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Monday, July 28, 2014

Finally! Google Begins to Think Big (Big History, That is)

In a keynote address delivered to the Berlin Open Knowledge Festival earlier this year, Googler Eric Hysen set up some big stakes for Google's future: Google, he said, has not yet begun to think big.  To really think big, Google would need to start thinking about history, and to think about infrastructure in particular.

How is it that enormous shifts in economics and politics have been executed in our historical experience?  The industrial revolution and the creation of the modern nation-state both rest upon the building of physical infrastructure, and in particular, upon the building of roads.  If Google wants to really change our reality -- to stand up to promises that the internet can bring transparency to government, that it transform public policy and public health, or that it can actualize democracy through access to information -- then Google would do well to think about how material infrastructure creates revolutions in information, and how the information revolution of our own time is also an infrastructure revolution.  All of these points are picked up by Hysen's keynote.  He gets it: this is not the first time the world has been transformed by laying pipe and getting people together, and we can learn from the past how to do it better and aim for bigger successes than before.

What I hear in Hysen's speech is an important trend in the way certain individuals have begun to understand our world anew, a return to long-term thinking.  That means using history to map out where we are in the present, and to foreground how we might engage vast processes and macroscopic patterns (for instance, actualizing democracy, as Hysen urges Google to do).


Long-term thinking stands out in contrast with many of the ways that policy-makers and consultants urge us to think big, including measuring employment or bottom-line returns on investment -- both important numbers, to be sure, but often one-dimensional measures which in recent decades have served as a distraction from larger goals like political and market participation, income inequality, and ecological sustainability.

The history of long-term thinking, what it consists in, how it went away, and why it's coming back is in fact exactly what I've been writing about for most of this summer, as I've been putting the finishing touches on a new book, The History Manifesto, with my co-author, Harvard professor David Armitage (you can already read the pre-release version online, but you'll miss out on the chapters on inequality, climate change, participation, economists and their data -- so make sure to pre-order your copy of the book).  The way we tell it, our society is in a crisis of short-term thinking where almost no institution from the government to the board room to the NGO thinks on timescales longer than twenty years into the future.  Thinking longer around the bend than that, we argue, has traditionally required engaging experts who think more than twenty years into the past, and that means engaging with history.

Eric Hysen is a member of a new generation of recent college graduates whose questions about the future leave them unsatisfied with one-dimensional measurements.   Individuals like Eric bring questions about the past to bear on speculation about how world-systems change on enormous scales.

Indeed, Hysen is hoping to inaugurate exactly such a pivotal change in the institutions around him.  Hysen's role at Google is to oversee the development of open voting protocols and open government schemes.  His group has established important landmarks for how Google can automate and scale the process of voluntary hacker groups opening up their government's data, including setting up a digital infrastructure for licensing and sharing data across platforms.  "We're not living up to our potential," Hysen states, throwing down the gauntlet.  He looks back three hundred years, and comes up with the turnpike trust revolution of seventeenth-century England, which, as he states, helped to diminish the length of the average Cambridge student's journey to London from two days to seven hours.  To my mind, however, Hysen's talk stops short of its own ambitions, even while it looks in the correct direction.

In one very important detail, Hysen is looking in the wrong place -- or rather, that is to say, in the wrong time.   Hysen's talk explicitly points to the first chapter of the transport revolution, the creation of turnpike trusts by parliament, as an example of how private enterprises working with government support can revolutionize an economic system.  But much of what Hysen is interested in -- the standardization of milestones, the straightening of paths, the leveling of hills and filling in of ditches in order to create flat roads and thus shorter journeys -- was actually part of a slightly later revolution, not the turnpike revolution of 1660-1760, but the interkingdom highway revolution of 1785-1848.  It's that latter revolution that interested me, and I wrote a book about it, setting it out in the history of infrastructure from ancient Persia to the internet.  The interkingdom highway revolution -- not the turnpike trusts -- was the revolution that gave us the modern economy as we know it today.

What separates the two revolutions is a difference in scale that changed everything after in the face of capitalism and what we expected it to do.  In the turnpike revolution, a hundred road startups appeared and improved transportation for a few wealthy individuals, creating a map of affluent towns with cobblestone roads, kicking back the returns to their happy investors.  In the interkingdom highway revolution, those small road startups were bought out and grafted together by a government initiative that had a radical new purpose.  It wouldn't be roads just for the few and wealthy any more.  Now, roads would be built to the poorest communities, the ones that normally couldn't afford to link up with prosperous markets.  Before roads, capitalism was just mercantilism, a trading game for the rich and powerful.  After roads, we expected capitalism to flow horizontally.  A rising tide would float all boats. In many times and places, that miracle of capitalism meant running water, flush toilets, newspapers, and cheap housing for the poor, all delivered through the miracle of free roads, built by someone else, running straight up to the doorstep of every newborn infant in every modern nation.  Without doing anything, without working or deserving it, individuals were born connected.  They could opt out, like Thoreau, moving to the woods, but someone believed that they should have the chance to get to market if they wanted it.  So new-paved roads came to each newborn baby's door, and most of us spend our lives walking on sidewalks and roads built by other people for our enjoyment, without thinking much about how they get us to places where we work and spend and play. Infrastructure is mutual aid, frozen into the form of architecture.  It's the only form of capitalism most of us want any part in.

