I’ve always been perplexed by tech critiques that seek to pit “humanist” values against technology or technological processes, or that even suggest a bright demarcation exists between these things. Properly understood, “technology” and technological innovation are simply extensions of our humanity and represent efforts to continuously improve the human condition. In that sense, humanism and technology are compliments, not opposites.

I started thinking about this again after reading a recent article by Christopher Mims of The Wall Street Journal, which introduced me to the term “techno-chauvinism.” Techno-chauvinism is a new term that some social critics are using to identify when technologies or innovators are apparently not behaving in a “humanist” fashion. Mims attributes the term techno-chauvinism to Meredith Broussard of New York University, who defines it as “the idea that technology is always the highest and best solution, and is superior to the people-based solution.” [Italics added.] Later on Twitter, Mims defined and critiqued techno-chauvinism as “the belief that the best solution to any problem is technology, not changing our culture, habits or mindset.”

Everything Old is New Again

There are other terms critics have used to describe the same notion, including: “techno-fundamentalism” (Siva Vaidhyanathan), “cyber-utopianism,” and “technological solutionism” (Evgeny Morozov). In a sense, all these terms are really just variants of what scholars in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) have long referred to as “technological determinism.”

As I noted in a recent essay about determinism, the traditional “hard” variant of technological determinism refers to the notion that technology almost has a mind of its own and that it will plow forward without much resistance from society or governments. Critics argue that determinist thinking denies or ignores the importance of the human element in moving history forward, or what Broussard would refer to as “people-based solutions.”

The first problem with this thinking is there are no bright lines in these debates and many “softer” variants of determinism exist. The same problem is at work when we turn to discussions about both “humanism” and “technology.” Things get definitionally murky quite quickly, and everyone seemingly has a preferred conception of these terms to fit their own ideological dispositions. “Humanism is a rather vague and contested term with a convoluted history,” observes tech philosopher Michael Sacasas. And here’s an essay that I have updated many times over the years to catalog the dozens of different definitions of “technology” I have unearthed in my ongoing research. Continue reading →

Over at the Mercatus Center’s Bridge blog, Chad Reese interviewed me about my forthcoming book and continuing research on “evasive entrepreneurialism” and the freedom to innovate. I provide a quick summary of the issues and concepts that I am exploring with my colleagues currently. Those issues include:

  • free innovation
  • evasive entrepreneurialism & social entrepreneurialism
  • technological civil disobedience
  • the freedom to tinker / freedom to try / freedom to innovate
  • the right to earn a living
  • “moonshots” / deep technologies / disruptive innovation / transformative tech
  • innovation culture
  • global innovation arbitrage
  • the pacing problem & the Collingridge dilemma
  • “soft law” solutions for technological governance

You can read the entire Q&A over at The Bridge, or I have pasted it down below.

Continue reading →

Reading professor Siva Vaidhyanathan’s recent op-ed in the New York Times, one could reasonably assume that Facebook is now seriously tackling the enormous problem of dangerous information. In detailing his takeaways from a recent hearing with Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Vaidhyanathan explained,

Ms. Sandberg wants us to see this as success. A number so large must mean Facebook is doing something right. Facebook’s machines are determining patterns of origin and content among these pages and quickly quashing them.

Still, we judge exterminators not by the number of roaches they kill, but by the number that survive. If 3 percent of 2.2 billion active users are fake at any time, that’s still 66 million sources of potentially false or dangerous information.

One thing is clear about this arms race: It is an absurd battle of machine against machine. One set of machines create the fake accounts. Another deletes them. This happens millions of times every month. No group of human beings has the time to create millions, let alone billions, of accounts on Facebook by hand. People have been running computer scripts to automate the registration process. That means Facebook’s machines detect the fakes rather easily. (Facebook says that fewer than 1.5 percent of the fakes were identified by users.)

