Technology, Business & Cool Toys

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 →

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 →

Google’s announcement this week of plans to expand to dozens of more cities got me thinking about the broadband market and some parallels to transportation markets. Taxi cab and broadband companies are seeing business plans undermined with the emergence of nimble Silicon Valley firms–Uber and Google Fiber, respectively.

The incumbent operators in both cases were subject to costly regulatory obligations in the past but in return they were given some protection from competitors. The taxi medallion system and local cable franchise requirements made new entry difficult. Uber and Google have managed to break into the market through popular innovations, the persistence to work with local regulators, and motivated supporters. Now, in both industries, localities are considering forbearing from regulations and welcoming a competitor that poses an economic threat to the existing operators.

Notably, Google Fiber will not be subject to the extensive build-out requirements imposed on cable companies who typically built their networks according to local franchise agreements in the 1970s and 1980s. Google, in contrast, generally does substantial market research to see if there is an adequate uptake rate among households in particular areas. Neighborhoods that have sufficient interest in Google Fiber become Fiberhoods.

Similarly, companies like Uber and Lyft are exempted from many of the regulations governing taxis. Taxi rates are regulated and drivers have little discretion in deciding who to transport, for instance. Uber and Lyft drivers, in contrast, are not price-regulated and can allow rates to rise and fall with demand. Further, Uber and Lyft have a two-way rating system: drivers rate passengers and passengers rate drivers via smartphone apps. This innovation lowers costs and improves safety: the rider who throws up in cars after bar-hopping, who verbally or physically abuses drivers (one Chicago cab driver told me he was held up at gunpoint several times per year), or who is constantly late will eventually have a hard time hailing an Uber or Lyft. The ratings system naturally forces out expensive riders (and ill-tempered drivers).

Interestingly, support and opposition for Uber and Google Fiber cuts across partisan lines (and across households–my wife, after hearing my argument, is not as sanguine about these upstarts). Because these companies upset long-held expectations, express or implied, strong opposition remains. Nevertheless, states and localities should welcome the rapid expansion of both Uber and Google Fiber.

The taxi registration systems and the cable franchise agreements were major regulatory mistakes. Local regulators should reduce regulations for all similarly-situated competitors and resist the temptation to remedy past errors with more distortions. Of course, there is a decades-long debate about when deregulation turns into subsidies, and this conversation applies to Uber and Google Fiber.

That debate is important, but regulators and policymakers should take every chance to roll back the rules of the past–not layer on more mandates in an ill-conceived attempt to “level the playing field.” Transportation and broadband markets are changing for the better with more competition and localities should generally stand aside.

With each booth I pass and presentation I listen to at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), it becomes increasingly evident that the “Internet of Things” era has arrived. In just a few short years, the Internet of Things (IoT) has gone from industry buzzword to marketplace reality. Countless new IoT devices are on display throughout the halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center this week, including various wearable technologies, smart appliances, remote monitoring services, autonomous vehicles, and much more.

This isn’t vaporware; these are devices or services that are already on the market or will launch shortly. Some will fail, of course, just as many other earlier technologies on display at past CES shows didn’t pan out. But many of these IoT technologies will succeed, driven by growing consumer demand for highly personalized, ubiquitous, and instantaneous services.

But will policymakers let the Internet of Things revolution continue or will they stop it dead in its tracks? Interestingly, not too many people out here in Vegas at the CES seem all that worried about the latter outcome. Indeed, what I find most striking about the conversation out here at CES this week versus the one about IoT that has been taking place in Washington over the past year is that there is a large and growing disconnect between consumers and policymakers about what the Internet of Things means for the future.

When every device has a sensor, a chip, and some sort of networking capability, amazing opportunities become available to consumers. And that’s what has them so excited and ready to embrace these new technologies. But those same capabilities are exactly what raise the blood pressure of many policymakers and policy activists who fear the safety, security, or privacy-related problems that might creep up in a world filled with such technologies.

But at least so far, most consumers don’t seem to share the same worries. Continue reading →

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Please join us at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC on December 16th for a conference launching the year-long project, “FTC: Technology and Reform.” With complex technological issues increasingly on the FTC’s docket, we will consider what it means that the FTC is fast becoming the Federal Technology Commission.

