Saturday, December 30, 2017

#364 / The Digital Republic

An article by Nathan Heller, in the December 18 & 25, 2017, edition of The New Yorker, identifies Estonia as a "digital republic." 

In other words, the article is not talking about some "abstraction," but is claiming that an actual country, a nation, is now qualitatively different from the kind of political republics that exist in what most of us still consider to be the "real" world, a world that is definitely more "analog" than "digital."

Heller's article is worth reading, perhaps particularly if you teach a course in "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom," as I do. Here's a sample of what Heller has to say:

I booked a meeting with Marten Kaevats, Estonia’s national digital adviser. We arranged to meet at a cafĂ© near the water, but it was closed for a private event. Kaevats looked unperturbed. “Let’s go somewhere beautiful!” he said. He led me to an enormous terraced concrete platform blotched with graffiti and weeds.

Seagulls riding the surf breeze screeched. I asked Kaevats what he saw when he looked at the U.S. Two things, he said. First, a technical mess. Data architecture was too centralized. Citizens didn’t control their own data; it was sold, instead, by brokers. Basic security was lax. “For example, I can tell you my I.D. number—I don’t fucking care,” he said. “You have a Social Security number, which is, like, a big secret.” He laughed. “This does not work!” The U.S. had backward notions of protection, he said, and the result was a bigger problem: a systemic loss of community and trust. “Snowden things and whatnot have done a lot of damage. But they have also proved that these fears are justified.

“To regain this trust takes quite a lot of time,” he went on. “There also needs to be a vision from the political side. It needs to be there always—a policy, not politics. But the politicians need to live it, because, in today’s world, everything will be public at some point.”

What Kaevats says about the United States is accurate. I know that because of the readings I have done for my course. Citizens in the United States most emphatically do not control their own data, and this makes the possibility of totalitarian political control a continuing and looming threat. This is what the documents revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013 conclusively demonstrated. And the reaction of government officials in the United States has been anything but positive, if you think the politicians should be trying to "regain trust."

Even more important to me than Kaevats' criticisms, as outlined above, was the way he described why he got involved in an effort to establish a "digital republic."

Kaevats admitted that he didn’t start out as a techie for the state. He used to be a protester, advocating cycling rights. It had been dispiriting work. “I felt as if I was constantly beating my head against a big concrete wall,” he said. After eight years, he began to resent the person he’d become: angry, distrustful, and negative, with few victories to show.

“My friends and I made a conscious decision then to say ‘Yes’ and not ‘No’—to be proactive rather than destructive,” he explained. He started community organizing (“analog, not digital”) and went to school for architecture, with an eye to structural change through urban planning. “I did that for ten years,” Kaevats said. Then he found architecture, too, frustrating and slow. The more he learned of Estonia’s digital endeavors, the more excited he became. And so he did what seemed the only thing to do: he joined his old foe, the government of Estonia.

To transform our world, we must be "for" something, and must say, "Yes," not "No," if we are to create a future that will respond to our deepest aspirations. New digital technologies are the latest way that human beings are projecting human agency into the world, to control it and make it theirs. Republics are, at least as Americans understand them, "democratic" in both their origins and intentions. This is, of course, the story of our American Revolution. 

A new revolution is needed, now, and it cannot be a revolution premised on violence and destruction, if democracy and the nation are to survive. Maybe, just maybe, the "digital republic" of Estonia has some lessons we should learn.

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  1. Have you considered More Bright (Public Policy) Ideas for 2018? If so, consider:
    1. Pandemic Bonds of the World Bank (“Fighting disease with finance; Pandemic bonds, a new idea” in The Economist at
    • Reuters, “World Bank launches ‘pandemic bond’ to tackle major outbreaks” in
    • M. Baker, “Saving the World One Bond at a Time” Euromoney 8/12/17 at
    2. Private innovation institutes encouragement (e.g. Ocean Institute, Brain Science, medical foundations) alternatives to asset confiscation (1% philanthropy trend/T. Max, “The Numbers King” The New Yorker (December 18-25, 2017) p. 72f)
    3. Private space exploration supplemented by global regulation
    4. Big cash prizes for innovations in global public policy (Policy Nobel Prizes)
    5. Genius Grants for public policy
    6. E-residency mechanism (See N. Heller “The Digital Republic” The New Yorker (December 18-25, 2017) p. 84f)
    7. International i-voting (casting ballots from computers)
    8. Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Policy Options (like Complex Crises Fund, Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, U.S. Institute of Peace)
    9. World Leader Retirement/Pension Guarantees and insurance
    10. Deported immigrant asset management trusts
    11. Universal electronic language libraries foreign aid support mechanism (See G. Kauffman, “Books in in the mother tongue…” The Christian Science Monitor Weekly (December 25, 2017) p. 39,
    12. 3-D House printing for disaster relief (See “box houses” in N. Heller “The Digital Republic” The New Yorker (December 18-25, 2017) p. 88)
    13. International Major Topics Conferences infrastructure mechanisms
    14. Non-profit Apology Project
    15. Citizen science to support scientists (See “Punk science” The Economist (December 23, 3017) p. 93f.)
    16. Citizen environment monitoring to support scientists (See 12 above)
    17. Financial asset transparency (e.g. business, land, personal property) (Everything will be public at some point.)
    18. Statutory restriction on traffic stops (e.g. No traffic stops in absence of a moving violation)
    19. All-language web non-violence training (See The Albert Einstein Institute)
    20. Universal web asset disclosure (including taxes, income, property, assets) (See Estonia and Norway. See N. Heller “The Digital Republic” The New Yorker (December 18-25, 2017) p. 84f
    21. International professional credentialing
    22. International healthcare transportation
    23. International pharmacy prescriptions connection
    24. International electronic and financial participation in national and local elections mechanism
    25. Private Prison College partnerships
    26. Anti-Bribery Convention (1999) of the G-20 and OECD (See “Why an anti-corruption fight reflects a trend toward integrity” Christian Science Monitor (December 11, 2017) p. 34
    and there must be many more, for which we all need reminders, in addition to those of Estonia.

  2. Thank you, Larry Spears! LOTS of good thoughts here!! All the best for the New Year now evident in my time zone!

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