But it could be that, in their zeal to trapple down criticism from all sides, Facebook instead has corrected too far and is now over-moderating. The fundamental problem is that it is nearly impossible to know the true amount of disinformation on a platform. For one, there is little agreement on what kind of content needs to be policed. It is doubtful everyone would agree what constitutes fake news and separates it from disinformation or propaganda and how all of that differs from hate speech. But more fundamentally, even if everyone agreed to what should be taken down, it is still not clear that algorithmic filtering methods would be able to perfectly approximate that. Continue reading →

We hear a lot today about the importance of “disruptive innovation,” “deep technologies,” “moonshots,” and even “technological miracles.” What do these terms mean and how are they related? Are they just silly clichés used to hype techno-exuberant books, articles, and speeches? Or do these terms have real meaning and importance?

This article explores those questions and argues that, while these terms are confronted with definitional challenges and occasional overuse, they retain real importance to human flourishing, economic growth, and societal progress.

Basic Concepts

Don Boudreaux defines moonshots as, “radical but feasible solutions to important problems” and Mike Cushing has referred to them as “innovation that achieves the previously unthinkable.” “Deep technology” is another buzzword being used to describe such revolutionary and important innovations. Swati Chaturvedi of investment firm Propel[x] says deep technologies are innovations that are “built on tangible scientific discoveries or engineering innovations” and “are trying to solve big issues that really affect the world around them.”

“Disruptive technology” or “game-changing innovations” are other terms that are often used in reference to technologies and inventions with major societal impacts. “Transformative technologies” is another increasingly popular term, albeit one focused mostly on health and wellness-related innovations. Continue reading →

There has been an increasing outcry recently from conservatives that social media is conspiring to silence their voices.  Leading voices including President Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz have started calling for legislative or regulatory actions to correct this perceived “bias”. But these calls for fairness miss the importance of allowing such services to develop their own terms and for users to determine what services to use and the benefit that such services have been to conservatives.

Social media is becoming a part of our everyday lives and recent events have only increased our general awareness of this fact. More than half of American adults login to Facebook on a daily basis. As a result, some policymakers have argued that such sites are the new public square. In general, the First Amendment strictly limits what the government can do to limit speakers in public spaces and requires that such limits be applied equally to different points of view. At the same time, private entities are generally allowed to set terms regarding what speech may or may not be allowed on their own platforms.

The argument that modern day websites are the new public square and must maintain a neutral view point was recently rejected in a lawsuit between PraegerU and YouTube. Praeger believed that its conservative viewpoint was being silenced by YouTube decision to place many of its videos in “restricted mode.” In this case, the court found that YouTube was still acting as a private service rather than one filling a typical government role. Other cases have similarly asserted that Internet intermediaries have First Amendment rights to reject or limit ads or content as part of their own rights to speak or not speak. Conservatives have long been proponents of property rights, freedom of association, and free markets. But now, faced with platforms choosing to exercise their rights, rather than defend those values and compete in the market some “conservatives” are arguing for legislation or utilizing litigation to bully the marketplace of ideas into giving them a louder microphone. In fact, part of the purpose behind creating the liability immunity (known as Section 230) for such services was the principle that a variety of platforms would emerge with different standards and new and diverse communities could be created and evolve to serve different audiences.

Continue reading →

In recent essays and papers, I have discussed the growth of “innovation arbitrage,” which I defined as, “The movement of ideas, innovations, or operations to those jurisdictions that provide a legal and regulatory environment more hospitable to entrepreneurial activity.” A new Economist article about “Why startups are leaving Silicon Valley,” discusses innovation arbitrage without calling it such. The article notes that, for a variety of reasons, Valley innovators and investors are looking elsewhere to set up shop or put money into new ventures. The article continues:

Other cities are rising in relative importance as a result. The Kauffman Foundation, a non-profit group that tracks entrepreneurship, now ranks the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area first for startup activity in America, based on the density of startups and new entrepreneurs. Mr Thiel is moving to Los Angeles, which has a vibrant tech scene. Phoenix and Pittsburgh have become hubs for autonomous vehicles; New York for media startups; London for fintech; Shenzhen for hardware. None of these places can match the Valley on its own; between them, they point to a world in which innovation is more distributed.

