Wednesday, September 08, 2004


In my workaday world, we're often updating business rules, meaning programmed logic, software code, to accommodate new wrinkles in legislation. For example, thanks to HIPAA, which is about preserving patient privacy, giving individuals some modicum of control over their personal medical records, many software packages have moved to encrypted connections or data stores, where previously encryption would not have been used. And if no one uses the records system for a few minutes, the login times out -- you'll need to reauthenticate, thank you. And to get into the cube farm where this records system is used, you'll need to swipe a card. Because patient records are protected. Hospitals must no longer be lax about these matters, especially when sharing data with 3rd parties.

So lawyers or other brands of legislator make changes in these gigantic, multi-volumed tomes we call the law (rule books), and engineers scramble to translate these changes into auto-executing software. Wouldn't it be interesting if more of the process were conceived in engineering terms right from the top? Of course that sounds like "social engineering," which it is, but then, what's this process of creating legislation, testing it in the courts, and enforcing it through some executive process, if not social engineering?

We'd consider it science fiction today, but what if the social life of a village were encoded in software, and when village councils met to consider changes, the discussion was in terms of making alterations to open source codes. We might add this new check box to this interface, this new column to table Y in the database, and if the box is checked, then this new process Z is triggered. If the changes are approved, then the code alterations are checked in (using a reversible version control system), and life goes on. Some company might sell a product called SmallTown, with all kinds of roles and rules predefined (mayor, police chief, council member, school superindendent...). A small town might purchase the package and be up and running quickly. The bureaucratic details would all be included in the code. Optional modules would be separately purchasable.

Clearly, the abstract level at which to consider the design of a small village, is not in terms of source code. Source code is an implementation strategy. Open source really means making the specifications, overview diagrams, big picture ideals and visions open -- in addition to the actual code.

I've invoked this idea at a more national level as well, writing about USA OS (OS = operating system). Again, the science fiction here is that we have an open architecture system, engineered and partly implemented in source code, that we continue to refine and enhance. I place USA OS next to an antiquated one, slow moving and corrupted, pillaged and cannibalized. When Fuller writes "the USA we have known is bankrupt and extinct" in Grunch of Giants, I think of the system that's broken, that can't seem to cope. USA OS, as a meme, is designed to connote a more positive, future-oriented, sustainable version of the USA program.

These concepts are relevant right now. Global businesses even today imagine themselves in engineering terms, meet internally to discuss the servers, connectivity issues, roles and permissions, interfaces, software systems for computing payroll, other forms of compensation and benefits, retirement accounts, inventory management, project management and so forth. When the business-minded extol the virtues of thinking in this way, and disparage government for being fifty years in the past, they're looking at the same contrast, between contemporary cybernetic systems, and creaky old pre-electronic ones, wherein billions of dollars simply disappear, unaccounted for. The perception is, if government were a tight ship, everything nailed down using well-understood software, with lots of logs and audit trails, there would be less room for corruption and waste. Right now, money managers become disgusted when the see how far behind the governmental sector has become -- they fight taxation in part because they see how downright ineffectual so many government programs are, if the money even gets to them, which often it doesn't.

But a governmental system would need to be more open source, more transparent, than some private business, answerable only to shareholders (or maybe only to family, if it's privately held). In terms of computer systems, this is a direction favored in some European circles, in Latin America, in Asia. There's an intuitive realization that government, if it's really of the people, for the people, by the people (an ideal that's percolated outward and around -- is not solely a USA-trademarked virtue by now), then its internal processes must be in the open, discussable, diagrammed and spelled out for all to see. The existing system does this a little, but for the most part its internal workings are submerged. We may attend lectures on how it's supposed to work, but the actualities are often far different.

In USA OS, we would have more of a sense of looking over the shoulders of office holders. Their view into public records would be our view. Going to the Interior Department web site, we would have quality GIS showing all federal lands, private lands, where logging is permitted, where not, what actions are pending in the queue, what legislation is being considered, and what is currently being enforced. Not that members of the public would see everything in as much detail as the actual office holder, but they would see enough to be able to follow along. When an office holder issued a memorandum or made a speech, those who'd been following, would have some clues as to where this was coming from. The processes would be transparent enough to make the actions of government understandable, and not just to a few insider lobbyists making a career out of influencing the decision-making.

I would submit that whereas our experience with new technology is encouraging us to move in this direction, the ideal of transparency goes against the grain of "us versus them" covert warfare, and that the machinery of government, including democratic ones, is often used in an "us versus them" manner. Transparency in government, however, is an ideal that transcends partisan politics, at least if one is at all sincere in advocating democratic forms.

And if you buy the World Game thesis that we have in principle sufficient physical resources to raise global living standards, are lacking mainly in metaphysical (a.k.a. ideological) sophistication, then it's even easier to be pro-transparency, and to hold up the prospect of USA OS, an open source "tight ship" (well designed, not leaking, not corrupt), as an archetype and symbol of this ideal. To me, USA OS is appealing to populists, business conservatives, self-proclaimed liberal progressives and libertarians alike. Because it's about a commitment to making sense -- meaning at least we see what's going on, even if we don't agree with it. The alternative is to stay with a very opaque architecture, which mainly serves the interests of those who pay only lip service to the ideals of freedom and democracy.