Digital Transformation and Technological Utopianism

Today I read a very interesting article about the prominence of Bulgarian hackers (in the black-hat sense) and virus authors in the 90s, linking that to the focus on technical education in the 80s, lead by the Bulgarian communist party in an effort to revive communism through technology.

Near the end of the article I was pleasantly surprised to read my name, as a political candidate who advocates for digital e-government and transformation of the public sector. The article then ended with something that I’m in deep disagreement with, but that has merit, and is worth discussing (and you can replace “Bulgaria” with probably any country there):

Of course, the belief that all the problems of a corrupt Bulgaria can be solved through the perfect tools is not that different to the Bulgarian Communist Party’s old dream that central planning through electronic brains would create communism. In both cases, the state is to be stripped back to a minimum

My first reaction was to deny ever claiming that the state would be stripped back to a minimum, as it will not (risking to enrage my libertarian readers), or to argue that I’ve never claimed there are “perfect tools” that can solve all problems, nor that digital transformation is the only way to solve those problems. But what I’ve said or written has little to do with the overall perception of techno-utopianism that IT people-turned-policy makers are usually struggling with.

So I decided to clearly state what e-government and digital transformation of the public sector is about.

First, it’s just catching up to the efficiency of the private sector. Sadly, there’s nothing visionary about wanting to digitize paper processes and provide services online. It’s something that’s been around for two decades in the private sector and the public sector just has to catch up, relying on all the expertise accumulated in those decades. Nothing grandiose or mind-boggling, just not being horribly inefficient.

When the world grows more complex, legislation and regulation grows more complex, the government gets more and more functions and more and more details to care about. There are more topics to have policy about (and many to take an informed decision to NOT have a policy about). All of that, today, can’t rely on pen-and-paper and a few proverbial smart and well-intentioned people. The government needs technology to catch up and do its job. It has had the luxury to not have competition and therefore it lagged behind. When there are no market forces to drive the digital transformation, what’s left is technocratic politicians. This efficiency has nothing to do with ideology, left or right. You can have “small government” and still have it inefficient and incapable of making sense of the world.

Second, technology is an enabler. Yes, it can help solve the problems with corruption, nepotism, lack of accountability. But as a tool, not as the solution itself. Take open data, for example (something I’ve been working on five years ago when Bulgaria jumped to the top of the EU open data index). Just having the data out there is an important effort, but by itself it doesn’t solve any problem. You need journalists, NGOs, citizens and a general understanding in society what transparency means. Same for accountability – it’s one thing to have every document digitized, every piece of data – published and every government official action leaving an audit trail; it’s a completely different story to have society act on those things – to have the institutions to investigate, to have the public pressure to turn that into political accountability.

Technology is also a threat – and that’s beyond the typical cybersecurity concerns. It poses the risk of dangerous institutions becoming too efficient; of excessive government surveillance; of entrenched interests carving their ways into the digital systems to perpetuate their corrupt agenda. I’m by no means ignoring those risks – they are real already. The Nazis, for example, were extremely efficient in finding the Jewish population in the Netherlands because the Dutch were very good at citizen registration. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have an efficient citizen registration system. It means that it’s not good or bad per se.

And that gets us to the question of technological utopianism, of which I’m sometimes accused (though not directly in the quoted article). When you are an IT person, you have a technical hammer and everything may look like a binary nail. That’s why it’s very important to have a glimpse on humanities sides as well. Technology alone will not solve anything. And my blockchain skepticism is a hint in that direction – many blockchain enthusiasts are claiming that blockchain will solve many problems in many areas of life. It won’t. At least not just through clever cryptography and consensus algorithms. I once even wrote a sci-fi story about exactly the aforementioned communist dream of a centralized computer brain that solves all social issues while people are left to do what they want. And argued that no matter how perfect it is, it won’t work in a non-utopian human world. In other words, I’m rather critical of techno-utopianism as well.

The communist party, according to the author, saw technology as a tool by which the communist government would achieve its ideological goal.

My idea is quite different. First, technology necessary for “catching up” of the public sector, and second, I see technology as an enabler. What for – whether it’s for accountability or surveillance, fight with corruption or entrenching corruption even further – it’s our role as individuals, as society, and (in my case) as politicians, to formulate and advocate for. We have to embed our values, after democratic debate, into the digital tools (e.g. by making them privacy-preserving). But if we want to have good governance, and to be good at policy-making in the 21st century, we need digital tools, fully understanding their pitfalls and without putting them on a pedestal.

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