It has become a rare thing in a legislator these days to be able to collaborate across partisan divides even while staying true to one’s principles. It is yet rarer to be as at home in discussions or collaborations with Martha Nussbaum or Jürgen Habermas on productive opportunity and deliberative democracy as with Tim Berners-Lee and rural Kentuckian tech entrepreneurs on how best to nurture and grow startup companies. Yet that is author and U.S. Representative Ro Khanna, a virtual miracle among contemporary American political leaders – and a now all-too-unique exemplar of the best that American tradition both used to offer and, let us hope, still can offer.
In an earlier time, we’d have called Representative Khanna a political and economic ‘statesman’ – or, in the better idiom of the 21st century, a ‘statesperson.’ He calls to mind universal women and men of thought, plan, and action like Benjamin Franklin or Alexander Hamilton in the 18th century, as well as cross-disciplinary practical polymaths like Frederick Douglas, Madame Curie, W.E.B. Dubois or … well, Martha Nussbaum … in the 19th through 21st centuries. What is he doing both in Congress and in serious print, you might ask in this era of Trumpers and Tweeters? Is he a throwback? A last echo of a lost world?
Well, Congressperson Khanna thinks not, and one of the beauties of his new book is that once you start reading it, you’ll think not too. The Congressman shows how to press ourselves forward, together, not throw ourselves back in mutual suspicion and isolation. And he shows how to do so with all that is best in today’s state of technical and productive development.
I’m referring to the Congressman’s new book Dignity in a Digital Age, which glides effortlessly between vision and anecdote, universal truths and illustrative – including autobiographical – stories.
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In order fully to grasp the importance of Khanna’s vision and achievement, it helps to begin with familiar narratives and counsels of despair, as well as familiar polarities, that his book both debunks and replaces.
One such counsel is that new information, computing, and communications – in a word, ‘digital’ – technologies are destined to worsen the inequalities and opportunity skews whose spread has begun to look all but inexorable over the past several decades. These new technologies, we’re often told, are designable by, accessible to, and fit for only elite minds specially educated at elite institutions.
We’re also told that the ‘innovation hubs’ that both spawn and grow these technologies are inevitably few in number and ultra-urban in location, found on the coasts, never inland. The upshot, self-styled experts tell us, is an ever-worsening polarization of American society into the bright versus the ignorant, the urban versus the rural, the concentrated rich versus the diffuse poor, and the cosmopolitan elite versus the bigoted populists. That in turn feeds, so the story continues, into national productive decline, partisan rancor, and terminal decay.
Not so fast, Khanna enjoins. What renders our new technologies as interesting and exciting as so many of them are is precisely their capacity to spread productive opportunity, to broaden exposures to new ways of thinking about and doing things, and to proliferate centers of productive innovation and associated new businesses all across our continent-spanning republic, not just in a few ocean- or Great Lake-facing cities. All we need do to fulfill this new promise is publicly invest smartly, reward productive effort fairly, and prevent abuse effectively.
What does that look like? And how, specifically, do new technological developments enable it?
Here is where Khanna’s experience in the tech sector of Silicon Valley, as filtered through his own rust-belt upbringing in an immigrant family, enables practical insights that might not come as naturally to others as they do to him.
Khanna begins with the importance of place and community. Americans, he aptly notes, have long attached importance to home, family, and township even while often mis-described as nomadic and rootless. The Tocquevillian values of small business and local schoolhouse, of town hall and Main Street shop, are as much part of the American ethos as are restless innovation and productive dynamism. The problem, he notes, is that the ways we communicate, collaborate and produce now have come unmoored from their previous roots in community life and local interaction.
This change, Khanna argues, is not only tragic, but also ironic. It is tragic because the heightened pace of change that is now underway in so many spheres of our lives – from work life to social life to family life – is unsettling in manners that deepen our need of stability and connection, the havens that only place can provide. It is ironic, in turn, because the decentralized modes of collaboration and production afforded by new digital technologies are precisely what make them so promising. They offer means, in a word, of retaining place in our lives, even as we grow more educated, informed, and productive through their intelligent use.
What, then, accounts for the disconnect – the concentration of tech life and tech wealth in just a few ‘superstar cities,’ while the rest of our once enviably productive republic now languishes? To Khanna, the answer is what we might call poor deployment rooted in poor system-design, the relevant ‘design’ here being that of our nation’s means of optimizing the dissemination and productive use of our new digital technologies.
Consider, for example, what is required of someone – I’ll call her Sarah – who might in an optimal setting employ new digital technologies first to design a new product, then to schedule delivery of parts and materials necessary to build a prototype of the product, and then to demonstrate the product’s utility to a local manufacturer or perhaps even rent and use manufacturing space herself. What features of our present environment render it less than an optimal setting?
Well, for one thing, Sarah will have to be aware of these technologies – their existence and possible uses. For another thing, she’ll have to have developed, somewhere, a modicum of practical know-how to know how to use them. And finally (for now), for yet another thing Sarah will have to be able to access these technologies once she knows how to use them.