Consider the implications for Google.  Hysen has smart landmarks -- interoperable data, more regular voluntary hackathon events -- but few of them address this question of reaching people who are on the outside of the normal flow of capitalism.  As a result, Silicon Valley money, whether working in California or Berlin or Bangalore, tends to create a bubble world of privileged software developers creating apps to buy and sell bangles or cars or the best bike routes, mainly catering to other privileged folk of their own race and class.  Like the turnpike trusts of the seventeenth century, they improve a mile or two of road, serving a smooth ride to the the cream of the population.  But for everyone else, life goes on unchanged.


So what if Google took a page from history?  What if Google and the German national government decided that who they really wanted to serve was the slum residents of Dar es Salaam, or the inhabitants of the Zaatari refugee camp, or the citizens of Red Hook, to make sure that they had adequate access to material infrastructure like water-points, toilets, broadband cables and routers, and the tools to govern these systems themselves?  What if they decided, as the designers of the interkingdom highway revolution did, that it was worth a cut to their investors at present to build a larger system, one so different in ambition and scale that it would change everything?  They would be working on creating a state-change in the kind of capitalism and democracy we know today, as different as the world after the transportation revolution was from the world before it.

Google hasn't been in this game, but many ambitious activist groups have been -- ones dedicated to building the digital infrastructure for public participation in places where Google does not yet have a constituency.  These groups -- Geeks Without Bounds, Taarifa, Ushahidi, and Public Lab -- are mainly staffed by coders working for the public good.  Their model is entirely centered on bringing participation to the excluded -- that is, to teaching geeks how to design the infrastructure after listening to the poor neighbors of Dar es Salaam (who are busy, mind you).  The result is some really transformative models of software designed for poor, busy people -- ones that allow folks with cell phones (but no internet) to tell each other when a water point is out of order, and then to pay someone local to repair it, all without the bureaucracy of the World Bank.  Global infrastructure enables a state change in local economies.

However, the efforts here are, much like the era of the Turnpike Trusts, piecemeal.  Coders who really believe that infrastructure brings freedom fly to Dar es Salaam or hang out in Red Hook on the basis of a couple of Knight Foundation grants or World Bank consulting gigs, but they aren't doing it for the money.  They are essentially voluntary and limited by the good will and idealism of a few western college graduates.  As a result, there's a limit to how far they can scale before they run out of funds, time, or enthusiasm, or just need to pay rent or make sure their babies have shoes.  A change of scale tends to happen with institutions like these when information is consolidated and centralized and coordinated.

Here's what I mean by looking backwards to look forwards.  The Big Transport Boom of the eighteenth century depended upon centralizing a vision and then training poor people, lots of them, to make roads for other poor people to get to market.  If they had concentrated only on rich people, it would have failed.

Imagine: if Google decided that it wanted to use its hackathons and intern power to regularly boost the power of these service groups.  Imagine constructing an infrastructure for training and deploying a thousand slum residents to incubate their own neighborhood-accountable projects.  Here's the historical lesson: Poor people build roads for poor people to do other things on.  An institution comes in and makes it scale a hundred thousand times over.  The economy is utterly transformed, a hundred times over.  The lead institution takes an infinitesimal cut on return on investment -- a tiny return, the equivalent of a gasoline tax, not a toll-road return to compensate investors any time within the next twenty years -- and the result is the invention of a new economic system, which pays back all participants on a scale hitherto unfathomable.


The other game that Google hasn't been in is the ownership of material infrastructure.  Eric Hysen rightly suggests that a game-changer would be to move on from apps.  Move from shiny apps to infrastructure and collaboration, he says, for instance more regular hackathons for open government.  It's true, regularizing collaboration would change it.  But there's another lesson of history here -- the importance of the material pipes through which information flows.

In the eighteenth century, those pipes were the roads, which carried state-coaches, which carried mail, parcels, and newspapers, thus generating an information revolution.  In the twenty-first century, those pipes are broadband cable.  Thus far, Google has been content to stand by while Cox and Comcast monopolize broadband across America (practically everywhere except Knoxville, TN and Lafayette, LA) and become pushy in international conversations, thus jeapardizing the relationship of the entire Global South to an open internet.  In practice, the Cox/Comcast monopoly means profits hand-over-fist for those who own the pipes, with almost no incentive to lay new pipes to poor people.  What that means is that there's an upward limit, even with a million Geeks Without Bounds groups in their ilk.  You can design all the software you want, but if there's no hardware to reach the poor, then the poor will still be on dial-up internet in the year 2025.

Fine: Google's is the software biz, not the hardware biz.  But if Google really wants a historical revolution of the kind Hysen describes, they cannot get it without a revolution in three-dimensional infrastructure: pipes, cables, servers, routers.  So consider claims about transformative nature of software initiatives like open government or open health.  Without pipes, the poor will not be downloading open government data in large amounts and doing their own calculations about how government could serve them better.  They might submit their information, but it will still only be a few, affluent, full-time researchers in schools of public health who do the calculations, in 2025 as now.  That's not an information revolution, it's just another notch in the belt of academia.

Google has every reason to want to be the force that creates an infrastructure revolution in our time.  Coordinating a software revolution between many communities using interoperable data is the first step, and the next step is making sure that that software revolution extends into the majority of the world's communities, which are still underserved and unlinked in real terms to anything like capitalism or democracy.  But that infrastructure revolution will be incomplete unless Google, the nations of the world, or the bankers decide to challenge monopoly ownership of the pipes as well. It's time to think big.

PS Many thanks to Evgeny Morozov for pulling me into this conversation

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