A befuddling trend has garnered strength and captured the headlines over the last few years: Technology companies operating out of the west coast of the United States have been increasingly unwilling to support agencies of U.S. government with advanced data tools that the companies have developed and commercially deployed. The debate over this within the U.S. has, unsurprisingly, been predominantly strung with political overtones. However, there is a case to be made that the forces at work here are more fundamentally, structural. If true, this trend has ramifications for India, and by extension to all large democracies.
The befuddlement manifests on two broad counts. First, why would commercial entities refuse to sell to legitimate agencies of a democratic government, whose jurisdiction they ostensibly operate within? Second, if governments cannot count on companies registered within their borders to supply them with tools and technology, how can institutions overseen by elected representatives have sufficient understanding of the phenomena so as to determine the regulations that must apply? It begs the question, “Who does, and who should determine policy in matters related to the use of advanced technology in contemporary society?”
Readers will hardly be surprised by the disempowering observation that the dominant multinational consumer technology companies of our time, with superior tools at their disposal, have the scales tilted in their favour on matters related to regulation. However, this does not have to remain so. Representative societies can shift the balance back toward its governing institutions by empowering their skilled public servants.
Before addressing the solution in some more detail, it may be useful to understand how we got here. Through the initial postwar decades, the leading technology companies operating from what came to become “Silicon Valley” had an implicit commitment to national security. As these companies delivered impressively on national aspirations, government agencies and the society at large came to admire the work done by the “wizards who stay up late” . Successive generations of companies that came to commercialize the Internet, however, came to organize themselves around newer and distinctive social utopias, perpetuating the “success formula” of organizations that came before them. What many observe today as a deranged value system, seeming so far from the values of broader society, may simply be a function of success feeding on itself. Organizations have been known to retain a deep imprinting from the circumstances of their founding. Routinized as culture and values, organizations often carry these imprints all the way to their graves. It may be somewhat ingenuous, therefore, to either vilify or glorify the behavior of these technology giants. Society, on the other hand, does not have to believe that it is handcuffed. It retains the option of resetting its expectations so as to see these companies simply for what they are today.
That leaves us with the problem of empowering our governing institutions with 21st century tools. The breakdown of the symbiotic relationship between “Silicon Valley” and the U.S. government brings in its wake, new possibilities. The government’s dependance on consumer technology for cutting edge data tools throws the spotlight squarely on how badly the technology procurement process has failed our institutions. Technology providers selected by lowest-cost bidding and systems built to user specifications have systematically turned out to be more expensive, late, and simply not good enough. Tax payers will, most likely come to insist that their money be spent on developing technology for government on the lines that consumer technology companies have come to master: those involving repeated prototyping, real world experimentation, and rapid learning from failure. Framed this way, an enormous opportunity beckons patriotic entrepreneurs and capitalists, as well as the many creative engineers committed to strengthening democratic institutions who currently find themselves employed in developing consumer technology.
Creative organizations that bring a “Silicon Valley” approach to the business of governance are indeed a rarity. That the sample size of such companies is one or fewer is indicative of the challenges that lay along this path, not a justification for the perpetuation of the conventional technology procurement approach for governments into the future. Those in the corridors of power will do well to recognize the need to underwrite the incubation of creative organizations that are born to serve our institutions of governance with a 21st century flair. Governments may also be able to hasten the trend toward developing a domestic ecosystem of new technology companies that serve government, by creating strategic opportunities for similar companies from trusted strategic partner countries. After all, the thrust of ātmanirbhartā is self-reliance, not isolationism.
The governing institutions of democracies the world over are in dire need of a technological upgrade: One that will integrate data systems around the institutions’ skilled personnel, rather than one that will force fit quick fixes that render them irrelevant. In every agency under the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary, those who will ascend to determine our destiny will be wise to see beyond the relative calm of daily flare-ups and the rosy promises of snake oil salesmen pedaling “big data” panaceas, into the truth: That without first class data tools at the disposal of policy makers, policy will end up being written to serve special interests rather than us, the people.Author Bio: Ashwin Iyenggar is currently working toward earning his doctorate from IIM Bangalore. Prior to this, he worked in software product development and customer facing roles at Palantir Technologies, Ittiam Systems and Emuzed India, and in a marketing role at Wipro Technologies. He has previously earnt his Bachelors and Masters degrees in Computer Science.
[This article has been published with permission from IIM Bangalore. www.iimb.ac.in Views expressed are personal.]