Technopanics & the Precautionary Principle

When the smoke cleared and I found myself half caught-up on sleep, the information and sensory overload that was CES 2013 had ended.

There was a kind of split-personality to how I approached the event this year. Monday through Wednesday was spent in conference tracks, most of all the excellent Innovation Policy Summit put together by the Consumer Electronics Association. (Kudos again to Gary Shapiro, Michael Petricone and their team of logistics judo masters.)

The Summit has become an important annual event bringing together legislators, regulators, industry and advocates to help solidify the technology policy agenda for the coming year and, in this case, a new Congress.

I spent Thursday and Friday on the show floor, looking in particular for technologies that satisfy what I coined the The Law of Disruption: social, political, and economic systems change incrementally, but technology changes exponentially.

What I found, as I wrote in a long post-mortem for Forbes, is that such technologies are well-represented at CES, but are mostly found at the edges of the show–literally. Continue reading →

The precautionary principle generally states that new technologies should be restricted or heavily regulated until they are proven absolutely safe. In other words, out of an abundance of caution, the precautionary principle holds that it is “better to be safe than sorry,” regardless of the costs or consequences. The problem with that, as Kevin Kelly reminded us in his 2010 book, What Technology Wants, is that because “every good produces harm somewhere… by the strict logic of an absolute Precautionary Principle no technologies would be permitted.” The precautionary principle is, in essence, the arch-enemy of progress and innovation. Progress becomes impossible when experimentation and trade-offs are considered unacceptable.

I was reminded of that fact while reading this recent piece by Marc Scribner in the Washington Post, “Driverless Cars Are on the Way. Here’s How Not to Regulate Them.” Scribner highlights the efforts of the D.C. Council to regulate autonomous vehicles. A new bill introduced by Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) proposes several preemptive regulations before driverless autos would be allowed on the streets of Washington. Scribner summarizes the provisions of the bill and their impact: Continue reading →

Psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris had an interesting editorial in The Wall Street Journal this weekend asking, “Do Our Gadgets Really Threaten Planes?” They conducted an online survey of 492 American adults who have flown in the past year and found that “40% said they did not turn their phones off completely during takeoff and landing on their most recent flight; more than 7% left their phones on, with the Wi-Fi and cellular communications functions active. And 2% pulled a full Baldwin, actively using their phones when they weren’t supposed to.”

Despite the widespread prevalence of such law-breaking activity, planes aren’t falling from the sky and yet the Federal Aviation Administration continues to enforce the rule prohibiting the use of digital gadgets during certain times during flight. “Why has the regulation remained in force for so long despite the lack of solid evidence to support it?” Simons and Chabris ask. They note:

Human minds are notoriously overzealous “cause detectors.” When two events occur close in time, and one plausibly might have caused the other, we tend to assume it did. There is no reason to doubt the anecdotes told by airline personnel about glitches that have occurred on flights when they also have discovered someone illicitly using a device. But when thinking about these anecdotes, we don’t consider that glitches also occur in the absence of illicit gadget use. More important, we don’t consider how often gadgets have been in use when flights have been completed without a hitch. Our survey strongly suggests that there are multiple gadget violators on almost every flight.

That’s all certain true, but what actually motivated this ban — and has ensured its continuation despite a lack of evidence it is needed to diminish technological risk — is the precautionary principle. As the authors correct note: Continue reading →

[Based on forthcoming article in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Vol. 14 Issue 1, Winter 2013,]

I hope everyone caught these recent articles by two of my favorite journalists, Kashmir Hill (“Do We Overestimate The Internet’s Danger For Kids?”) and Larry Magid (“Putting Techno-Panics into Perspective.”) In these and other essays, Hill and Magid do a nice job discussing how society responds to new Internet risks while also explaining how those risks are often blown out of proportion to begin with.

Continue reading →

Yesterday on TechCrunch, Josh Constine posted an interesting essay about how some in the press were “Selling Digital Fear” on the privacy front. His specific target was The Wall Street Journal, which has been running an ongoing investigation of online privacy issues with a particular focus on online apps. Much of the reporting in their “What They Know” series has been valuable in that it has helped shine light on some data collection practices and privacy concerns that deserve more scrutiny. But as Constine notes, sometimes the articles in the WSJ series lack sufficient context, fail to discuss trade-offs, or do not identify any concrete harm or risk to users. In other words, some of it is just simple fear-mongering. Constine argues:

Reality has yet to stop media outlets from yelling about privacy, and because the WSJ writers were on assignment, they wrote the “Selling You On Facebook” hit piece despite thin findings. These kind of articles can make mainstream users so worried about the worst-case scenario of what could happen to their data, they don’t see the value they get in exchange for it. “Selling You On Facebook” does bring up the important topic of how apps can utilize personal data granted to them by their users, but it overstates the risks. Yes, the business models of Facebook and the apps on its platform depend on your personal information, but so do the services they provide. That means each user needs to decide what information to grant to who, and Facebook has spent years making the terms of this value exchange as clear as possible.

