Articles by Adam Thierer

Adam ThiererAdam is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He previously served as President of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, Director of Telecom. Studies at the Cato Institute, and Fellow in Economic Policy at the Heritage Foundation.


I spend a lot of time reading books and essays about technology; more specifically, books and essays about technology history and criticism. Yet, I am often struck by how few of the authors of these works even bother defining what they mean by “technology.” I find that frustrating because, if you are going to make an attempt to either study or critique a particular technology or technological practice or development, then you probably should take the time to tell us how broadly or narrowly you are defining the term “technology” or “technological process.”

Photo: David HartsteinOf course, it’s not easy. “In fact, technology is a word we use all of the time, and ordinarily it seems to work well enough as a shorthand, catch-all sort of word,” notes the always-insightful Michael Sacasas in his essay “Traditions of Technological Criticism.” “That same sometimes useful quality, however, makes it inadequate and counter-productive in situations that call for more precise terminology,” he says.

Quite right, and for a more detailed and critical discussion of how earlier scholars, historians, and intellectuals have defined or thought about the term “technology,” you’ll want to check out Michael’s other recent essay, “What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Technology?” which preceded the one cited above. We don’t always agree on things — in fact, I am quite certain that most of my comparatively amateurish work must make his blood boil at times! — but you won’t find a more thoughtful technology scholar alive today than Michael Sacasas. If you’re serious about studying technology history and criticism, you should follow his blog and check out his book, The Tourist and The Pilgrim: Essays on Life and Technology in the Digital Age, which is a collection of some of his finest essays.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, I figured I would create this post to list some of the more interesting definitions of “technology” that I have uncovered in my own research. I suspect I will add to it in coming months and years, so please feel free to suggest other additions since I would like this to be a useful resource to others. Continue reading →

This past week I posted two new essays related to my new book, “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom.” Just thought I would post quick links here.

First, my old colleague Dan Rothschild was kind enough to ask me to contribute a post to the R Street Blog entitled, “Bucking the ‘Mother, May I?’ Mentality.” In it, I offered this definition and defense of permissionless innovation as a policy norm:

Permissionless innovation is about the creativity of the human mind to run wild in its inherent curiosity and inventiveness, even when it disrupts certain cultural norms or economic business models. It is that unhindered freedom to experiment that ushered in many of the remarkable technological advances of modern times. In particular, all the digital devices, systems and networks that we now take for granted came about because innovators were at liberty to let their minds run wild.

Steve Jobs and Apple didn’t need a permit to produce the first iPhone. Jeff Bezos and Amazon didn’t need to ask anyone for the right to create a massive online marketplace. When Sergey Brin and Larry Page wanted to release Google’s innovative search engine into the wild, they didn’t need to get a license first. And Mark Zuckerberg never had to get anyone’s blessing to launch Facebook or let people freely create their own profile pages.

All of these digital tools and services were creatively disruptive technologies that altered the fortunes of existing companies and challenged various social norms. Luckily, however, nothing preemptively stopped that innovation from happening. Today, the world is better off because of it, with more and better information choices than ever before.

I also posted an essay over on Medium entitled, “Why Permissionless Innovation Matters.” It’s a longer essay that seeks to answer the question: Why does economic growth occur in some societies & not in others? I build on the recent comments of venture capitalist Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures noted during recent testimony: “If you look at the countries around the world where the most innovation happens, you will see a very high, I would argue a direct, correlation between innovation and freedom. They are two sides of the same coin.” Continue reading →

It was my great pleasure to join Jasmine McNealy last week on the “New Books in Technology” podcast to discuss my new book, Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom. (A description of my book can be found here.)

My conversation with Jasmine was wide-ranging and lasted 47 minutes. The entire show can be heard here if you’re interested.

By the way, if you don’t follow Jasmine, you should begin doing so immediately. She’s on Twitter and here’s her page at the University of Kentucky School of Library and Information Science.  She’s doing some terrifically interesting work. For example, check out her excellent essay on “Online Privacy & The Right To Be Forgotten,” which I commented on here.

What follows is a response to Michael Sacasas, who recently posted an interesting short essay on his blog The Frailest Thing, entitled, “10 Points of Unsolicited Advice for Tech Writers.” As with everything Michael writes, it is very much worth reading and offers a great deal of useful advice about how to be a more thoughtful tech writer. Even though I occasionally find myself disagreeing with Michael’s perspectives, I always learn a great deal from his writing and appreciate the tone and approach he uses in all his work. Anyway, you’ll need to bounce over to his site and read his essay first before my response will make sense.

