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Why has Washington Become Such a Cluster Frag? Blame It on the iPhone

05/21/2013 07:48 pm 19:48:57 | Updated Jul 21, 2013
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When our founding fathers framed our representative form of government, they could not imagine a time when individuals would become so damn powerful. In the 18th century, the best a citizen could hope for was to be represented by someone else at the table of public discourse; actually sitting at the table yourself was a crack-pipe dream for all but the most precious elites. Today, all that has changed: We live in a time of expansive personal empowerment through technology. But, the same technology that makes individuals more powerful makes our institutions less powerful. Why has Washington become such a cluster frag? Blame it on the Internet, the Cloud, the iPhone and those millions of apps.

Everywhere you look middlemen and intermediaries are being replaced by apps -- next up, political parties, labor unions and government itself. You don't need a weather app to know which way the wind blows.

The hard truth is -- by our modern definitions and expectations -- our representative form of governance no longer truly represents us. Perhaps our interests were never well-represented in Washington -- but now we all know it. Thanks to modern technology, we each have more access to knowledge, more direct connections to others, greater capability to communicate, and more tools for collective action. In other words, we don't want to just be represented anymore, now we expect to be heard directly.

Of course, the latest example of dysfunctional dissonance in D.C. was the smack-down of the background check bill in the Senate. As we all know, the bill was killed by a few self-serving politicians even though it was favored by almost 90 percent of Americans, including the vast majority of the very constituents those asshats purportedly represent. Clearly, these empty suits represent only themselves in Washington.

It's time for a 21st-century brand of representative government. Today, we need a government of the connected people, by the connected people, able to process and act upon our direct input. Sure, we can still use elected representatives to place the actual votes -- kind of an administrative role -- but only after they get their instructions wired in from us first.

This is not such a strange idea. Consider how many other aspects of modern life, work and play have changed through empowering technology. It may sound trivial, but the emergence of iTunes means we no longer have to buy a whole album just to get the two good songs on it. In other words, "all or nothing" is a false premise. Companies like Uber, Airbnb, Hipmunk, Pinterest, Zipcar and myriad others all use social, mobile and big data technologies to cheaply and easily shake up old hidebound businesses. Wherever more information is applied to a problem choices go up, costs go down. The arrival of crowdfunding shows that little guys can join forces and make big things happen with small dollars. Everywhere you look middlemen and intermediaries are being replaced by new services and apps -- next up, we need apps (metaphor alert: please don't take the term too literally) for political parties, labor unions and government itself. These institutions are hundreds of years old; change is well overdue.

The big idea: Wherever people can make decisions and speak for themselves, they prefer it. It is a nonpartisan concept. Even Democrats like me get it. This logic is easy enough to apply to government programs: For example, we don't need a pork-bloated take-it-or-leave-it budget anymore. We the people can rationally sort out, evaluate, vote on and crowdfund a la carte the important programs that make the most sense to us. We don't have perfect information, so we'll still leave some decisions for the administrators -- but we set the tone.

What we have today is inefficient, expensive and often reprehensible governance no matter what your political persuasion. It is a digital age, yet Washington is buried beneath paper mountains of misplaced veterans' claim files. In an era of big data and modeling, we have hand-drawn, gerrymandered political districts. In a time when you can buy a handgun with just a pulse, in some precincts you won't be issued a voting ballot without a cavity search.

Hard to imagine the current form of "representative" governance surviving another generation without undergoing massive changes. Fact is, the forces of change are already at work. Inevitably, technology's logic and liberation will seep in and change government practices the way it has changed everything else. Our job now is to allow this process to happen. The revolution is underway: Our real challenge will be to fight the impulse to resist change and defeat those who fear placing greater power in the hands of the people. Fortunately, self-preserving politicians don't need a weather app to know which way the wind blows.