Big government in the information age

And so, we are told, a new liberal age is coming to an America shell-shocked by the current capitalist crisis. In the wake of the Wall Street financial meltdown, big government now is increasingly seen as a friend rather than a foe of an American citizenry vulnerable to the vagaries of the free market. The liberal Barack Obama is about to be elected President. Even John Maynard Keynes, the sage of government intervention in economic affairs, is back is fashion.

Remixing Hegel, Marx said, in Eighteenth Brumaire of Louise Napoleon, that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. So is history about to repeat itself -- is the old interventionist government of the late 1930's about to reappear as the new interventionist government of the early 21st century?

The America of the 1930's was an industrial economy and Roosevelt's New Deal used industrial strategies from above -- such as the Rural Electrification Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority -- to re-engineer American prosperity. But the great economic transformation over the last eighty years has been the shift from industrial to information technology. An economy that once ran on electricity has now been digitalized. Rather than the industrial age of mass produced Ford motor cars, the American economy is now being driven, to excuse the pun, by the knowledge economy of Google's algorithm.

So how can big government in the information age change America? It's clear that the digital-sophisticate Obama -- who includes Google CEO Larry Schmidt in his kitchen cabinet of economic advisors -- wants to re-engineer government so that it can incorporate the efficiencies and transparency of the knowledge economy. Certainly Silicon Valley's can-do entrepreneurial spirit towards America's historically insoluble problems of the environment and health-care will be of huge potential benefit to the country. And there's little doubt a more assertive American government under Obama will use all the personalized rich media tools of the information revolution to interact with and, hopefully, revitalise American citizenry (digital fireside chats, anyone?)

But there's also a potentially darker side to the revival of more interventionist government. In the 1930's, the Keynesian state had few tools to intervene in daily life. Even the Nazi and Stalinist states were relatively low-tech dictatorships where the secret police struggled to retrieve most of the information in their societies. Take a look, for example, at The Lives of Others -- the Oscar winning movie about the East German secret police -- to see the logistical problems that the Stasi had to overcome in order to simply watch the movements of a single man.

Imagine, for a moment, that Google was elected to office in our new age of big government. As Randall Stross shows in his new book Planet Google, Google has made not insignificant progress toward organizing all the world's information over the last ten years. Their ubiquitous search engine, Google Maps, G-mail, YouTube are all directed toward the same goal -- organizing information about the world. Google possesses the technology now to know much more about each of us than Gestapo or KGB thugs ever dreamed of knowing. So, while Google obviously isn't the Gestapo or the KGB, it could be argued that the Mountain View company has, in ten short years, become more powerful than either of these much feared organizations.

In the UK, Stross' Planet Google has the rather ominous subtitle: How One Company is Transforming Our Lives. Google's increasingly powerful might not portend well for an interventionist government in a digital world. Now I'm not suggesting that we are on the brink of Nineteen Eighty-Four 2.0, but I am sure that an activist government in the wired 21st century is going to provide very serious challenges to individual liberty and privacy. I doubt that big government in the information age will be a farce, but it could -- if the wrong people get their hands on the algorithm -- become a tragedy.