Digital Matters - Issue 38

"We are nearing the end of tedious, dull and small politics."

There was a time when people looked to government as an incubator of social and economic change. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, and Richard Nixon's wage and price controls were all sweeping governmental programs, driven by distinct political constituencies, that addressed serious societal problems.

Few people today look to government to do anything but maintain the truce of the status quo: You can have yours if I can have mine. Don't cut Social Security cost-of-living increases. Don't cut Mom's Medicare. Don't tax Internet transactions. Reappoint Alan Greenspan. Make sure that the FAA keeps the airline industry honest. America is so rich, every constituency gets bought off.

That's why U.S. politics has become so tedious and dull. There is no great clash of interests, since everyone gets something. And there is no great clash of ideas, since both parties believe in corporate democracy. We already know what Vice President Al Gore is going to say before he says it: If it's bad, it's a "risky scheme." We already know what the Republican response to Gore will be: "He's a hypocrite!" The argument takes place at the margins. Indeed, if you took part of Gore's stump speech and inserted it into George W. Bush's stump speech (or vice versa), you wouldn't really change the message of either candidate.

Tedious and dull politics is not a bad thing. Better the 1950s, with its Organization Man, nearly full employment, and Chuck Yeager, than the 1930s, with its Great Depression, bread lines, dust bowls, and Nazis goose-stepping into Czechoslovakia. Since the end of the Cold War, American politics has been tepid and uninteresting, but that's a good thing — because great politics usually occurs only in times of great challenge.

We are nearing the end of tedious, dull, and small politics. The new economy will soon transform American politics just as radically as it has transformed American business.

Eventually, it will engage the country and most of the developed world in a profound discussion about the rights of individuals, the rights of the majority, the rights of nations, the right to life, and the moral obligations of nations and of citizens in an evermore interdependent world. Many issues will drive this debate, but the most important ones will be converging digital technologies, genomics, robotics, nano-technologies, and molecular electronics. The impact of converging digital technologies has already been felt in the United States: It has given rise to a new constituency of voters — one that Fast Company, a few years back, dubbed Free Agent Nation.

Free agents don't work for companies, and they don't have careers per se. They work in teams and on projects. They need portable health and dental benefits, portable pensions, and an easier-to-use tax code, as well as rules and regulations that protect them from intellectual piracy and fraud. The Web is their interstate-highway system, and they need the infrastructure up and running — yesterday.

Free Agent Nation is more than 20 million members strong. Free agents have children — members of the echo boom, which is larger than the baby boom — and those echo boomers are not being educated in even the most basic fundamentals of English, math, and science. If you think that I'm exaggerating, check out the proficiency scores of students in the Los Angeles or New York public-school systems. Those scores are a national disgrace.

The new economy places a premium on smart capabilities, on the ability to manage and process information. And it will not be denied. It needs people to do the work, to get the job done — to function. It will soon assault the public-school system in America — literally tearing it out of the claws of the teachers' unions and the education establishment, and requiring higher academic standards, better teachers, and more-complex thinking. This process has already begun with the vouchers movement and the creation of charter schools. But soon there will be an explosion in the areas of Internet homeschooling, Internet colleges, Internet night schools, and Internet training centers. In all likelihood, companies will actually pay students to participate in these new ventures, so desperate are they for high-quality employees.

The next step in the policy logic: Because there is a huge gap in the population between baby boomers and echo boomers, the new economy will require the relaxation of immigration rules and regulations in order to accommodate qualified workers who can help make new-economy companies competitive. Immigrants will also be needed to help pay for the baby boomers' Social Security and Medicare. If immigration laws are not relaxed, the new economy will move elsewhere: The first country that explicitly sets itself up as a new-economy, borderless nation will attract hundreds of thousands of the world's most able workers. One consequence of an America with wide-open borders: Third-party politics of the Ross Perot kind will intensify over time.

Converging digital technologies will enable more voices to be heard. Initiative and referendum will become not biannual events at the polls but daily votes on the Web. And the issues raised by the discoveries and breakthroughs of the new economy will not be school uniforms or "micropork" — they will be profound moral issues.

