Dave Guarino on technology, government, and change

Technology is not the solution (nor is it irrelevant) — it's a lever

I find I often hear two equally counterproductive arguments about technology’s role in complex social problems.

  1. Tech can simply solve the problem

  2. Tech isn’t the point at all, and it’s all [politics/culture change/some other “same as it’s been” problem]

These are equally counterproductive to me. That’s because they’re both equally reductive: they simplify what we know to be hard, complex, never-fully-knowable-or-controllable problems to a singular root.

Instead, I find conversations around this become much more fruitful when a different question is asked:

“Where inside the problem can inserting some technology (not present now) change the dynamics of that problem dramatically?”

Put another way: where are there points of leverage for technology?

One example: if you see as a systems constraint that “the people who design services don’t build them based on actual users’ experiences” then injecting user testing with actual video footage of people using it is something that’s “inserting tech” (user testing) — but into a problem of power, of unequal presence.

In Piven and Cloward’s classic strategy to run a mass welfare enrollment campaign detailed in “The Weight of the Poor” they sought to get lots of eligible people to apply for benefits. Today, modern acquisition technology (Google AdWords, Facebook ads) can make finding such an eligible person cost on the order of ~$5.

That’s leverage.

I know a tech company whose user base is ~1/4 of all enrollees in one public program. That kind of aggregation was not cost-effectively possible before, maybe, the last 10 years. Aggregating people who can take action is a profound lever for change.

Using APIs that were developed and have become commodity-cheap in the last 10 years, you or I can build a call center that scales arbitrarily, and which can layer on top of existing call centers. When you can build technology layers that give all users the “hacks” that only 1 in 1,000 figure out now: that’s leverage.

Things like Glassdoor and Zillow have removed information asymmetries between individuals and orgs by using feedback loops newly available because of underlying technology shifts. [1] That’s leverage.

The policy wonk/think tank world operates by analyzing data to generate shared views of the world, and assessments of policy choices. But that data is often held inside government: and it is through administrative politics that such data gets released (or doesn’t). But technology that can generate novel data outside of government can be… big.

Intuit — towards ends I don’t like and which I think are bad for society — exploited the fact that SEO/SEM was absolutely not a part of its regulatory agreement with the IRS.

Technology was not a minor detail here: it was the very enabler of regulatory avoidance.

The higher-order abstraction here is systems theory / complex adaptive systems. This short article, Donella Meadows’ “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System”, is really the best primer you can read on this.

So when I hear either derision of technology as a point of leverage, or blind worship of technology as a solution “res ipsa loquitur” (speaking for itself), I really find that either vantage point is incomplete.

In the former case (“the tech doesn’t really matter”) I think there’s a defeatism that the power dynamics of the system are not changeable — I believe history shows that these can change often suddenly. In the latter case (“tech can just solve this”), it is really a severe lack of strategy.

[1] Kevin Kwok calls this mechanism “data content loops”.