If great ideas can bubble up in more places, that has to be welcome. There are some reasons to think the playing-field for innovation is indeed being levelled up. Capital is becoming more widely available to bright sparks everywhere: tech investors increasingly trawl the world, not just California, for hot ideas. There is less reason than ever for a single region to be the epicentre of technology. Thanks to the tools that the Valley’s own firms have produced, from smartphones to video calls to messaging apps, teams can work effectively from different offices and places.

That’s the power of innovation arbitrage at work.  Continue reading →

by Adam Thierer & Trace Mitchell

[originally published on The Bridge on August 30, 2018.]


What is an entrepreneur?

While it may seem straightforward, this question is deceptively complex. The term can be used in many different ways to describe a variety of individuals who engage in economic, political, or even social activities. Entrepreneurs affect almost every aspect of modern society. While most people probably have a general sense of what is meant when they hear the term entrepreneur, it can be difficult to provide a precise definition. This is due in no small part to the fact that some of the primary thinkers who have given substance to the term have placed their focus on different aspects of entrepreneurialism.

How Economists Talk About Entrepreneurs

Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter thought that the purpose of an entrepreneur was “to reform or revolutionize the pattern of production by exploiting an invention.” Schumpeterian entrepreneurs are highly creative, disruptive innovators who challenge the status quo in order to bring about new economic opportunities. American economist Israel Kirzner viewed the defining characteristic of entrepreneurs as “alertness.” Kirznerian entrepreneurs are individuals who are able to identify the ways in which a market could be moved closer to its equilibrium, such as recognizing a gap in knowledge between different economic actors.

In the time since Schumpeter and Kirzner helped lay the groundwork, a number of George Mason University-affiliated scholars have made major contributions to our understanding of entrepreneurialism. Continue reading →

Thirteen years ago I penned an essay entitled, “Your Soapbox is My Soapbox!” It was condensed from a 2005 book I had released at the same time called Media Myths. My research and writing during that period and for fifteen years prior to that was focused on the dangers associated with calls by radical Left-leaning media scholars and policy activists for a veritable regulatory revolution in the way information and communication technology (ICT) platforms were operated. They pushed this revolution using noble-sounding rhetoric like “fairness in coverage,” “right of reply,” “integrity of public debate,” “preserving the public square,” and so on. Their advocacy efforts were also accompanied by calls for a host of new regulatory controls including a “Bill of Media Rights” to grant the public a litany of new affirmative rights over media and communications providers and platforms.

But no matter how much the so-called “media access” movement sought to sugarcoat their prescriptions, in the end, what those Left-leaning scholars and advocates were calling for was sweeping state control of media and communications technologies and platforms. In essence, they wanted to socialize private soapboxes and turn them into handmaidens of the state.

Here’s the way I began my old “soapbox” essay:

Imagine you built a platform in your backyard for the purpose of informing or entertaining your friends of neighbors. Now further imagine that you are actually fairly good at what you do and manage to attract and retain a large audience. Then one day, a few hecklers come to hear you speak on your platform. They shout about how it’s unfair that you have attracted so many people to hear you speak on your soapbox and they demand access to your platform for a certain amount of time each day. They rationalize this by arguing that it is THEIR rights as listeners that are really important, not YOUR rights as a speaker or the owner of the soapbox.

That sort of scenario could never happen in America, right? Sadly, it’s been the way media law has operated for several decades in this country. This twisted “media access” philosophy has been employed by federal lawmakers and numerous special interest groups to justify extensive and massively unjust regime of media regulation and speech redistributionism. And it’s still at work today.

That was 2005. What’s amazing today is that this same twisted attitude is still on display, but it is conservatives who are now the ring-leaders of the push to socialize soapboxes! Continue reading →

A few states have passed Internet regulations because the Trump FCC, citing a 20 year US policy of leaving the Internet “unfettered by Federal or State regulation,” decided to reverse the Obama FCC’s 2015 decision to regulate the Internet with telephone laws.