Consider health care. Now that Celera Genomics has success fully sequenced the human genome and has set about sequencing all 1 million proteins of the human body, it will not be long before all of us will carry, in our wallets, digital genetic-identification cards. These cards will more or less accurately predict such things as what will cause our death — say, cancer or stroke — and whether we will have late-onset diabetes or Alzheimer's. More important, these cards will also predict our children's health. And all of that data will be available to insurance companies.

No sane insurance company would knowingly underwrite someone who, in 10 years, is all but certain to die of cancer. Today, smokers pay double for life-insurance coverage — even though they are not twice as likely to get sick as nonsmokers are. As genomic health information becomes systemic, there can be only one answer to the question of coverage: national health insurance. The Clintons botched it in 1993. The new economy will require it by 2007.

The political argument over the scope and design of national health insurance will be enormous — because it won't be just about the instruction sets that are our genes. It will also be about altering those instruction sets, erasing some of them, and aborting fetuses that have instruction sets that are deemed "inconvenient" by parents. As Celera's Craig Venter points out, today you can make genomics-based choices about what kind of baby to have. In the not-too-distant future, you may be able to change, in utero, the genetic structure of your child. People who say that technology renders moot the issue of abortion have no idea what they are talking about. Genomics escalates the issue of abortion.

Converging digital technologies and genomics merge in the political sphere with the issue of personal privacy. What is private when everything about you is publicly known? Who protects your data from being misused, from being disseminated, from spinning beyond your control? I'm not talking about visiting porno.com or gambling on the Internet. I'm talking about all of your data being in play, being swapped and traded and flipped and leveraged through a maze of marketing companies and big corporations. I'm talking about someone, somewhere, compiling all of your information into an Internet profile that may make you unemployable (because your son's genetic code indicates a costly neurological disorder in his teenage years) or unreliable (because you have too much credit-card debt).

Before the decade is over, the privacy issue — who owns your code — will explode in the political arena. The debate will pit the vast majority of people (those who think that they own their codes) against the vast power of corporate interests (those who think that they need those codes to make rational business choices).

On the horizon is the issue of cloning and molecular engineering. Someday soon, one country or another is going to act on the idea that the surest path to survival lies in cloning its brightest and most capable people. It may sound like science fiction, but it is something that is routinely discussed in U.S. national-security circles. As mankind takes control of its evolution, it will inevitably seek to enhance its strengths and to depress its perceived weaknesses — or to recapture what might have been lost. Consider this question: If your son or daughter were killed in an accident, would you avail yourself of the opportunity to clone that son or daughter? What will the law say about that?

These are only a few of the issues raised by new-economy technologies and scientific discoveries. There are literally hundreds of others — all of which are gathering momentum, gaining speed, and heading straight for the political arena. They are all propelled by these new technologies. And these new technologies are, in turn, producing an era of exponential discovery. We have learned more about the human genome in the last year than we learned in all of the previous years of human existence. When we add speech-recognition technology to broadband, eliminating the need for typing, we will have universal Internet access: People will literally be able to tell the Internet what to do. When IBM completes its supercomputer known as Blue Gene, the science of proteomics (proteins) will advance 100-fold.

All of these things will happen, and they will each require a political response — because they will touch pretty much everyone. The affectation that "politics is irrelevant" will no longer be tenable. New-economy technologies will literally redraw the lines of the atlas: Nations will break up, recombine, and reconstitute themselves. Borders will evaporate. New alliances will emerge. The shape and substance of geopolitics will be transformed.

In the United States, basic constitutional questions will reemerge: Do we have a "right to privacy"? When does life begin? What is the definition of "health," in terms of national health insurance? Does the right to liberty allow us to break free from the tyranny of wretched schooling? Should we alter the genetic structure of our food? What will happen if a genetic accident spreads across the entire agricultural community?

This year's election will be the last of the "boring" 1990s breed. The next election will be about bigger things, and the one after that will be about bigger things still. Politics today isn't interesting — but new-economy politics will be astonishing.

John Ellis (jellis@fastcompany.com) is a writer and consultant based in New York.

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