The FTC: Technology & Reform Project brings together a unique collection of experts on the law, economics, and technology of competition and consumer protection to consider challenges facing the FTC in general, and especially regarding its regulation of technology.

For many, new technologies represent “challenges” to the agency, a continuous stream of complex threats to consumers that can be mitigated only by ongoing regulatory vigilance. We view technology differently, as an overwhelmingly positive force for consumers. To us, the FTC’s role is to promote the consumer benefits of new technology — not to “tame the beast” but to intervene only with caution, when the likely consumer benefits of regulation outweigh the risk of regulatory error. This conference is the start of a year-long project that will recommend concrete reforms to ensure that the FTC’s treatment of technology works to make consumers better off. Continue reading →

Alice Marwick, assistant professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, discusses her newly-released book, Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age. Marwick reflects on her interviews with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, technology journalists, and venture capitalists to show how social media affects social dynamics and digital culture. Marwick answers questions such as: Does “status conscious” take on a new meaning in the age of social media? Is the public using social media the way the platforms’ creators intended? How do you quantify the value of online social interactions? Are social media users becoming more self-censoring or more transparent about what they share? What’s the difference between self-branding and becoming a micro-celebrity? She also shares her advice for how to make Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and other platforms more beneficial for you.

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My friend and frequent co-blogger Larry Downes has shown how lawmaking in the information age is inexorably governed by “The Law of Disruption” or the fact that “technology changes exponentially, but social, economic, and legal systems change incrementally.” This law is “a simple but unavoidable principle of modern life,” he said, and it will have profound implications for the way businesses, government, and culture evolve going forward. “As the gap between the old world and the new gets wider,” he argues, “conflicts between social, economic, political, and legal systems” will intensify and “nothing can stop the chaos that will follow.” This has profound ramifications for high-tech policymaking, or at least it should.

A powerful illustration of the Law of Disruption in action comes from this cautionary tale told by telecom attorney Jonathan Askin in his new essay, “A Remedy to Clueless Tech Lawyers.” In the early 2000s, Askin served as legal counsel to Free World Dialup (FWD), “a startup that had the potential to dramatically disrupt the telecom sector” with its peer-to-peer IP network that could provide free global voice communications. Askin notes that “FWD paved the way for another startup—Skype. But FWD was Skype before Skype was Skype. The difference was that FWD had U.S. attorneys who put the reigns on FWD to seek FCC approvals to launch free of regulatory constraints.” Here’s what happened to FWD according to Askin: Continue reading →

Randall Stross discusses his recent book: The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s Most Exclusive School for Startups. Stross’s behind-the-scenes look at Y Combinator details how the seed fund has been able to produce young entrepreneurs and successful startups such as Dropbox and Airbnb. Stross also discusses Y Combinator’s early history, the typical Y Combinator participant, the fund’s rate of return, the gender gap in the program, and the reason Silicon Valley has become the epicenter for startups.

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Aereo LogoThere are few things more likely to get constituents to call their representative than TV programming blackouts, and the increase in broadcasting disruptions arising from licensing disputes in recent years means Congress may be forced to once again fix television and copyright laws. As Jerry Brito explains at Reason, the current standoff between CBS and Time Warner Cable is the result of bad regulations, which contribute to more frequent broadcaster blackouts. While each type of TV distributor (cable, satellite, broadcasters, telcos) is both disadvantaged and advantaged through regulation, broadcasters are particularly favored. As the US Copyright Office has said, the rule at issue in CBS-TWC is “part of a thicket of communications law requirements aimed at protecting and supporting the broadcast industry.”

But as we approach a damaging tipping point of rising programming costs and blackouts, Congress’ potential rescuer–Aereo–appears on the horizon, possibly buying more time before a major regulatory rewrite. Aereo, for the uninitiated, is a small online company that sets up tiny antennas in certain cities to capture broadcast television station signals–like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, the CW, and Univision–and streams those signals online to paying customers, who can watch live or record the local signals captured by their own “rented” Aereo antenna. Broadcasters hate this because the service deprives them of lucrative retransmission fees and unsuccessfully sued to get Aereo to cease operations. Continue reading →