Journal of Bionomics
Edited by Steve Waite
Version 1.6 (October 1997)
An Interview With Virginia Postrel
According to a recent survey by Votelink, less than 10% of public officeholders are computer literate. While that may come as no surprise to many, it is nonetheless a disturbing fact given the importance of the role of information technology in the global economy. Fortunately, there are voices of reason in the political arena, helping to ensure that elected officials rise up to meet the challenges of the evolving Netconomy. One such voice is Virginia Postrel, editor of Reason magazine, who was kind enough to share some of her time with us as we explored a wide range of issues.
(Additional note: For readers who want more exposure to Virginias ideas, we suggest picking up a copy of her forthcoming book, The Future and Its Enemies which is due to be published in late 1998. If you would like to be notified when the book is published, send a message to Futureand@aol.com)
JoB: Let's discuss the relationship between your view of Bionomics and how it relates to politics.
VP: My take on whats going on is that left and right dont mean as much as they used to mean, which does not mean we are all going toward the center or there is some grand consensus. It just means that the alliances are changing. I see the shift as a clash between the partisans of dynamism, who embrace an open-ended, evolving future versus partisans of stasis, who look to close off the future in some way. We have two types of stasis: reactionary stasis, where we go back to some imagined past, and technocratic stasis, where we have some central direction where everything is managed according to some predefined blueprint. In this dynamism versus stasis, a political dichotomy is developingnot just political, but also intellectual and cultural--and Bionomics is one way that parts of the dynamist coalition understand themselves. That is, this idea of using biological metaphors and relating them to an understanding of the economy as a complex, evolving system. It is closely associated with the idea of an open-ended, evolving future. The Bionomics conferences have been where Ive most seen this coalition manifest itself.
JoB: Do you know of any politicians who have actually read the book Bionomics?
VP: Newt Gingrich has put it on some of his reading lists. Whether that means he has actually read the book or parts of the book, I dont know.
JoB: It was interesting to note that prior to the last presidential election, both the left and the right were vying for a share of Michael Rothschilds time. I recall both sides of the political spectrum inviting Michael to discuss Bionomics. I was very intrigued by that, and also a bit confused, because it seemed like there was a fundamental conflict between Michaels views and the culture in Washington.
VP: I think that relates to this broader picture we were just talking about. When you think about Washington and the political culture there, it is completely a technocratic culture, which means it is fundamentally hostile to the evolutionary viewpoint. Its a mentality that says if youve got a problem, get a plan. That is the culture of Washington.
JoB: How do you see politics and Washington evolving in the Information Age?
VP: There is a very strong libertarian (with a small l) strain in Silicon Valley and in information technology business, in general. I think there are lots of things going on. I tend to think, and there is a lot of historical evidence to back me up, that ideas precede politics. That is, changes in the world of ideas take place before changes in the world of elected politics. So now you are seeing a greater flourishing of ideas that were seeded twenty or thirty years ago. You told me you were reading Hayeks The Constitution of Liberty, which was written in 1960. That book was dedicated to "the unknown civilization that is growing in America," which is a wonderful evolutionary vision of the way civilization evolved. Recall that 1960 was the heyday of the technocratic vision.
JoB: There are those who argue that information technology was largely responsible for the downfall of the Soviet Union and other statist regimes. What is your take on this?
VP: I think it is too simple to say that it was information technology in the way that we conventionally use that term. I think is was information and knowledge. The problem of socialist planning is that you couldnt do what they were trying to do because the knowledge necessary to run an economy effectively is too dispersed. Earlier this century, economic development was seen as a matter of putting up a few big dams and establishing a network of electricity. We actually knew how to do that, although the government often did it very badly. Innovation wasnt the issue. It was simply bringing as many resources as needed to the problem , whose solution had already been defined. But then when you come into an era where you really need rapid innovation to keep up-- or you needed to coordinate lots of dispersed knowledge to produce consumer goods--they couldnt do it. The Soviets were very scared by the Star Wars program. In the end, there were a lot of factors. Being a jazz fan, you would be interested to know that jazz was a tremendous subversive element in breaking down the beliefs in the Soviet state in the 1950s.
JoB: Interesting. How so?
VP: In his book In Search of Melancholy Baby,the Russian writer Vassily Aksyonov, discusses the generation of the 1950s, which was Gorbachevs generation. What comes through in the book is how much people loved jazz and had a vision of the west that was based on jazz. The generation of the 1950s emulated that element of western culture and identified strongly with the west.
JoB: Switching topics a bit, it seems to me that Bill Clinton is more of a Bionomic thinker than his wife. What do you think?
VP: The President is somebody who clearly likes to play with ideas. I think that is what you are picking up on. Bill Clinton is much more open to new ideas, not only relative to Hillary, but to Vice President Al Gore. Al Gore is somebody who is very popular among some of the more influential digerati, but Gore is the perfect example of the static coalition. He has a super-technocratic bent to him, which is linked to this idea of the information superhighway, where we map out the entire system just like his father did with the Interstate Highway system. At the same time, he has this reactionary bent. His book, Earth in the Balance, basically states that technology is evil. Gore was the first person to invite Jeremy Rifkin to testify before Congress.
JoB: I agree with you. Gore wants to be identified with the digerati, but it all seems very contrived.
VP: I guess when pressed to come down either way, I wouldnt put Bill Clinton in the Bionomic-thinker camp, and I certainly wouldnt put Al Gore in that camp.