“While sensationalizing the dangers of online privacy sure drives page views and ad revenue,” Constine also noted, “it also impedes innovation and harms the business of honest software developers.” These trade-offs are important because, to the extent policymakers get more interested in pursing privacy regulations based on these fears, they could force higher prices or less innovation upon us with very little benefit in exchange.

Of course, the press generating hypothetical fears or greatly inflating dangers is nothing new. We have seen it happen many times in the past and it can be seen at work in many other fields today (online child safety is a good example). In my recent 80-page paper on “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle,” I discussed how and why the press and other players inflate threats and sell fear. Here’s a passage from my paper: Continue reading →

I want to highly recommend everyone watch this interesting new talk by danah boyd on “Culture of Fear + Attention Economy = ?!?!” In her talk, danah discusses “how fear gets people into a frenzy” or panic about new technologies and new forms of culture. “The culture of fear is the idea that fear can be employed by marketers, politicians, the media, and the public to really regulate the public… such that they can be controlled,” she argues. “Fear isn’t simply the product of natural forces. It can systematically be generated to entice, motivate, or suppress. It can be leveraged as a political tool and those in power have long used fear for precisely these goals.”  I discuss many of these issues in my new 80-page white paper, “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle.

Webstock ’12: danah boyd – Culture of Fear + Attention Economy = ?!?! from Webstock on Vimeo.

danah points out that new media is often leveraged to generate fear and so we should not be surprised when the Internet and digital technologies are used in much the same way. She also correctly notes that our cluttered, cacophonous information age might also be causing an escalation of fear-based tactics. “The more there are stimuli competing for your attention, the more likely it is that fear is going to be the thing that will drive your attention” to the things that some want you to notice or worry about.

I spent some time in my technopanics paper discussing this point in Section III.C (“Bad News Sells: The Role of the Media, Advocates, and the Listener.”) Here’s the relevant passage: Continue reading →

In their paper, “Loving the Cyber Bomb? The Dangers of Threat Inflation in Cybersecurity Policy,” my Mercatus Center colleagues Jerry Brito and Tate Watkins warned of the dangers of “threat inflation” in cybersecurity policy debates. In early 2011, Mercatus also published a paper by Sean Lawson, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah, entitled “Beyond Cyber Doom” that documented how fear-based tactics and cyber-doom scenarios and rhetoric increasingly were on display in cybersecurity policy debates.  Finally, in my recent Mercatus Center working paper, “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle,” I extended their threat inflation analysis and developed a comprehensive framework offering additional examples of, and explanations for, threat inflation in technology policy debates.

These papers make it clear that a sort of hysteria has developed around cyberwar and cybersecurity issues. Frequent allusions are made in cybersecurity debates to the potential for a “Digital Pearl Harbor,” a “cyber cold war,” a “cyber Katrina,” or even a “cyber 9/11.” These analogies are made even though these historical incidents resulted in death and destruction of a sort not comparable to attacks on digital networks. Others refer to “cyber bombs” even though no one can be “bombed” with binary code. And new examples of such inflationary rhetoric seem to emerge each day. Continue reading →

[UPDATE: 2/14/2013: As noted here, this paper was published by the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology in their Winter 2013 edition. Please refer to that post for more details and cite this final version of the paper going forward.]

I’m pleased to report that the Mercatus Center at George Mason University has just released my huge new white paper, “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle.” I’ve been working on this paper for a long time and look forward to finding it a home in a law journal some time soon.  Here’s the summary of this 80-page paper:

Fear is an extremely powerful motivating force, especially in public policy debates where it is used in an attempt to sway opinion or bolster the case for action. Often, this action involves preemptive regulation based on false assumptions and evidence. Such fears are frequently on display in the Internet policy arena and take the form of full-blown “technopanic,” or real-world manifestations of this illogical fear. While it’s true that cyberspace has its fair share of troublemakers, there is no evidence that the Internet is leading to greater problems for society.

