Can government keep up with technological change?

I guess a pet issue for me these days is the ever increasing speed of technological development and how it’s going to affect society. My recent acid logic article on the future effects of robotics and artificial intelligence software on employment may serve as an example.

Along the same lines, I was interested in this new Thomas Friedman article on the company airbnb.com which allows people to rent out parts of their house to short-term guests. It caught my eye partly because I know someone doing this, so far with pleasant results.

There’s a lot of controversy about the practice because many airbnb “landlords” are likely not paying the kinds of taxes hotels have to pay as well as violating agreements with their landlords. If Person A rents and apartment to person B they are not expecting Person B to rent to Person C etc.

But I think there’s a more subtle issue exposed here. To explain, lets look back to the advent of mp3s and digital piracy. As you may recall, there were plenty of people who said digital piracy was thievery and there were many people who said “information wants to be free.” I think they would all agree on one thing about music piracy: government was largely powerless to stop it. It simply didn’t have the tools in place to stop digital downloading.

In the same manner, whatever your thoughts about the legality of the airbnb business model, it seems clear that government has, so far, been unable to respond to the issue. And this is what I see as another hidden affect of technological development. If the government can’t quickly respond to these sea changing tides, the government itself begins to be seen as slow moving and ineffectual. (In many circles it already is; I’m simply saying those circles are widening.)

In libertarian circles, few would bemoan this effect. But I’m not sure this is a positive development. Despite certain rebellious tendencies I’m somewhat conservative (in the classic sense); I’m wary of sudden change. How this exposure of government’s limitations will affect society is a question mark.

I’ll give you another interesting example of technology’s ability to bypass the laws of the land. Several days ago, in my old homestead of Hollywood California, Twitter was used to organize of night of thievery and chaos.

Los Angles Police Department officials said a crime outbreak that struck Hollywood on Tuesday night was organized by social media.

Officials said they’ve seen several messages on Twitter and Facebook urging people to gather there.

“Take the riot to Hollywood,” one expletive-laden message on Twitter said. “Hollywood. 7:30.”

That invitation for trouble and others like it, police believe, were the seeds of a bizarre, chaotic night in the city’s entertainment center that caught the LAPD off guard and left city officials scrambling to assure tourists and revelers, once again, that Hollywood is a safe place to be.

I don’t want to overstate things here. I don’t think technology is going to lead us into an era of cannibalistic savagery (for that I blame rap music!) But I think government institutions have a new challenge on their hands.

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