In a recent essay here “On the Line between Technology Ethics vs. Technology Policy,” I made the argument that “We cannot possibly plan for all the ‘bad butterfly-effects’ that might occur, and attempts to do so will result in significant sacrifices in terms of social and economic liberty.” It was a response to a problem I see at work in many tech policy debates today: With increasing regularity, scholars, activists, and policymakers are conjuring up a seemingly endless parade of horribles that will befall humanity unless “steps are taken” to preemptive head-off all the hypothetical harms they can imagine. (This week’s latest examples involve the two hottest technopanic topics du jour: the Internet of Things and commercial delivery drones. Fear and loathing, and plenty of “threat inflation,” are on vivid display.)
I’ve written about this phenomenon at even greater length in my recent law review article, “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle,” as well as in two lengthy blog posts asking the questions, “Who Really Believes in ‘Permissionless Innovation’?” and “What Does It Mean to ‘Have a Conversation’ about a New Technology?” The key point I try to get across in those essays is that letting such “precautionary principle” thinking guide policy poses a serious threat to technological progress, economic entrepreneurialism, social adaptation, and long-run prosperity. If public policy is guided at every turn by the precautionary mindset then innovation becomes impossible because of fear of the unknown; hypothetical worst-case scenarios trump all other considerations. Social learning and economic opportunities become far less likely under such a regime. In practical terms, it means fewer services, lower quality goods, higher prices, diminished economic growth, and a decline in the overall standard of living.
Indeed, if we live in constant fear of the future and become paralyzed by every boogeyman scenario that our creative little heads can conjure up, then we’re bound to end up looking as silly as this classic 2005 parody from The Onion, “Everything That Can Go Wrong Listed.” Continue reading →