Government and digital technologies: the collision of two galaxies

“Come to bed”, said Margret Herschel to her husband John. John had been awake for ages staring out of the window at the night sky. “Soon, soon my love”, he said, “I’m just contemplating my galaxies”. “Typical! You’re just like your father,” said Margret. “You 18th century polymaths are all the same. All that telescope stuff and the founding of the Royal Astronomical Society has made you an extremely dull boy John Herschel. And why you’ve spent the best part of ten years with your nose in that General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of yours is utterly beyond me…”. John’s attention wandered. It was 1835 and he was thrilled by the recent addition of NGC2207 and IC2163 to his catalogue. He’d found two massive spiral galaxies in the constellation of Canis Major, about 80 million light years above his house in Kent.

Herschel had two good reasons to be excited. First, these galaxies were in a spectacular process of collision. And second, he’d worked out that in about four billion years the same was going to happen between our galaxy the Milky Way and our near neighbour the Andromeda galaxy.

If Herschel’s galaxies are any guide, we (and I’m using “we” broadly) can expect a show. There will be a dramatic performance of tightening, pirouetting encounters where the galaxies will revolve around, and ultimately pass through each other many times. The gigantic mass of the billions of stars will cause a violent and irretrievable mutual mangling. These gyrations will go on for about a billion years and when they damp, the agitated stars and associated dark matter will eventually settle down to equilibrium as an elliptical galaxy.

And I imagine the encounter between digital technologies and government to be much the same. A huge, diverse, bubbling galaxy of powerful digital technologies meeting the juggernaut that is the amalgam of systems and people that govern us. Each will affect the other profoundly in the process. There will be deep structural changes occurring through an extended dance of reciprocal accommodations involving the reshaping of government, reinvention of technologies, new regulation and far-reaching societal and economic shifts.

Like John Herschel observed of his galaxies in 1835, big stuff is about to happen.

We are right at the beginning of things but government will be changed... fundamentally. And this includes the way the centre works and how the people right at the top think about and do things. Stand by.

Photograph: NASA - STScI

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