Thomas Paine: IT Legend of the 70s (1770s, that is)

by Carl W. Hunt

In the 21st Century, we “moderns” tend to view technology, and most specifically information technology, as both the harbinger and the facilitator of a revolution in life. Search companies help us find information immediately, hardware companies deliver incredibly fast processing and presentation capabilities and software companies find ways to make information easy to store, access and manipulate. The revolution in information technology has been astounding!

What hasn’t been so astounding or particularly revolutionary is what this information really says and how it touches us as Americans who are still part of a great revolutionary experiment started 238 years ago. Apart from the scientific insights that modern IT has packaged and presented to a more widespread audience, and the promise of revolutions in medicine, transportation and robotics, where are the great ideas about social change? And I don’t mean Facebook or Google+!

The ideas and concepts that have been pushed around through modern IT haven’t been nearly as revolutionary as those of one Englishman who did as much as any Founding Father to set America on an enduring and revolutionary course of its own. [i] Of course, this revolutionary master of IT in the days of the Founders is Thomas Paine. [ii]

Thomas Paine in his role as an early information technologist and yes, revolutionary, is a merger that we need today more than ever. America and its “revolution” in IT could use someone who could think about America’s future and articulate those ideas in ways that haven’t been before: that was a hallmark of Thomas Paine.

Common Sense: We Still Need It!

Common Sense - T Paine

Source Data Below.

Perhaps where we’ve erred the most in recent years in establishing and maintaining good governance in America is by letting it get too complex, too big and too convoluted. In Common Sense, Paine wrote “I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature which no art can overturn, viz. that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered.” If we revisited and even “rewrote” Common Sense today, that principle of simplicity would endure, even in a nation of over 318 million.

But, we would still have government lest anarchy prevail, a point that Paine also made. Government is more than a necessary evil, as Paine wrote about the British government (and government in general), and we would do well to follow his “common sense” advice about how we move forward with our own government today.

Paine originally wrote that representatives of the people to the government should be direct representatives, thereby giving the electorate more say in those that governed them. In a nation closing in on 320 million people, that won’t work as well today as it might have in 1776, but that’s where “common sense” IT could come into play.

Back in April, Chuck and I wrote about Harnessing the Tools of Collaboration. Our nation has made dramatic progress in pioneering and implementing collaborative IT tools that have started to change government for the better.

Unfortunately, these tools haven’t changed politics for the better. Government, as an abstract entity outside politics, is poised to harness the tools of collaboration. Politics harnesses the tools to seek gain for the party’s objectives and enhance reelection potential. In America, the government and politics coevolve and today, politics have been the dominant force. I think Thomas Paine would say that’s just not “common sense.”

It’s way past time to go back and reread Paine and the Founders to see how Common Sense guided the formation of our nation and made it possible to get through our very rough first century and endure through this century.

What’s Holding Common Sense Back Today?

Perhaps the single greatest inhibition to a return to “Common Sense” in government today is a stark lack of courage. Our laws in 2014 are a hodge-podge of patches that sometimes don’t even reflect the original problems they were meant to address: Tax, Transportation and Immigration laws being three of the worst collections of such “fixes”. Our elected leaders, mostly in Congress, refuse to address fundamental rewrites of these laws that reflect 2014 rather than 1914 (1814?) for fear of electoral backlash…gutless only begins to describe these “leaders” who somehow keep getting reelected! [iii] Add to that a tendency to bring more people into government to write, interpret and enforce these patchwork laws, and government gets even more complex. There’s no “common sense” here!

Another inhibition to a return to “common sense” approaches to government is a media that’s divided even more than our Congress, pandering to intellectual and geographic divides in an “arms race” to be more popular or sell more ads than their competitors. Okay, this is the American way, but without some level of “common sense” applied to the media, the American Way may disappear into islands of disconnectedness and lack of concern for a national entity that made the freedom of the press possible in the first place. Come on, media…get your act together and use some “common sense” to promote America rather than tear it down!

Source Data Below.

Source Data Below.

From a material standpoint, our systems of production and consumption have ceased to follow any recognizable pattern of “common sense” as well. Chuck and I already beat on this idea in past blog posts and the FAPITCA Platform, so there are only a couple of pointers in this post: here and here. But, Thomas Paine noted an interesting contrast about society and government that applies, writing that “Society is produced by our wants” (the essence of our production and consumption of both goods and ideas) with government serving as a constraint by “restraining our vices.” [iv] This indicates that government does in fact have some (at least a limited) role in moderating production and consumption so that the wants of society do not destroy all the resources that could be consumed in meeting those wants. That’s just “common sense” too!

If these appeals to look at America in the light of Thomas Paine as a revolutionary IT legend make sense, we’re way behind the power curve and we need to rebuild some “common sense” into American government now! To make these changes, and include a modernization of Common Sense, it’s worth going back and revisiting a blog post I wrote in April called A Narrative for our Nation and our Promise. The authors of the National Strategic Narrative provide some deep insights on how to move forward…these guys got it right and best of all, they used “Common Sense.” I think Thomas Paine would agree.

Originally posted by Carl W. Hunt, 8/22/2014.

[i] Chuck and I wrote a bit about Thomas Paine as an influential thinker of the American Revolution who appreciated the sacrifices and commitment of the Continental Congress in 1776, contrasting it to what he might think about today’s Congress. Unfortunately, Congress’s contributions to the American people have only been on the decline since we wrote that post in February.

[ii] Speaking of mastery of the IT of the time, Paine’s Common Sense sold over 500,000 copies in 1776, still the largest selling book in proportion to the population in American history, which was estimated at 2.5 million at the time. That’s some legendary IT there!

[iii] Obviously, President Obama did address Health Care in his first term, but neglected to embrace the input of the opposition party. This shortcoming has only been exacerbated by the political divide that makes it almost impossible to address the shortcomings in a sensible…”common sense”…fashion.

[iv] The actual quote from Common Sense, in context is: “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.” Paine went on to write that “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil” but it is necessary in any event. A key premise of FAPITCA has been that government is necessary, but it does need to be done right, and in recent years it has not been done right. Also, remember that Thomas Paine was a revolutionary who successfully raised the issues but did not accomplish much at all when he was placed in positions of authority to fix the problems he identified (including government positions in England, France and of course, America)! As America has often been able to do, we must find and leverage the strengths of our people, in the right ways at the right time.

Image Sources:

Common Sense: Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Commonsense.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Commonsense.jpg

Lewes, UK Tavern Sign: “White Hart Paine plaque” by Sussexonian. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:White_Hart_Paine_plaque.jpg#mediaviewer/File:White_Hart_Paine_plaque.jpg. This commemoration of Thomas Paine is particularly significant in that Paine lived and developed many of his original ideas while living in Lewes, Sussex Country, UK, working for the local government…Lewes, DE, named for its UK sibling, is the author’s home.

3 thoughts on “Thomas Paine: IT Legend of the 70s (1770s, that is)

  1. What great common sense on your parts! Paine’s wisdom of balancing our wants and using government to restrain our vices forces people to recognize not only their interests, but also recognize their own flaws and the fact that those flaws require a larger social constraint. And fwiw, I think that your comment about cowardice in elected officials highlights the fact that we should elect officials to lead, and not to pander to the electorate’s every whim.

    • We appreciate the great insights, Larry (as always!). As we’ve discussed in the past, there are multiple ways to “restrain our vices” to which Paine referred as a government role. Education at home, school and through spiritual teachings are other ways to help us understand our personal and moral responsibilities to ourselves, our families, our communities, and yes, to our nation. Government, as I think Paine suggested, should offer a common, though minimal baseline, playing as modest as possible role in shaping ways to mitigate and restrain the darker side of humanity.

      Finding the courage to perform well as an elected leader on behalf of both the electorate and the nation is unfortunately another matter. We might be able to teach leadership in schools but courage to balance service to both nation and the voting public seems to escape this current generation in Congress. To find that courage, we should seek the examples of our Founding Fathers and the generations of leaders that guided us through our greatest dangers, including The American Revolution, The Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II. Applying those lessons, in a spirit of compromise and collaboration would go far towards helping our people Fulfill the American Promise in the Connected Age.

      Thanks, Larry!

      – Carl

  2. Interesting to find that Thomas Paine supported the Kiss Principle….keep it simple stupid. That is over heads of our current lawmakers. Their credo appears to be “what’s in it for me”. John McCain is on TV at every opportunity to make amends for the Sarah Palin fiasco. His frequent photo ops with sidekick Lindsey Graham have become comical. Until we dismantle congressional gerrymandering we are for a bad ride.

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