This paper considers the structure of fear appeal arguments in technology policy debates and then outlines how those arguments can be deconstructed and refuted in both cultural and economic contexts. Several examples of fear appeal arguments are offered with a particular focus on online child safety, digital privacy, and cybersecurity. The  various  factors  contributing  to  “fear  cycles”  in these policy areas are documented.

To the extent that these concerns are valid, they are best addressed by ongoing societal learning, experimentation, resiliency, and coping strategies rather than by regulation. If steps must be taken to address these concerns, education and empowerment-based solutions represent superior approaches to dealing with them compared to a precautionary principle approach, which would limit beneficial learning opportunities and retard technological progress.

The complete paper can be found on the Mercatus site here, on SSRN, or on Scribd.  I’ve also embedded it below in a Scribd reader. Continue reading →

On Nostalgia

by on December 28, 2011 · 6 comments

Just last week I was discussing the terrifically interesting work of Michael Sacasas who pens The Frailest Thing, a poetic blog about technology and culture[see: "Information Revolutions & Cultural / Economic Tradeoffs"] I highly recommend you follow his blog even if you struggle to keep up with his brilliance, as I often do.  He posted another great essay today entitled, “Nostalgia: The Third Wave,” in which he discusses the work of the late social critic Christopher Lasch and his work on memory and nostalgia. Go read the entire thing since I cannot possible do it justice here. Anyway, I posted a short comment over there that I thought I would just republish here in case others are interested. I find the issue of nostalgia to be quite interesting.


Michael… I’m currently finishing up a paper looking at the causes of various “techno-panics” over time. I try to group together a variety of theories and possible explanations, one of which is labeled “Hyper-Nostalgia, Pessimistic Bias & Soft Ludditism.” I don’t go into anywhere near the detail you do here, but I did unearth a number of interesting things while conducting research.

Have you ever come across the book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, by the poet Susan Stewart? She notes that what is ironic about nostalgia is that it is rooted in something typically unknown by the proponent.  Consequently, she argues that nostalgia represents “a sadness without an object, a sadness which creates a longing that of necessity is inauthentic because it does not take part in lived experience. Rather, it remains behind and before that experience.”  Too often, Stewart observes, “nostalgia wears a distinctly utopian face” and thus becomes a “social disease.”

That’s probably a bit extreme, but it does help explain why some intellectuals, social critics, and policymakers occasionally demonize new mediums, technologies, or forms of culture. If one if suffering from a rather extreme version of what Michael Shermer refers to this as “rosy retrospection bias,” (The Believing Brain, 2011) or “the tendency to remember past events as being more positive than they actually were,” then it would hardly be surprising that they would adopt attitudes and policies that disfavor the new and different. Continue reading →

My thanks to both Maria H. Andersen and Michael Sacasas for their thoughtful responses to my recent Forbes essay on “10 Things Our Kids Will Never Worry About Thanks to the Information Revolution.” They both go point by point through my Top 10 list and offer an alternative way of looking at each of the trends I identify. What their responses share in common is a general unease with the hyper-optimism of my Forbes piece. That’s understandable. Typically in my work on technological “optimism” and “pessimism” — and yes, I admit those labels are overly simplistic — I always try to strike a sensible balance between pollyannism and hyper-pessimism as it pertains to the impact of technological change on our culture and economy. I have called this middle ground position “pragmatic optimism.” In my Forbes essay, however, I was in full-blown pollyanna mode. That doesn’t mean I don’t generally feel very positive about the changes I itemized in that essay, rather, I just didn’t have the space in a 1,000-word column to identify the tradeoffs inherent in each trend. Thus, Andersen and Sacasas are rightfully pushing back against my lack of balance.

But there is a problem with their slightly pessimistic pushback, too. To better explain my own position and respond to Andersen and Sacasas, let me return to the story we hear again and again in discussion about technological change: the well-known allegorical tale from Plato’s Phaedrus about the dangers of the written word. In the tale, the god Theuth comes to King Thamus and boasts of how Theuth’s invention of writing would improve the wisdom and memory of the masses relative to the oral tradition of learning.  King Thamus shot back, “the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it.”  King Thamus then passed judgment himself about the impact of writing on society, saying he feared that the people “will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.”

After recounting Plato’s allegory in my essay, “Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society,” I noted how this same tension has played out in every subsequent debate about the impact of a new technology on culture, values, morals, language, learning, and so on. It is a never-ending cycle. Continue reading →