Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The Obama White House's latest brand of data mining

If press secretary Jay Carney becomes a Silicon Valley flack, it would be only a logical extension of his previous gig

August 3, 2014 6:00AM ET

Former White House spokesman Jay Carney, reliably attuned to the tenor of our times via his long zeitgeist apprenticeship at Time magazine, is reportedly on the brink of a new career in Silicon Valley’s great disruption industry. Some tech observers have pegged him as the likeliest candidate to head up Apple’s communications juggernaut. (And some, well, haven’t.) Others see him as the dream flack for Uber, the upstart ride-sharing app that’s now muscling traditional cabbies out of their livelihoods in tech-savvy metropolises across the country while frantically seeking to indemnify itself from litigation involving safety lapses, regulatory trespasses and less savory practices.

Wherever the administration’s smirking, spike-haired lead media handler lands, no one should be surprised by reports of his pursuit of Big Tech rather than Wall Street or K Street — and not simply because the San Francisco Peninsula has become a center of wealth and power to rival and at times surpass its East Coast competition. Barack Obama’s White House has long and loudly advertised its weakness for smart technological fixes to stubborn policy quandaries, from the launch of drone warfare to gadget-happy bids to improve sluggish public school performance. The National Security Agency surveillance scandal is (along with much else) exhaustive testimony to the permanent high-tech intoxication of our national security state. If George W. Bush’s White House reflected the MBA presidency, its successor represents the rise of the venture capital presidency.

To be sure, though, the White House’s romance with all things digital is as much about power as about policy affinities or the glib lip service that all politicians now pay to tech synergies. The nation’s governing class and its information elite increasingly share the same gilded material interests — and a worldview that pivots on an insulated, data-driven and incorrigibly privileged vision of the way the world should work.

Not surprisingly, this congruence of worldviews translates into a wonkish version of the ideology that has bewitched Silicon Valley for a generation: a tolerant lifestyle libertarianism that in economic matters is the smiling, Google-Glassed face of market fundamentalism. Acolytes of this sect are legion in the regulatory orbit of the Obama White House, from the tech-happy charter-school tout Arne Duncan in the Department of Education to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Martin Burwell, who served as Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin’s deputy in Bill Clinton’s White House before easing into a tech-cheerleading sinecure at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

But the administration’s best-known apostle of hard-line data policymaking is its former regulatory czar, Obama’s erstwhile University of Chicago Law School colleague Cass R. Sunstein, who has pioneered the soft paternalist regulatory philosophy that he has outfitted with the genial moniker “nudge.” Sunstein’s nudge agenda pivots on a set of disclosures and market incentives consciously designed to modify individuals’ behavior in the image of what government officials deem their ultimate self-interest.

The tireless Sunstein was renowned for striking down scores of initiatives from federal regulators when he headed up the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, plying a rigid (and largely discredited) cost-benefit model for regulatory review. At the same time, he saw market opportunities to promote better consumer behavior everywhere — from updated approaches to the display of food-packaging data to automatic opt-in mechanisms for retirement savings plans. Tellingly, he also pursues his nudging reveries into tech-driven schemes of subterfuge, such as blanketing chat rooms and online forums deemed possible nodes for terrorist recruitment with state propaganda messages, circulated by federal agents posing as ordinary computer users. Such less-than-genial nudging scenarios point up how the soft paternalist rhetoric of tech liberation comports quite seamlessly with the much more stringent directives of the surveillance state. The nation’s Big Data combines made the same point painfully clear when they were finally forced to come clean about their track records of collaborating with the NSA. 

What does the world of governance look like, once it’s been stripped of all the seamier government 1.0 stuff, like offline dissent and protest, and tendered over to the beneficent nudging class and its arsenal of all-purpose solutions? Well, just look around.

Meanwhile, in the tech domain of political theory, the White House’s lead oracle for data-driven policymaking is Tim O’Reilly, the former Netscape mogul who coined the impressive-sounding but empty catchphrases “open government” and “government 2.0” in an effort to draw up a new de facto social contract for the information age. His vast output of tech-centric political tracts depicts the state as just another nichified source of smart tech fixes to disrupt the iron (and, worse, unproductive) cage of bureaucracy: an app waiting to happen, in other words — or a platform, in his favorite formulation.

Of course, getting government to operate in a more streamlined, efficient and (yes) open fashion is an undeniably worthy aim — though hardly novel, as Clinton and Vice President Al Gore similarly tried to reinvent government following core business guidelines in the 1990s. But in O’Reilly’s prim and sterile vision, the ultimate point of open government is to impose a single incontestable market order on the nation’s digital citizenry so that we can be over and done with the messy business of politics once and for all. As Evegeny Morozov recently argued in an exhaustive study of O’Reilly’s thought for The Baffler (a magazine I help edit), the great prophet of Silicon Valley governance hews to a

naive belief that Big Data, harnessed through collective intelligence, would allow us to get at the right answer to every problem, making both representation and deliberation unnecessary. After all, why let contesting factions battle it out in the public sphere if we can just study what happens in the real world — with our sensors, databases and algorithms? No wonder O’Reilly ends up claiming that “we have to actually start moving away from the notion that politics really has very much to do with governance. To the extent that we can fix things without politics, we’d be much better off.” It’s the ultimate conceit of Silicon Valley: If only we had more data and better tools, we could suspend politics once and for all. 

Meanwhile, back in Washington, what does the world of governance look like, once it’s been stripped of all the seamier government 1.0 stuff, like offline dissent and protest, and tendered over to the beneficent nudging class and its arsenal of all-purpose solutions? Well, just look around. There’s the signature reform legislation of the Obama age, the Affordable Care Act, which is needlessly tricked out in giveaways to the insurance industry such as the individual mandate, and lobbying perks galore, as the drafters of the law have slid over into consultancy and communications suites on K Street. Closer to home for the tech industry, there’s the toothless Federal Communications Commission, a notionally independent regulatory body so infested with industry shills that the leaders of the FCC and the lead wireless telecom lobbying consortium recently traded places without so much as a hiccup of public dissent. Hey, it was transparent, at least, so it has to be progressive, right? The complete industry annexation — “capture” seems far too soft a term for a practice this corrupt — of the FCC is also why ordinary computer users may not have Net neutrality, among other nice things, for much longer.

And on the neoliberal roll call of shamelessly bought-off — excuse me, soft paternalist — corruption goes. Every hotly touted innovation in policymaking, from mismanaged charter schools to shoddy giveaways to the venture capital crowd, now comes with a battery of vacuous but sexy tech slogans as standard accessories. The White House has become so inured to such sloganeering, in fact, that it recently hosted the Maker Faire, a particularly smug exhibition for tech entrepreneurs involved in the peer-to-peer maker movement. (3-D-print your way to financial independence!) The event has been sponsored since its inception in 2006 by Maker Media, a subsidiary of the vast Silicon Valley publishing empire owned by — who else? — Tim O’Reilly.

So wherever Jay Carney lands in his quest to retain his all-important zeitgeist cred, we can all rest assured that he and his new high-tech client base will be speaking the same language. Is it any wonder that the barons of Big Data should be poised to welcome him with open arms? Next up, perhaps: Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker joins Grover Norquist for a long weekend at Burning Man.

Chris Lehmann is an editor for BookForum and The Baffler and a columnist for In These Times. He was the deputy editor of The Washington Post Book World from 2000 to 2004.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter