WE THE BRAINIACS
Would Thomas Jefferson Work At GoogleX?
The government needs brilliant minds reinventing it with the same urgency they use to create apps and nanobots. How the tech world stole America’s biggest thinkers.
As Americans brace for another presidential election, availing a process invented over 200 years ago, where are this century’s counterparts of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton?
They’re working for Google or Facebook, or they’re founding start-ups to build the world’s first flying car—or bioengineering super cells to repair injured brains.
What they are not doing is devising new and creative ways to improve the body politic. For many of our best and brightest, government these days feels obsolete. Politics is creaky and dysfunctional, or is something they seldom think about.
President Barack Obama has drawn some creative thinkers to the White House. These include Megan Smith, who left Google last fall to become the nation’s chief technology officer, and former Facebook engineering director David Recordon who became director of White House information technology.
Most brainiacs, however, head for Silicon Valley in the Bay Area, Kendall Square in Cambridge, and dozens of other places that are not on the Potomac River. Even those engaged in the White House and elsewhere tend to be focused on technology and not on rebooting politics for the 21st century.
“It’s just not a place where I spend a lot of time,” Bill Maris, president and managing partner of Google Ventures, once told me his office in Mountain View, California. “Because I don’t feel like I can have a lot of impact there. There are people who spend their entire careers in government and policy, and it’s like, has the peanut been pushed one inch?”
Reconnecting with Maris he tells me his feelings about government have evolved since that earlier conversation – he believes that those in government can “do incredible work – but it also can be very frustrating.” Personally he still would prefer working for Google Ventures to make his mark.
Contrast this with Jefferson’s day. Enlightenment smarties from Rousseau to Locke were in a tizzy about how people should organize and be governed. Political theory was all the rage—along with science and inventing gadgets—pursuits that Jefferson, for one, spent time on in Monticello between writing declarations and governing the United States.
Back then, like now, some believed in minimal and decentralized government (Jefferson) and others in a strong centralized government (Hamilton). But all judged that getting creative, and, yes, disruptive about political systems were worthy of their consideration, if for no other reason than a failure to pay attention in those days could result in kings and unrepresentative parliaments forcing them to house Redcoats and taxing their tea.
Another era that embraced government emerged in the 1960s when President John F. Kennedy declared: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
This led to a decade or two of brilliant minds working to reframe government to support civil rights and a slew of government-led programs, from the clean air and clean water acts to the highway system (signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower in the mid-1950s). Led by government initiatives, the United States sent men to the moon, developed or paid for basic medical technologies like magnetic resonance scanning and cracking how the genetic code creates proteins, and created a first draft of the Internet.
Government is hardly the be-all and end-all. Jefferson’s system allowed slavery and excluded women and most nonwhites from his version of political enlightenment. Government also tends to cycle in and out of creative periods, like the 1770s, 1780s, and the 1960s, which are matched by stints when government is corrupt and dysfunctional—such as the period after the U.S. Civil War and the late 19th century.
We also have to consider that running for office today means having your life dissected in a way that Jefferson would not have survived, given his liaison with Sally Hemings. Many brainy people today are unwilling—or perhaps too smart—to expose themselves to such scrutiny.
The United States government, however, remains the most powerful entity on the planet, with more money and influence than even the Koch Brothers. It wields enormous influence on all Americans lives, and many others beyond our borders. It’s simply too big to ignore, even by Silicon Valley—which occasionally gets its digits slapped when it fails to pay attention—such as when the feds nearly succeeded in splitting up Microsoft in the late ’90s for being anti-competitive, in part because it failed to pay attention to Washington.
Bill Maris, however, was right about pushing peanuts nary an inch in the current political era. It’s hard to find the equivalent of Apollo projects or human genome projects. Instead, our elected officials bicker endlessly about matters that used to be supported by both parties, like repairing highways and bridges.
Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress waste time in arguing social issues that have already been decided by the vast majority of Americans, like gay rights and the use of contraceptives; and our desire for clean air and water.
This leaves our legislators precious little time to discuss the real challenges of our day. The list, as always, is a long one—everything from ISIS to a health-care system that costs at least twice as much per capita as in any other country, and gets worse outcomes in many categories of disease.
Never mind challenges that are rapidly emerging from the technologies invented in the past 50 years, and those emerging now that put today’s Jefferson-equivalents into a 21st-century tizzy.
We are still absorbing past inventions that include the fossil-fuel tech that powers our lives, but have the unfortunate side effect of warming our planet. Another one, nuclear tech, provides energy and bombs, but could nuke us with radiation or blow us up. Arguably, our political system so far has largely failed on the former, but has mostly succeeded with the latter.
As new and equally potent technologies emerge, one wonders how our current low-ebb government will react. We are already seeing what happened when Internet technologies allowed the government to engage in a new level of surveillance. At first the feds simply started spying on everyone, until Edward Snowden blew the whistle.
In another unfortunate example, the rollout of Obamacare was nearly ruined by a botched federal exchange sign-up computer program. In this case Silicon Valley whizzes stepped in to fix it, whew!
Now earth-shattering tech is emerging in the life sciences that all three branches of government need to pay more attention to—unprecedented discoveries that are on the cusp of allowing humans to regenerate damaged or diseased tissue and organs; and new methods—or for designing children to have the best DNA possible.
Burgeoning fields such as health IT also are measuring humans every which way, and collecting massive amounts of health and other data to make us feel better, predict disease, monitor chronic conditions, and hopefully reduce health-care costs. Yet laws and standards for privacy, efficacy, and safety mostly written years ago struggle to keep up.
Even if many people agree with another senior Silicon Valley executive that “government policy sends chills up my spine,” should we really leave the management of the $4 trillion U.S. government to a system—and functionaries and politicians—that so many of us distrust?
Is there a better way to organize our government—and government in general—than our current system? Should it be upgraded, revised, or replaced?
Or perhaps we just need a few big thinkers who can get things done to jump into the fray. “Government is really successful when it’s willing to make big bold objectives like: We’re going to get to the moon,” Maris said. “But without leaders with big ideas, we get stuck.”
Possibly the arrival of more cool kids in D.C.—particularly in Congress—will make government and political theory fashionable again, like it was in the late 1700s and early 1960s. Hip or not, it would be smart for our greatest minds to look up now and then from building drones and cancer-killing nanobots so that the peanuts in government can be moved perhaps an inch or two.