Why can’t the government be more like Silicon Valley? It’s a common complaint by those who contrast the fast, innovative tech sector against the plodding ways of Washington. It’s also unfair.
The Securities and Exchange Commission, for instance, just announced it is updating its rules for social media. The rules may “fall short” but, overall, the SEC’s initiative is a welcome effort to adapt policies to emerging technologies. In other words, the government gets it. And not just for financial reporting — regulators are also updating rules to account for the impact of new technologies on everything from crowd-funding to video rentals to the Patent Office.
In light of such progress, why then is the government so often reviled by the tech community? To see what I mean, look at recent stories (and related comments) involving issues like online privacy, file-sharing or the sad death of internet activist Aaron Swartz. These situations, which may reflect poor choices by individual prosecutors or bureaucrats, have served to reinforce an article of faith for many tech enthusiasts: that the government is populated by people who are malicious and intellectually inferior to those who read sites like Reddit or Hacker News.
The same phenomenon can be detected in headlines like “It’s a Crime for 12-year-olds to Read the New York Times Online” or “Senate bill rewrite leds feds read your e-mail without warrants.” These are examples of tech writers using hyperbole to reinforce an us-versus-them narrative that their readers take as a given. This narrative in many ways resembles the world of comic book protagonists.
While the press and tech readers are right to be vigilant, the larger caricature of bungling government fools is neither fair nor responsible. For starters, the people who work at places like the SEC or the Justice Department are not schleps off the street who can barely use a computer; instead, they are often top-of-the-class graduates who accepted less money in favor of more fulfilling work. The agencies they work in can be dysfunctional — like many big corporations — but the people themselves are not.
There is an even larger problem of looking at the government through the fast-moving prism of the tech community. Namely, the government is not supposed to resemble the tech sector in the first place — pivoting, rapid adaptation and “move fast and break things” are fine qualities for a start-up, but they’re ill-suited as a method of governing a democracy.
Don’t forget that the country as a whole looks nothing like the tech sector. America is not disproportionately composed of affluent white and Asian males, but instead contains a far more diverse population with a multitude of interests and incomes. This is the lens through which policy choices should be viewed — not through cliches that pit tech geniuses against bungling bureaucrats.