JoB: Could a Bionomic thinker actually become President of the United States during our lifetime?
VP: Yeah , were pretty young. I think it goes to what I was saying earlier about ideas preceding politics. But getting to that point requires a very different understanding of what the role of government is in society and the economy than the one we have now. Twenty or thirty years from now, if things continue the way they are, we could find that a change of ideas has indeed occurred in the same way we look back at the 1960s and see the huge difference in the way people think and talk about government
JoB: Lets talk about the Internet and the World Wide Web. How are these affecting politics?
VP: I think the interaction of the Internet and politics is really interesting because it takes place on many different levels. Every new advance in communications has a political application. Think about direct mail. It had huge ramifications for politics. There will certainly be people who figure out how to use the Internet in effective ways. I thought the best website during the last Presidential election was Pat Buchanans.
VP: You wouldnt think that, would you? But Buchanan had a grassroots campaign and he attracted some talented people who created this great website.
JoB: Would that have made Pat Buchanan more popular among the digerati?
VP: No. I think it merely suggests that it is not necessarily the people you always expect to be among the most effective users of new technology and advances in communications.
VP: The thing that I think is really interesting about the Internet, aside from the ramifications of changing the way we live and work, is it is a new frontier. It leads people to think about rule making and about governance, and about how governance works. When the New World was discovered, political philosophers started thinking about the state of nature and the role of governance. What has happened with the Internet is that there are lots of new opportunities to think about governance. There is, of course, the governance of the Net itself and the range of issues related to this. The Internet is a communications tool, and new forms of communications have always had political ramifications. Its part of society and the economy and so that has political ramifications as well. Its also international communications, and that has ramifications that are largely unknown at the present time. Its a new world. Its a place where people can develop new societies. I think the other thing about the Internet is that it is a special interest. Efforts to regulate the Internet catalyze political action on its behalf.
JoB: With the advent of the Internet, are we going to need all of the various levels of government than we have today?
VP: I think actually one of the things you learn from thinking about ruling making on the Internet is the value of nested rules sets. In a dynamic system, you dont want one set of rules. You want rules at the appropriate level of feedback. Now taking this out to the world of politics, they might be geographically nested. For example, what my condo association does with respect to our courtyard is probably not a decision you would want made in Washington. They need not be geographic. There are other kinds of nesting, for instance, like issues that are not about national borders. When you think about dynamic systems, the one thing you dont want is homogeneity of rules. You want rules that are able to compete with each other, so you can find out what the better rules are. There is a tension there, because rules also need to be stable so people can make decisions. There is a woman named Roberta Romano, who is a legal scholar at Yale, who has done really interesting work on corporate governance rules. Her work is focused on the relationship between shareholders and corporate powers and the way that states compete and the positives benefits of this process. Interesting stuff.
JoB: On another level, what do you make of the debate regarding the information haves and the information have nots. I suppose if Gore gets elected president in the year 2000 this might become a broader political issue. What do you think?
VP: I think this issue is a bit of a red herring in the sense that the barriers to Internet access are not that great. The problem, in fact, is much more basic than those who have information and those than dont. The problem is literacy, and problem solving ability, and all of those kinds of things. These problems are not going to be solved merely by giving people computers and access to the Internet. I think fundamental reforms of our school system are important in terms of solving the gaps between the knowledge haves and have nots. Access to a computer and the Internet is far less important than the ability to read and write well. I suggest we should solve these problems first.
JoB: I couldnt agree more. Do you have any thoughts about the future of income taxes in the era of cyber commerce?
VP: I think that because labor and capital are more mobile in the Information Age, it limits the ability of governments to impose high taxes. In fact, you have lots of downward pressure on tax rates everywhere you look. In terms of income versus sales tax, a sales tax become less viable as the ability to monitor sales becomes much more difficult. I think there will continue to be a movement to make our tax system simpler, but I am not sure that this movement is linked to the Information Age.
JoB: Can we go back to what we were discussing at the beginning about the movement of politics back toward the center?
VP: Sure. I actually think this trend is bad. I think all of this talk about the center right now is basically a rallying of the technocratic troops-- all the people who want the government to run everything in detail.
JoB: So the system becomes less dynamic and more static?
VP: Right. First of all, it closes off very important political debate. The kinds of discussions among competing parties that we have seen in the past are an important feature of the political dynamic in our society. Secondly, it is a last ditch attempt of people who fundamentally believe that the role of government is to tell people what to do with their lives. I also think while voters harbor a great deal of suspicion toward government, there still is a lot of belief in technocracy. That is, they believe the government should be able to solve all of these problems eventually. If not, it must be that people are incompetent or corrupt, or both.
JoB: I guess that is why we allow the government to have a budget over $1 trillion!
VP: Yeah, and that is only a very small fraction of the weight of the government on people. I worry much more about regulation than taxation and spending. Taxation and spending are very important, but they are visible. You cant see regulation and that is a big worry. Regulatory issues get right down into the fibers of the decision-making process. Think about telecommunications. It took the FCC 13 years--13 years!--from first considering what they were going to do with cellular telephones and then issuing the first license. Thats stifling!
JoB: Wireless telecom is a mess in America. My fear is that Washington is going to make a mess of the Internet. What do you think?
VP: There is no doubt that people in Washington are trying to control the Internet, but how that evolves is difficult to tell at this point.
JoB: I guess we will just have to wait and see. Thanks, Virginia, for your thoughts and your time. We look forward to seeing you at the upcoming Bionomics conference in San Francisco this November.