Vice Presidents Collage

Vice Presidents and Technology Policy 1: Observations from the late Zbigniew Brzezinski

Your humble blogger has, at his day job, been writing a bit on technology policy. Not as much here, but out in the world. Naturally, I wanted to bring this together with my first love – vice presidents.

The obvious thing to write about would be actual vice presidential roles in making policy regarding technology. There are some examples, most notably Al Gore, but also Quayle (who ran a commission on the space program) and maybe some others. I could stretch and include Biden overseeing the cancer initiative. That’ll be the second in the series.

But first I wanted to talk about broader lessons from the vice presidents and today is a fitting day for it, since we have just lost Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who inadvertently inspired this post. Zbig was kind enough to allow me to interview him for my dissertation, for which I am very grateful (I was nervous as hell – although there was no need, he was very nice.) It was over the phone, so I didn’t get to meet him. Still…

In his very candid memoir Zbig wrote of the vice president:

Mondale’s most important contribution was his political judgment. He was a vital political barometer for the president, and Carter respected his opinion on the domestic implications of foreign policy decisions….In general, Carter rarely, if ever though of foreign policy in terms of domestic politics, while Mondale rarely, if ever, thought of it otherwise….Fritz, in effect, provided a needed corrective.

Carter was our last engineer president (and his predecessor as a professional engineer turned president was Herbert Hoover.) Carter’s instinct on every issue was to find the optimal solution and then worry about the politics. Mondale pushed for incorporating politics into the process from the beginning because it would ultimately result in better policy. In the Carter administration this was an uphill struggle. Mondale told his biographer, Steve Gillon,

Carter’s anti-political attitudes used to drive me nuts because you couldn’t get him to grapple with a political problem. He thought politics was sinful. The worst thing you could say to Carter if you wanted him to do something was that it was politically the best thing to do.

There were innumerable examples of Mondale’s political acumen shaping administration policy, but one great example highlighting the differing perspective between the technocrat engineer and the politician was something called MX Racetrack. It was a plan to put missiles on trains that ran in giant circles. Defense analysts and Carter liked the plan which would make it nearly impossible for the Soviets to be sure they had destroyed all of the U.S. missiles. Mondale was appalled, they had given no serious consideration to the politics. Communities did not want to be in nuclear crosshairs and environmentalists would hate it. Reagan (not exactly a missile hating dove) ultimately killed the program.

All well and good – a tribute to Zbig and little vice presidents talk – but what does this have to do with technology policy?

I was just at the Governing Emerging Technologies Conference, in which one of the central issues discussed was how to ensure technology is developed that aligns with people’s values. This is a complex multifaceted issue. (More on this elsewhere.) But, the people who build technology – primarily engineers – are not always equipped to grapple with these questions. Not to say, in anyway, that engineers are not moral. Rather, that addressing these kinds of questions requires a different analytical toolkit – how do you even determine what is in the bounds of public tolerance and acceptance? How would you query the appropriate communities? What are the central issues?

This is not just values. It is also process. There have been far too many cases of experts building IT systems that did not in practice serve the needs of the organization using them. If you do not consider people and their needs and feelings from the beginning, the product in the end will be flawed.

Just as Mondale urged Carter to build politics into the process from the beginning, as we develop new technologies we should build these questions – which span social science and philosophy – into the process from the beginning.

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