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Michael:

Lots of good advice here. I think tech scholars and pundits of all dispositions would be wise to follow your recommendations. But let me offer some friendly pushback on points #2 & #10, because I spend much of my time thinking and writing about those very things.

In those two recommendations you say that those who write about technology “[should] not cite apparent historical parallels to contemporary concerns about technology as if they invalidated those concerns. That people before us experienced similar problems does not mean that they magically cease being problems today.” And you also warn “That people eventually acclimate to changes precipitated by the advent of a new technology does not prove that the changes were inconsequential or benign.”

I think these two recommendations are born of a certain frustration with the tenor of much modern technology writing; the sort of Pollyanna-ish writing that too casually dismisses legitimate concerns about the technological disruptions and usually ends with the insulting phrase, “just get over it.” Such writing and punditry is rarely helpful, and you and others have rightly pointed out the deficiencies in that approach.

That being said, I believe it would be highly unfortunate to dismiss any inquiry into the nature of individual and societal acclimation to technological change. Because adaptation obviously does happen! Certainly there must be much we can learn from it. In particular, what I hope to better understand is the process by which we humans have again and again figured out how to assimilate new technologies into their lives despite how much those technologies “unsettled” well-established personal, social, cultural, and legal norms. Continue reading →

Last December, it was my pleasure to take part in a great event, “The Disruptive Competition Policy Forum,” sponsored by Project DisCo (or The Disruptive Competition Project). It featured several excellent panels and keynotes and they’ve just posted the video of the panel I was on here and I have embedded it below. In my remarks, I discussed:

  • benefit-cost analysis in digital privacy debates (building on this law review article);
  • the contrast between Europe and America’s approach to data & privacy issues (referencing this testimony of mine);
  • the problem of “technopanics” in information policy debates (building on this law review article);
  • the difficulty of information control efforts in various tech policy debates (which I wrote about in this law review article and these two blog posts: 1, 2);
  • the possibility of less-restrictive approaches to privacy & security concerns (which I have written about here as well in those other law review articles);
  • the rise of the Internet of Things and the unique challenges it creates (see this and this as well as my new book); and,
  • the possibility of a splintering of the Internet or the rise of “federated Internets.”

The panel was expertly moderated by Ross Schulman, Public Policy & Regulatory Counsel for CCIA, and also included remarks from John Boswell, SVP & Chief Legal Officer at SAS, and Josh Galper, Chief Policy Officer and General Counsel of Personal, Inc. (By the way, you should check out some of the cool things Personal is doing in this space to help consumers. Very innovative stuff.) The video lasts one hour. Here it is:

Give us our drone-delivered beer!

That’s how the conversation got started between John Stossel and me on his show this week. I appeared on Stossel’s Fox Business TV show to discuss the many beneficial uses of private drones. The problem is that drones — which are more appropriately called unmanned aircraft systems — have an image problem. When we think about drones today, they often conjure up images of nefarious military machines dealing death and destruction from above in a far-off land. And certainly plenty of that happens today (far, far too much in my personal opinion, but that’s a rant best left for another day!).

But any technology can be put to both good and bad uses, and drones are merely the latest in a long list of “dual-use technologies,” which have both military uses and peaceful private uses. Other examples of dual-use technologies include: automobiles, airplanes, ships, rockets and propulsion systems, chemicals, computers and electronic systems, lasers, sensors, and so on. Put simply, almost any technology that can be used to wage war can also be used to wage peace and commerce. And that’s equally true for drones, which come in many sizes and have many peaceful, non-military uses. Thus, it would be wrong to judge them based upon their early military history or how they are currently perceived. (After all, let’s not forget that the Internet’s early origins were militaristic in character, too!)

Some of the other beneficial uses and applications of unmanned aircraft systems include: agricultural (crop inspection & management, surveying); environmental (geological, forest management, tornado & hurricane research); industrial (site & service inspection, surveying); infrastructure management (traffic and accident monitoring); public safety (search & rescue, post-natural disaster services, other law enforcement); and delivery services (goods & parcels, food & beverages, flowers, medicines, etc.), just to name a few.


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book cover (small)I am pleased to announce the release of my latest book, “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom.” It’s a short manifesto (just under 100 pages) that condenses — and attempts to make more accessible — arguments that I have developed in various law review articles, working papers, and blog posts over the past few years. I have two goals with this book.

