And the rest of the week that was
This a reminder that you’re reading Slow Build, a newsletter on technology’s toughest questions, by Nancy Scola. A very December programming note: Slow Build won’t be in your inbox next Friday, the 31st, or New Year’s Eve. We’ll be back at it on Friday, January 7th, and are looking forward to starting 2022 with you.
So, we’re heading into that Christmas to New Year’s Day stretch which, whatever your personal religious practice, can be a chance to spend a bit more time offline than usual — or at least contemplate spending more time offline unusual before diving into our devices. In that vein, this week for POLITICO Magazine I did a day-in-the-life profile Ken Buck, a Republican member of Congress from Colorado who actively avoids technology built by a handful of tech companies, namely Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook.
People who try their hardest to completely abstain from those sorts of tools and services are sometimes called “digital vegans,” a term I came across in this story from Kashmir Hill on cutting the “Big Five” out of your life. (Buck’s fine with Microsoft, arguing that today it’s a useful challenger to the other four brands.) Buck’s more of a digital flexitarian. Flexitarian huh? The chef Spike Mendelsohn, who defines himself as that kind of eater, joked this spring that it was a “very loose term [you] hide under” when you mostly only eat plant-based foods but aren’t absolutist about it.
Ken Buck mostly doesn’t use Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook.
Now, Buck’s a colorful, often controversial figure in national politics. See, for example, this photo of him posing with then-Representative-Elect Lauren Boebert and the American-flag-wrapped AR-15 that Buck keeps hanging on his Rayburn House Office Building office wall. He also happens to be the ranking Republican on the House antitrust subcommittee that does oversight of the American tech industry, which makes his one-person semi-boycott of some of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies both a personal protect and something of a policy choice.
I spent a Tuesday on Capitol Hill ducking in and out of Buck’s day, and I asked him, in an exchange that isn’t in the final story, whether not using, say, Google or Amazon makes him a less effective regulator of Google and Amazon.
He quickly rejected that idea.
“I have to vote on whether we send young people to war, and I’ve never been a veteran,” said Buck. “I have to vote on how to prevent forest fires, and I’ve never been a forest ranger. There's a whole lot of things I have to vote on where I rely on people who are smarter than me to fill me in on the details.”
In the end, some people the piece painted Buck as a “weirdo.” Some thought he came across as principled. And the response to it was also a reminder of the remarkably scrambled politics of antitrust and the tech industry on Capitol Hill. Set aside those concerns and you’d have to work real hard to find two members of Congress less ideologically aligned than Florida Republican Matt Gaetz and Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline, who is the chair of that antitrust subcommittee on which Buck sits. And yet:
But one of the more interesting reactions had to do with whether Buck here, with his quasi-boycott, is something engaging here in so-called cancel culture — a concept he’s personally railed against. “Cancel culture and wokeness are ruining our society,” Buck tweeted last month. That debate was to, me, useful insight into some of this moment’s key questions in not just tech but American life more broadly. When should the choices of what to use, consume, or enjoy be left to each individual? And when are the consequences of those choices so problematic or the systems that produce them so powerful that that sort of check isn’t enough?
Those are questions to keep exploring in the new year, I think. If you’re looking to spend a little bit of time online over the next week, you might consider giving the story a read. Or, you know, completely disconnect. Your choice!
The U.S. chief technology officer spot has been vacant since President Biden took office nearly a year ago, but the hunt is on to fill it for the fifth time since it was created by then-President Obama.
—Returning as deputy U.S. CTO is former Twitter general counsel Alex Macgillivray, who says his “first priority” is “growing the tech team.”
—Four U.S. CTOs into things, no one’s entirely sure what the job should entail. But Macgillivray describes looking for “someone great who can lead at the national level on tech capacity building and policy.”
—Who’d make a good candidate? Former deputy U.S. CTO Jen Pahlka said this back in July: “I don’t know exactly what they’re looking for, but I would assume that it would not be appropriate for someone to come in without government experience.”
A U.S. CTO could come in handy as the Biden admin attempts to build an online service to let Americans request some of the half-billion in-home rapid COVID tests he’s said he’s making available. It isn’t necessarily in the job description, but then-U.S. CTO Todd Park was deeply involved in the Obama era effort to rescue HealthCare.gov.
—Relatedly, new-ish GSA administrator Robin Carnahan says her slogan is “Make the damn websites work.”
—One challenge (of many) is that there was considerable funding for government IT in the Build Back Better bill that doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon.
A former member of Facebook's "civic integrity" team says that the way to make social media better is to think about it like we think of cities.
And some fans of the National Women’s Soccer League aren’t thrilled with it increasingly forging relationships with the crypto world.
A very merry Christmas to those who celebrate, and a very happy new year to all.