SANTIAGO — I was stunned to find myself, upon arriving at Santiago's Arturo Merino Benítez airport, in the midst of an altercation between taxi drivers, police and fellow passengers. Emerging from the tumult, I did eventually manage to get a cab. But the driver was one of the people who'd just been involved in the melee, which meant trouble.
"The government is to blame for all this," he told me, referring to the unresolved conflict between taxis and Uber cars. All I could think of at that moment was to say, "Sir, this is a fight you cannot win." Infuriated, he stopped his car and told me to get out. It took me just three minutes to call another car on my smartphone.
Whether we like it or not, tensions between governments and technology are on the rise thanks to new inventions or radical changes made to existing models — things that used to be the stuff of science fiction. These are natural developments in technology, and it's important to see them as an opportunity to progress as a society, safely and efficiently. So why do we find it so hard to regulate technology in our favor? What are the legislative challenges in modernizing the logistical industry?
Call it a kind of Uber of politics.
This is not just a problem here in Chile. In the United States, firms like Uber, Amazon, Space X, Google, Facebook, Dropbox and Tesla, among others, have spent more than $40 million lobbying for necessary changes to existing laws. An example was the noisy row between Tesla and car retailers in Virginia and New Jersey who wanted to sell Tesla vehicles directly to customers.
In Chile's case, the current administration can't see the forest for the trees: All it does is react to events. As for the opposition, all it seems to care about are poll numbers and the upcoming elections. What lawmakers (from both the right and left) ought to understand — and voters too, for that matter — is just how important it is to adapt our laws and regulations to the world's technological evolution.
On that point, I noted recently that there is a new political party in Chile, Todos.cl, that uses technology to represent citizens. Call it a kind of Uber of politics. Its members include people like Nicolás Shea, the founder of StartUp Chile; and Gabriel Gurovich and Julián Ugarte, entrepreneurs and graduates of the Silicon Valley think tank Singularity University who are running for senate seats and proposing legislation based on technology and crowdsourcing.
Work reunion at Todos — Photo: Official Facebook page
Changes are long overdue. Even the country's customs and transport systems have yet to be fully digitalized. Chile, in fact, is the only South American country, and one of just three in the world, where the customs authority operates independent of the transport operators and government-run logistical bodies. And for now, at least, the state hasn't shown any interest in changing things — perhaps because every bit of paperwork, with its stamps and signatures, means money. Through fines and procedural or bureaucratic corrections, Chile's customs authority earns itself tens of millions of dollars a year.
Must entrepreneurs clamor for Amazon's arrival to make changes around here?
Solutions range from simple digital signatures, to blockchain technology and user-friendly systems, all of which would encourage economic growth. The country's agriculture and livestock authority, SAG, is just one example of an agency that has yet to follow the lead even of countries like Peru and Colombia and digitalize simple procedures for approving documents online.
The tax authority, for its part, has made some headway with its Integrated Foreign Trade System — SICEX, for short — which is changing procedures in all state ministries, organs, and among merchants and shipping firms. The benefits are limited so far, but it is a step toward digitalization. Still, since it began in 2013, SICEX has done little for the users it is meant to serve: firms and businesspeople demanding less bureaucracy and more decisions based on the needs of consumers and providers. Must entrepreneurs clamor for Amazon's arrival to make changes around here?
As Gandhi said, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. Unfortunately, when taxi drivers start fighting, it affects us all. We end up being thrown out of a taxi even if — thanks to Uber — it's a problem that's easily solved. I say, long live technology.