Those state laws regulating Internet traffic management practices–which supporters call “net neutrality”–are unlikely to survive lawsuits because the Internet and Internet services are clearly interstate communications and FCC authority dominates. (The California bill also likely violates federal law concerning E-Rate-funded Internet access.) 

However, litigation can take years. In the meantime ISP operators will find they face fewer regulatory headaches if they do exactly what net neutrality supporters believe the laws prohibit: block Internet content. Net neutrality laws in the US don’t apply to ISPs that “edit the Internet.”

The problem for net neutrality supporters is that Internet service providers, like cable TV providers, are protected by the First Amendment. In fact, Internet regulations with a nexus to content are subject to “strict scrutiny,” which typically means regulations are struck down. Even leading net neutrality proponents, like the ACLU and EFF, endorse the view that ISP curation is expressive activity protected by First Amendment.

As I’ve pointed out, these First Amendment concerns were raised during the 2016 litigation and compelled the Obama FCC to clarify that its 2015 “net neutrality” Order allows ISPs to block content. As a pro-net neutrality journalist recently wrote in TechCrunch about the 2015 rules, 

[A] tiny ISP in Texas called Alamo . . . wanted to offer a “family-friendly” edited subset of the internet to its customers.

Funnily enough, this is permitted! And by publicly stating that it has no intention of providing access to “substantially all Internet endpoints,” Alamo would exempt itself from the net neutrality rules! Yes, you read that correctly — an ISP can opt out of the rules by changing its business model. They are . . . essentially voluntary.

The author wrote this to ridicule Judge Kavanaugh, but the joke is clearly not on Kavanuagh.

In fact, under the 2015 Order, filtered Internet service was less regulated than conventional Internet service. Note that the rules were “essentially voluntary”–ISPs could opt out of regulation by filtering content. The perverse incentive of this regulatory asymmetry, whereby the FCC would regulate conventional broadband heavily but not regulate filtered Internet at all, was cited by the Trump FCC as a reason to eliminate the 2015 rules. 

State net neutrality laws basically copy and paste from the 2015 FCC regulations and will have the same problem: Any ISP that forthrightly blocks content it doesn’t wish to transmit–like adult content–and edits the Internet is unregulated.

This looks bad for net neutrality proponents leading the charge, so they often respond that the Internet regulations cover the “functional equivalent” of conventional (heavily regulated) Internet access. Therefore, the story goes, regulators can stop an ISP from filtering because an edited Internet is the functional equivalent of an unedited Internet.

Curiously, the Obama FCC didn’t make this argument in court. The reason the Obama FCC didn’t endorse this “functional equivalent” response is obvious. Let’s play this out: An ISP markets and offers a discounted “clean Internet” package because it knows that many consumers would appreciate it. To bring the ISP back into the regulated category, regulators sue, drag the ISP operators into court, and tell judges that state law compels the operator to transmit adult content.

This argument would receive a chilly reception in court. More likely is that state regulators, in order to preserve some authority to regulate the Internet, will simply concede that filtered Internet drops out of regulation, like the Obama FCC did.

As one telecom scholar wrote in a Harvard Law publication years ago, “net neutrality” is dead in the US unless there’s a legal revolution in the courts. Section 230 of the Telecom Act encourages ISPs to filter content and the First Amendment protects ISP curation of the Internet. State law can’t change that. The open Internet has been a net positive for society. However, state net neutrality laws may have the unintended effect of encouraging ISPs to filter. This is not news if you follow the debate closely, but rank-and-file net neutrality advocates have no idea. The top fear of leading net neutrality advocates is not ISP filtering, it’s the prospect that the Internet–the most powerful media distributor in history–will escape the regulatory state.