Yet Sarah might easily learn none of these things – or even be made aware of them – in many of our nation’s underfunded schools, and might well be unable to afford to learn more at an accessibly located community college or university. If Sarah suffers health challenges, moreover, or has ailing parents she cares for, or has children to feed and to clothe, things might be worse. Her immediate needs will be more immediately pressing than are her longer term aspirations, and her opportunity to develop, then offer, any new product or service she conceives will be accordingly curtailed.
Meanwhile, if Sarah does somehow manage to conceive her idea and then seeks to learn more about what she might do to realize it on the internet, she might find that her access to broadband is patchy or non-existent. Or she might might find herself subjected to online harassment or conspiracy theories propagated by hate groups on any number of social media or other websites. Or she might visit a site only to learn later that she’s being scammed – her digital identity stolen, her internet interests tracked, or her sensitive health or financial data ‘mined’ and exploited.
In effect, Sarah is a potential entrepreneur whose potential goes tragically unrealized – squandered, wasted. She is an entrepreneur ‘in the rough’ with no access to the machinery, so to speak, that links creative idea-conception to remunerative vision-realization. She’s like an engine with no clutch or driveshaft connecting it to wheels. She idles, ‘goes nowhere,’ running her engine without ever moving. Her contribution, the value that she could have added to all of our lives, goes unrealized.
Sarah’s community lacks, in a word, the requisite ‘infrastructure’ linking potentially productive people or groups to our markets and, through them, to society and our economy at large. Instead Sarah is offered a weak substitute – the opportunity to fantasize idly and ‘vent’ in the chat-rooms and on the platforms that, sponsored as they are by entities whose profits come only from ‘eyeballs’ and associated data-extraction opportunity, do better if Sarah stays unproductive and angry than they would if she found more constructive uses to which to put digital capacity.
There’s little dignity in this existence, only despair. For what most of us need, as human beings, is to visualize and then realize – to conceive and create – in productive collaboration with others. We need, in short, what digital technologies make more available than ever – if we can just get the social ‘wiring’ right.
This is where Khanna’s affirmative proposals – what me might call the infrastructures of productive digital dignity – engage. Khanna advocates both universalization of access to digital technology and its associated infrastructures – both communicative and educational, as well as in the workplace – and sensible ground-rules to limit the perils now posed to constructive digital collaboration and deliberation by the sick incentives of present-day data-extracting online platform companies.
One way to think of the first, ‘affirmative’ set of proposals Khanna offers is as supplying all that Sarah is missing in our hypothetical parable just above. These are all ‘public goods’ in the orthodox economists’ sense of the term – shared structures enabling individual capacities to be developed and then joined to others’ capacities in productively synergistic ways. The public provision of public goods always optimizes their supplies and, accordingly, their multiple mutually reinforcing ‘positive spillovers.’
That was the idea behind great American traditions like public education (the US was the first country ever to offer it), public telegraph lines, land grant universities, the postal service, and other collective innovations in the first place. It is part of the genius of Khanna to envisage and think-through just what today’s digital analogs (if you’ll pardon the pun) of those earlier, pre-digital American infrastructural innovations might be.
Meanwhile, one way to think of the second, more ‘corrective’ set of proposals that Khanna offers is as ensuring that Sarah as imagined in our parable is able actually to use digital infrastructures as infrastructures when she is able to access them. A public road or goods-transport network could hardly function as such were it beset on all sides by murderers, sexual predators, Ku Klux Klansmen, and thieves, with no public effort to keeps passage safe. Similarly, a town hall or public communications network would not serve its purpose were the only sounds heard the shouts of fishmongers and snake oils sellers hounding all listeners to purchase their wares.
It is critical, then, Khanna argues, to keep public spaces properly public, well adapted to their public, not private, purposes – precisely so that all of us can privately benefit on equal terms by this public infrastructure belonging to all. And here again Khanna’s genius, in part, is to show us the sense in which digital spaces are now among our most crucial public spaces.
It is of course impossible to do full justice to Khanna’s rich thinking in creatively imagining – then designing – the digital rendition of the continent-spanning, decentralized, productive republic the US once was and can be again. It is likelwise impossible to convey the evocativeness, and inspiration, afforded by the many stories of individuals, families (including his own!), and businesses in all corners of this ever-promising country that Khanna relates. But even an overview such as this one should suffice to convey the uniqueness – and the unique value – of Khanna’s vision.
All too often these days, people seem to think ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ to be antonyms, and to associate the former with ‘traditional values’ and ‘business interests’ while associating the latter with ‘social issues’ and ‘anti-business biases.’ Those are mistakes, and both Khanna himself and his thinking are proof of the fact. Khanna’s ‘progressive capitalism,’ as he quotably calls it, is much like what I elsewhere call ‘productive republicanism.’ It is ‘conservative’ in its preservation of all that is most defining of us as a people, and is ‘progressive’ in its eager embrace of the productive and associative possibilities opened by new technologies.
This is what America always has been when it has been truly productive: egalitarian, spread-out, and decentralized with respect to opportunity – not just formal, but also material, productive opportunity – and demanding with respect to the realization of its ideals by its citizenry in both their individual and collective capacities. We have long awaited a restatement of these ideals in connection with contemporary modes of production and deliberation as an economy and as a polity. In Khanna’s new book, we find our voice.