First, I attempt to show how the central fault line in almost all modern technology policy debates revolves around “the permission question,” which asks: Must the creators of new technologies seek the blessing of public officials before they develop and deploy their innovations? How that question is answered depends on the disposition one adopts toward new inventions. Two conflicting attitudes are evident.

One disposition is known as the “precautionary principle.” Generally speaking, it refers to the belief that new innovations should be curtailed or disallowed until their developers can prove that they will not cause any harms to individuals, groups, specific entities, cultural norms, or various existing laws, norms, or traditions.

The other vision can be labeled “permissionless innovation.” It refers to the notion that experimentation with new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default. Unless a compelling case can be made that a new invention will bring serious harm to society, innovation should be allowed to continue unabated and problems, if they develop at all, can be addressed later.

I argue that we are witnessing a grand clash of visions between these two mindsets today in almost all major technology policy discussions today. Continue reading →

The war among the states to see who can lavish the film industry with more generous tax credits in their attempt to become “the next Hollywood” continues, and it is quickly descending into a classic race to the bottom. A front-page article in today’s Wall Street Journal notes that the tax incentive bidding war has gotten so intense that it is hollowing out the old Hollywood labor pool and sending it on a road trip across the America in search of tax-induced job activity:

As film and TV production scatters around the country, more workers…  are packing up from California and moving to where the jobs are. Driving this exodus of lower-wage workers — stunt doubles, makeup artists, production assistants and others who keep movie sets humming — are successful efforts by a host of states to use tax incentives to poach production business from California. [...] 

Only two movies with production budgets higher than $100 million filmed in Los Angeles in 2013, according to Film L.A. Inc., the city’s movie office. In 1997, the year “Titanic” was released, every big-budget film but one filmed at least partially in the city. The number of feature-film production days in Los Angeles peaked in 1996 and fell by 50% through last year, according to Film L.A. Projects such as reality television and student films have picked up some of the slack. But overall entertainment-industry employment has slid. About 120,000 Californians worked in the industry in 2012, down from 136,000 in 2004, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The labor migration has arisen in part because California hasn’t competed aggressively on the tax-break front, officials and executives say, while states like Georgia have made efforts to grab a sizable chunk of the industry. More than 40 states and 30 foreign countries are offering increasingly generous and creative tax incentives to lure entertainment producers.

On one hand, hooray for labor mobility! But seriously, this stinks because this labor shift is taking place in a wholly unnatural way, with a complex and growing web of tax inducements leading to massive distortions in this marketplace. Continue reading →

Last week, it was my great pleasure to be invited on NPR’s “On Point with Tom Ashbrook,” to debate Jeffrey Rosen, a leading privacy scholar and the president and chief executive of the National Constitution Center. In an editorial in the previous Sunday’s New York Times (“Madison’s Privacy Blind Spot”), Rosen proposed “constitutional amendment to prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures of our persons and electronic effects, whether by the government or by private corporations like Google and AT&T.” He said his proposed amendment would limit “outrageous and unreasonable” collection practices and would even disallow consumers from sharing their personal information with private actors even if they saw an advantage in doing so.

I responded to Rosen’s proposal in an essay posted on the IAPP Privacy Perspectives blog, “Do We Need A Constitutional Amendment Restricting Private-Sector Data Collection?” In my essay, I argued that there are several legal, economic, and practical problems with Rosen’s proposal. You can head over to the IAPP blog to read my entire response but the gist of it is that “a constitutional amendment [governing private data collection] would be too sweeping in effect and that better alternatives exist to deal with the privacy concerns he identifies.” There are very good reasons we treat public and private actors differently under the law and there “are all far more practical and less-restrictive steps that can be taken without resorting to the sort of constitutional sledgehammer that Jeff Rosen favors. We can protect privacy without rewriting the Constitution or upending the information economy,” I concluded.

But I wanted to elaborate on one particular thing I found particularly interesting about Rosen’s comments when we were on NPR together. During the show, Rosen kept stressing how we needed to adopt a more European construction of privacy as “dignity rights” and he even said his proposed privacy amendment would even disallow individuals from surrendering their private data or their privacy because he viewed these rights as “unalienable.” In other words, from Rosen’s perspective, privacy pretty much trumps everything, even if you want to trade it off against other values.  Continue reading →

Last night, I appeared on a short segment on the PBS News Hour discussing, “What’s the future of privacy in a big data world?” I was also joined by Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum. If you’re interested, here’s the video. Transcript is here. Finally, down below the fold, I’ve listed a few law review articles and other essays of mine on this same subject.

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