“More than ever, technology and technical expertise mean political power.” – Philip Howard, Pax Technica
When we look back at the unwinding of liberal democracy in the US, a barely-noticed event this past spring might be seen as a watershed, a harbinger missed. In May, Salesforce.com dedicated their stunning new San Francisco headquarters in a ceremony that took an unexpected turn.
Salesforce’s CEO, Marc Benioff has been an enthusiastic activist for human rights over the years. He led tech companies in rebellions against gay-harassment laws in Indiana and elsewhere that have moved those young corporate giants off the political sidelines. In Bay Area he’s organized housing relief and education reforms, building consortiums of donors and companies to impact lives. He’s clearly not done. His speech at the opening of the Salesforce Tower skipped the corporate pablum, instead focusing on homelessness, income inequality, and San Francisco’s shit-stained streets. Listen carefully to his description of his company, and his tower’s, role in public life:
Kids in schools across the Bay Area, families walking down the sidewalk, families and children in shelters or sleeping in cars. They’re all looking up at this Tower. I want you to know you are not alone — we are thinking of you. I hope you see this tower as a beacon, a symbol of hope and know that there is a company and a city, a group of people and organizations all together as one San Francisco that leads with our core values.
This is unusual rhetoric for a CEO, but these are unusual times. Our president is a professional criminal. Our Congress is dysfunctional, bought and managed by wealthy hobbyists who use it to protect their rentier interests. That rot is working its way into the judiciary one lifetime appointment at a time. Trump removed any pretense of health or stability from our system, but he is not the cause of our political illness. In fact, he’s probably done less damage to democracy than George W. Bush. Removing Trump from office will solve none of our problems.
Liberal democracy is losing its power to function as the central organizing force in public life. As commercial institutions grow more successful and democratic institutions stagnate, Americans are “looking up at this Tower” and asking hard questions about our future.
Domino’s Pizza now delivers pothole repair. Sort of. In a disturbingly dystopian marketing stunt, the pizza delivering company this year is offering grants to cities for road repairs. The grants are small, but for many cities they fill an important hole (get it?). In exchange Domino’s gets a publicity photo and a small measure of goodwill.
As a solution to infrastructure problems, this stunt was all show and no go. What you might expect to see in the future are consortiums of private companies that fund projects of concern to them, like airport renovations or even schools. This may fill some critical gaps, but it will come with a change in emphasis. As competitive private institutions grow more powerful than public institutions, competitive values will matter more than the relatively egalitarian priorities of democratic institutions. A future Dominos is going to pave roads traveled to deliver their pizzas, not the roads into neighborhoods that seldom buy their products. Importantly however, those may not be the roads you’re expecting.
Whole industries are emerging to deliver public services to low income citizens. Domino’s didn’t come up with this road paving idea because of problems reaching wealthy households. For all the dystopian potential of the system emerging from the wreckage of our democracy, we may be underplaying the potential impact of public/private partnerships in improving people’s lives. We don’t like to admit it, but the experience of the poor and minority groups in democratic systems was always problematic. This is not an American issue. Ask French Muslims in Paris’ neglected outer Arrondissements about their experience with égalité. A great many might enjoy better treatment as customers and employees than they endured as citizens. Where politics sees tribe, heritage, culture and class, business sees only money. We dismiss the levelling power of commercial culture at our peril.
We often forget that lower income Americans are also America’s most prolific consumers. Their wealth is limited, but their numbers are so enormous that they form a stupendous market. A system honed to sense and address their needs *as consumers* might grant leverage those citizens failed to muster *as voters.* Having Domino’s pave my streets and Southwest Key Programs run my schools and prisons may not achieve an optimal outcome, but it may deliver better outcomes than lower income Americans experienced from their investments in a liberal democracy. At least, that’s the plan. First comes the mass data collection, then we’ll see.
Other tech ventures are tackling urban infrastructure and design at the high end of the market. Google’s spinoff, Sidewalk Labs, recently won a bid to renovate Toronto’s Quayside, a new neighborhood to be carved out of disused industrial waterfront. Data is the key to Quayside, as Sidewalk plans to incorporate unprecedented data collection and analysis into urban planning. Instead of leaving detailed planning decisions to elected boards influenced by whatever bored busybodies show up to complain at city meetings, this new generation of planned infrastructure will let the data speak, and leverage advanced algorithms and AI to quickly mold public services to real needs. Beneath this data network is a simple piece of public infrastructure, a lightweight, lit hexagonal paving tile that can be easily reconfigured for different purposes. Formal plans for Quayside will be published in the Spring of 2019.
Bill Gates is also entering the race to the next community, with a recent purchase of 25,000 acres of Arizona desert near Phoenix. Cascade Investment, a fund controlled by Gates, is planning to build a smart city called “Belmont,” ordered around driverless cars and autonomous logistics. Few details are available beyond a press release, but if fully developed the project would be comparable in size to Tempe.
This may be the strangest and most confusing element of Next: Liberal democracy will likely continue to thrive in places that need it least. Our wealthiest towns, counties, even states, might be able to sustain much of an older democratic model simply because they can afford its rising relative costs in money, talent and engagement. At the highest federal level, what’s emerging Next will likely snuff out electoral politics as a means of addressing public needs. Arguably it already has. But at more local levels, it may be possible for the wealthy or other well-organized localities to preserve liberal democratic institutions.
Democracy may continue to exist and thrive, for those who can afford it. Amazon might evolve into a major health care delivery service, but not for everyone. Those lucky enough to live in places with deep reserves of education and wealth may form bubbles of liberal democracy inside the rise of Next, at least for a while. But a data-driven approach to government may prove too powerful and too effective to hold off even in these elite enclaves.
Remember, Marc Benioff didn’t give his speech in some Dixie backwater. He was standing in Nancy Pelosi’s Congressional District, the beating heart of the American left, describing Third World conditions of homelessness, political dysfunction, and public neglect. If my political system can’t address a problem as simple as allowing new housing construction and school reform in one of the wealthiest, best educated corners of America, why would I dream of asking that system to fix Newark or Louisiana?
It’s tempting to dismiss Benioff’s comments as grandiose chatter from a disconnected billionaire, but he’s been backing up his talk with action and money for years. And he is not alone. As the tech industry has grown more powerful, and more mature, it is wagging the dog in the Bay Area. A rising culture of data, efficiency and results is chafing against the delusional, old-world leftism that has dominated the region.
Take some time to review Benioff’s comments at length. Get ready to hear more of this kind of language from CEO’s:
We need to reach our next goal, raising the $200 million we need to get every homeless individual off the streets. And it’s why I’m calling on every part of our community — government, residents, companies, especially tech companies — to step up and help end homelessness in our city. This is a solvable problem.
That’s not a normal speech from a corporate leader at a building dedication, but here we are. Maybe this is good. Maybe it’s bad. But “looking up to the Tower” is definitely not how people solve public policy problems in a healthy democracy.
This post is part of a series exploring what’s next after liberal democracy and what we should do to prepare. Much of this material was covered in The Politics of Crazy, though from the perspective of a more optimistic era. The work fits better as a whole, but reading through a 6000+ word piece on a computer seems impractical. When these are complete I’ll gather them into a series of links on a single page.