Last Friday, the country’s first president fluent in techbro sat down at SXSW to talk about his early start-up woes and promote his personal brand. Obama’s pitch in his SXSW keynote interview was that of a seasoned and successful CEO with one last product launch to go, a legacy program/passion project that needs a jolt of new blood. Or, as he put it, “Right now, with all the talent that’s out there, our government is not working and our politics isn’t working as well as it should.”
His wish list of features for the new hires to get to work on included improved GUI (that is, graphical user interface — “figuring out how can we make government work through technology”), increased market share (“using big data, analytics, technology to make civic participation easier”), and converting the competition’s audience via more highly tailored advertising — specifically, figuring out “how we can reach young people who might be vulnerable to extremist messages.”
On one level, Obama was simply talking to SXSW in the language SXSW understands: a cheerfully insular patois of buzzwords and buttering up. On another, he was betraying the modern American’s default relationship to his or her government: consumer to company, client to service, mark to salesman.
In talking about government as a company with needs and products, Obama is positing government as a business as much as or to an even greater degree than Donald Trump ever has. He probably does so with more accuracy. They have the same diagnosis of that business’s faults: “An anti-government mentality grows,” Obama said, “if people feel frustrated because they’re not getting good service.”
Both parties have long fetishized the idea that Washington should be more like Silicon Valley. At SXSW, Obama lauded the tech “SWAT Team” that revamped the Affordable Care Act site, but the traditional trope that tech expertise can save government from itself goes back to Al Gore’s promotion of the “information superhighway” and Newt Gingrich delivering a speech on the steps of a digital capital, praising avatar-based virtual world Second Life as a “parallel country.” These days, the politicians — like the rest of us — are more phone-centric. Under Mitch Daniels, Indiana embarked on “remote welfare enrollment” (to disastrous results) and, on a more micro level, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has an app that will help you with extension ladder positioning (it doesn’t have enough reviews to be rated).
Conservatives in particular seem enamored of Uberization. Ted Cruz, never one for subtlety, has simply declared himself to be Uber. Others just imagine a world where peer-to-peer apps don’t just make government more efficient but replace it. “What if,” one libertarian think tank proposed, “When there is a threat, whether to you or to others, you could open an app on your phone and call the private police immediately?” I don’t think this is the tech SWAT team Obama had in mind, but there is, in fact, an app for that.
The image that idea evokes is either ludicrous or terrifying, depending on whom you imagine responding to the call: Would it be Paul Blart or Blackwater? After all, democracy isn’t an app; it’s an entire operating system, sensitive to feedback and requiring regular firmware updates. You don’t just press a button and wait for the result — you interact with it. You accomplish things with it.
On the one hand, it’s probably true that people would feel more inclined to trust and value the government if, as Obama proposed, you could remake every DMV in the country into models of seamless efficiency. On the other hand, putting too much value on ease-of-use sure sounds a lot like making trains run on time.(#wellactually, the efficiency of the Italian rail system depended on the observer. Carefully curated foreign correspondents saw a public works marvel, citizens not so much. Consumer-oriented fascism hardly ever delivers on its gold-plated promises.)
I’m not against the idea of the killer government app: I love paying city parking meters with my phone; the Obama administration’s responsiveness to “We the People” online petitions forced a White House statement on the construction of the Death Star. And I’m also a big fan of the program Obama described at the end of his talk. Here he is on the very latest public-private, social-media-enabled, just-in-time high-tech solution to an everyday problem:
“We’ve actually set up a system whereby through social media and the Internet, non-for-profits are able to make bulk purchases of diapers, save 25 percent on those, so that they can distribute them to low-income moms and families. And it’s a convergence of diaper makers and logistics companies and Internet companies. And we sort of convened the thing, but it’s not running through a government program.”
It’s an odd note to end on, at a tech conference heavy on dudes and light on changing rooms. But it gives me hope. If nothing else, it suggests that not everyone thinking of government as a business has the same kind bottom line in mind. Even better, it suggests the truth of why we need government: Sometimes no one else notices or wants to do what’s necessary to serve people in need. Diaper delivery isn’t sexy or buzzy. Like a lot of what makes society work, it’s a shitty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.