In my online University of Louisville class on communication technology, we discuss the history of communication technology from the days of cave paintings to the latest in virtual and augmented reality. As the coda to the course, we examine four possible future worlds created by the new digital technologies.
The first two worlds come classic dystopian literature. Either the new digital technologies create a 1984-style future of constant surveillance in an authoritarian state, or we amuse ourselves to death in a Brave New World future. Some students remarked that we have seemed to have achieved a Brave New 1984 world where our constant surveillance technologies can also amuse us as the AIs observe us (“Alexa, can cats eat pancakes?”).
The third world is influenced by my first viewing of Terminator. As our digital technologies become smarter, will there be a time when the machines replace us? Maybe not to the extent that the AI superintelligences will attempt to exterminate humanity. However, there are real concerns in the public and private sectors of how many people will lose jobs to the increasing automation of work. The students have a great time discussing a post-work world but, I can sense the underlying fear they have in wondering if their college education will be worth anything in the post-work world.
The fourth world is the optimistic future created by Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Star Trek has been a significant influence on my life having grown up in the 70s with constant reruns of the original series. In the Star Trek world, humanity has adapted to a post-scarcity world abundant with amazing technologies such as antigravity, transporters, replicators, and warp drive. Public administration, in the form of the Federation, is an honored and valuable part of life as the Federation’s citizens face numerous threats from the Borg to Romulans to the occasional renegade Starfleet officer.
I think you can see hints of the four worlds in my essays. Whether it is the concern around social technologies and how social technologies have seemed to create the Brave New 1984. Or how federal government workers can thrive in the new workplace automation world. I also see how the federal government along with the state and local governments seem to move toward the GovTrek world.
So, where do I see the federal, state, and local governments in terms of the original four scenarios? Again, there is a mix but, I feel optimistic in that all governments seem to be moving toward InnoGov in terms of Philip K. Dick’s observation that the future has arrived. It’s just that InnoGov is not equally distributed – yet.
Still there are parts of government stuck in SteamGov such as the short time I worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As the manager of the Human Resources Information Management Branch, I struggled weekly to pull HR reports from a Cobol mainframe that contained the payroll and personnel information for a quarter of the federal civilian workforce.
Then, there is GoogleGov which should be renamed “PublicPrivateGov” as public-private partnership proliferated in the last decade. As more public agencies move to the cloud, companies like Google and Amazon have benefited from hosting the agency functions of federal, state, and local governments. In the state and local government sector, numerous govtech companies have sprung up while the open source revolution has become an essential part of the federal government.
LabGov is alive and well in the state and local governments. Each issue of Governing, Government Technology and related magazines on state and local government showcases the latest state and local technology and policy innovations. There are many lessons that state and local governments can teach the federal government on how to best use digital technologies.
Finally, there are pockets of InnoGov in the federal government. For several years, I chronicled the latest innovations in my DigitalGov Data Briefing column. As I have expressed in the essays, it is more a cultural barrier than a technology barrier holding InnoGov back.
I think that the federal, state, and local governments are on the path to Gov Trek. As any Star Trek fan will tell you, the road to the Federation was difficult. There were many stops and starts, detours and dead ends, and opposition both internal and external to realizing the vision and ideals of the Federation. I hope that my essays chronical some part of the journey for the federal, state, and local governments in this new century.