Technology for Humans

It's OK to have governments

Hi. Can here. Today, some ramblings on what technology and state capacity are for.

The plan was simple: land in peace. I had been in Turkey since mid-September, and I wanted the election brouhaha to be over by the time I had landed back in San Francisco. I stopped following the news and checking Twitter practically as the first ballot results came in. I had assumed by the time the plane landed on late November 4, we’ll have woken up to a new President-elect.

Well, obviously, that did not happen. First, As elegant as my plan was, it was quickly foiled by the person sitting next to me on the plane watching the live CNN coverage for almost 10 hours. But, obviously, me sitting in front of the TV for the next 72 was the real clincher. Barring some sort of coup by the GOP, it seems like we might have a new President who is at least interested in the job.

As I write this post on a late Monday night, almost 6 days after the election and way past our usual deadline, much to my co-host Ranjan’s chagrin, I am cautiously optimistic. I mysteriously woke up at 5AM on Monday and decided to check Twitter for my daily dopamine hit. Reading about the Pfizer vaccine , which was partially developed in Germany by a company founded by Turkish immigrants, I finally felt like the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train for the first time in what seemed like an eternity. The American in me finally can say everything will be alright, while the Turk in me is ready for things to fall apart because we just can’t have nice things ever. But I remain cautiously optimistic still. Maybe the nauseating California optimism is rubbing off on me after 10 years.

One never forgets his roots, though. It’s always interesting to go back to Turkey and see how things have changed since the last time. This 2-month stint was the longest I had stayed since I moved to the US in 2006, enough time to settle in and really feel the pain of reverse assimilation in my bones.

Still, this time felt significantly different because of how coronavirus has changed the country. But more important, how the country has changed for the coronavirus. It was a shocking and a sobering comparison to how we seemed to have done nothing in the US to tackle this crisis.

A widespread meme in tech is that the industry has long stopped innovating on stuff that matters instead of, say, photo apps. It’s one of the rare bipartisan agreements that bring the libertarians who complain about the vacuousness of social media companies and the socialists who complain about the same libertarians that sit on the boards of other social companies investing in other vacuous products together [Note 1].

Yet, I think both sides are missing the forest for the trees. It’s not the shape of the apps that matter, but it’s how you use them. And more importantly, it’s the willingness to change that matters. America fails on both counts.

Let me give you an example. Living in Turkey, you get used to people asking you for your Turkish ID number, for everything ranging from buying plane tickets to sending a package domestically via UPS. You even need it, for practical purposes, to get on the wifi at a coffee shop [Note 2]. To the American in me, it’s my worst privacy nightmares coming to fruition, thanks to the technologies invented by people around me.

Yet, you can also see how this could all be useful, especially in the hands of a competent and compassionate administration, to curb the spread of a deadly contagion. Stopping the freight train of exponential growth requires not just millions of individuals to do the right thing but also coordination and planning that simply escapes the abilities of an individual. Even the most zealous libertarians would agree that it’s one of those things where you could use a bit of government intervention. And so much of this stuff isn’t even that hard. You just have to try.

While hating the DMV is as American as apple pie, I was shocked at how pleasant it has become to renew my Turkish passport. The entire process was so digital, so touchless and appful, I could not help but smile at times.

First, I had to download a Covid app, literally called “Life Fits into Home,” built by the Ministry of Health. I logged into the app using my credentials for the state website, which you can think of as logging in with Facebook but for government work and issued myself a “code” [Note 3], which I needed while making an appointment at the passport office. I then paid the passport fee using my appointment details online.

The next day, I waltzed into the office 5 minutes before my appointment with just a single passport photo. A friendly police officer scanned a QR code on the Covid app, the same one I had used to make an appointment. I then checked in with my Turkish ID to get a line number, and my in-person interaction with a teller that stood behind a newly installed plastic separator was over in less than 2 minutes after a quick fingerprint scan. Five minutes later, I got a text from the postal service that my passport was en-route. The next day, I had my passport in my hand.

Sure, it wasn’t always fun to do all this. Still, I’d happily be frustrated at my computer for 20 minutes for not accepting my corona code than shuffle around home and the DMV office and a Kinko’s for an entire day because my utility wasn’t readable and my cable bill was too old.

It’s not that I envy my brethren for having to deal with all this. The Kafkaesque ordeal can be grating even on someone as qualified as I am as the various requirements can be circular and deep. The Covid app requires a Turkish phone number, a Turkish ID number, and login credentials for the state portal. The new Turkish IDs also have their own PIN numbers and credentials, which can supersede the state portal’s credentials at times, but not always. Opening a bank account can be as easy as downloading an app doing scanning your Turkish ID and video chat, but it can also require multiple visits to the bank, like I had to, if you are a permanent resident of the US, like I am.

The point is that someone somewhere decided to work on this boring stuff, and they continue to do so. None of this is really rocket science, or that using all these apps is simply good because I don’t know, apps are some abridged signifier of human progress. What I envied going through all this was the feeling that people tried to build and maintain all this because people cared about the somewhat antiquated idea of a state capacity, a government that works for its people. The calculus behind all this complexity didn’t feel rooted in simple financial terms but a genuine and a human drive, as they often say but rarely mean here in Silicon Valley, to make the world a better place. For now, better meant safer. But it goes further than that. Let me explain.

I had to get a small surgery while in Turkey, which introduced me to the medical-app complex as well. The day after my operation at a private hospital, I could see my post-op results in the medical history app built by the state. When I got my prescription for a controlled drug, I could take it to a pharmacy that could scan the QR code on it to see it on their computers for verification. Compare that to the “I am now financially bankrupt because my wisdom tooth removal procedure cost me my family’s life savings” news article, which has really become an everyday staple.

I know I started out this piece on a more positive note. And joyful I am, in what seems like for the first time in 4 years in a way that’s hard to describe. I’m not happy that thousands are still dying every day or that we still have to worry about Trump leaving the office without inflicting more damage, but as Paul Graham put it, I feel like a background process in my brain has finally turned off, and I have a little bit of more breathing room [Note 4].

And I do have high hopes for what might come next for America. If there’s a bit of silver lining from the deadly combination of the Trump and Corona times, it’s clear to everyone with a heart and a soul and a bit of brain that America needs to change. It needs to adapt to the modern world, not just by building a bunch of apps, obviously, but in a way that puts humans first and the various metrics second. And as technologists, that’s a lesson that we can learn a bit also.

1: I know this is mostly performance art, and maybe a poor attempt at a joke. Or maybe, I hope?

2: Any public wireless spot in Turkey requires you to do an SMS authentication, which is used to tie you to a Turkish ID. Good times.

3: The party that receives the code uses it to check against a government to see if you've been infected or have been in close contact with someone who has.

4: While I have my fair share of ideological differences with Paul Graham, I was surprised for a long time that he had the courage to voice his criticism of the Trump administration and Trump himself. The contrarian’s contrarian, if I may say so.