pick four or five epochal issues ahead of us, I'd look at:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Cyberwarfare
  • Accelerated urbanization, both globally and locally
  • Demographic shifts to an older population with fewer kids
  • Biotechnology advancements from medicine to crop yields

None of those issues are for government alone. But every one of those issues will require rulemaking and sound public policy.

Who's making the rules? Who's making the technology? Does everyone involved have both an appreciation for the technical aspects as well as the humane ones? Each of these issues (and many others) depends a great deal upon technology, both in the broad sense as well as in the particular.

Specific types of technology -- like social media -- are getting extra attention right now. They deserve the scrutiny -- but we shouldn't stop with some Congressional hearings about Facebook. I will continue to criticize Facebook leadership until they "get it" that technology doesn't by itself result in a utopia. Connections are pretty value-neutral; what matters is why people are connecting, and what they do as a result of those connections. If I could ship every hardened neo-Nazi bigot, every violent anarchist, and every remorseless child abuser off to a deserted island somewhere with no contact with the outside world, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Nobody really gains from connecting with them.

Better technology isn't a good thing without better people, too. But even with better people, we're going to need better rules.

The people who put their anti-government sentiment above all other things need to be reminded that government is a tool, and like any tool it can be used either skillfully or not. But the "burn it all down" approach to things is no way to ensure that the tool gets used well. If we can't orient ourselves towards some of those long-run goals in addition to the shorter-run stuff that's inevitably going to divide us (but hopefully not deeply), then we're looking at learning some tough and painful lessons ahead.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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