The US government has spent about $100 billion on rural telecommunications in the last 20 years. (That figure doesn’t include the billions of dollars in private investment and state subsidies.) It doesn’t feel like it in many rural areas.

The lion’s share of rural telecom subsidies come from the FCC’s “high-cost” fund, which is part of the Universal Service Fund. The high-cost fund currently disburses about $4.5 billion per year to rural carriers and large carriers serving rural areas. 

Excess in the high-cost program

Bill drafters in Congress and the CBO, after the passage of the 1996 Telecom Act creating the Fund, expected the USF program subsidies to decrease over time. That hasn’t happened. The high-cost fund has increased from $800 million in 1997 to $4.5 billion today.

The GAO and independent scholars find evidence of waste in the rural fund, which traditionally funded rural telephone (voice) service. For instance, former FCC chief economist Prof. Tom Hazlett and Scott Wallsten estimate that “each additional household is added to voice networks at an annual USF cost of about $25,000.” There are at least seven high-cost programs and each has its own complex nomenclature and disbursement mechanisms.

These programs violate many best practices for public finance. Shelanski and Hausman point out, for instance, that a huge distortion for decades has been US regulators’ choice to tax (demand-elastic) long-distance phone services to fund the (demand-inelastic) local phone services. The rural fund disbursement mechanisms also tempt providers to overinvest in goldplated services or, alternatively, inflate operational costs. Wallsten found that about 59 cent for every dollar of rural subsidy goes to carriers’ overhead.

To that end, the high-cost program appears to be supporting fewer households despite the program’s increasing costs. I found in Montana, for instance, that from 1999 to 2009 subsidies to carriers rose 40 percent even while the number of subsidized rural lines fell 30 percent. The FCC’s administrative costs for the four USF programs also seem high. According to the FCC’s most recent report, administrative costs are about $172 million annually, which is more than what 45 states received in high-cost funds in 2016.

A proposal: give consumers tech vouchers

A much more transparent and, I suspect, more effective way of satisfying Congress’ requirement that rural customers have “reasonably comparable” rates to urban customers’s rates for telecom services is to give “tech vouchers.” Vouchers are used in housing, heating, and food purchases in the US, and the UK is using them for rural broadband.

My colleague Trace Mitchell and I are using Census and FCC data to calculate about how much rural households could receive if the program were voucher-ized. Assuming all high-cost funds disbursed to states in 2016 were converted into broadband vouchers, these are our estimates.

If vouchers were distributed equally among rural households today, every rural household in the US (about 20% of US households) would receive about $15 per month to spend on the broadband provider and service of their choice. Low-income rural households could tack on the $9.25 USF Lifeline subsidy and any state subsidies they’re eligible for.

Perfect equality probably isn’t the best way to subsidize rural broadband. The cost of rural service is driven primarily by the housing density, and providing telecom to a rural household in the American West and Great Plains is typically more expensive than providing telecom to a rural household in the denser Northeast, and this is borne out in the FCC’s current high-cost disbursements. For instance, Vermont and Idaho have about the same number of rural households but rural carriers in Idaho receive about 2x as much as rural carriers in Vermont.

However, some disparities are hard to explain. For example, despite South Carolina’s flatter geography than and similar rural population as North Carolina, North Carolina carriers receive, on a per-household basis, only about 40% what South Carolina carriers receive. Alabama and Mississippi have similar geographies and rural populations but Alabama carriers receive only about 20% of what Mississippi carriers receive.

A tiered system of telecom vouchers smooths the disparities, empowers consumers, and simplifies the program. We’ve sorted the states into six tiers based on how much the state received on a per-household basis in 2016. This ranking puts large, Western states in the top tier and denser, Northeastern states in the bottom tier.

In our plan, every rural household in five hardest-to-serve Tier 1 states (Alaska, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota) would receive a $45 monthly discount on the Internet service of their choice, whether DSL, cable, fixed wireless, LTE, or satellite. As they do in the UK, eligible rural households would enter a coupon code when they receive their telecom services bill and the carrier would reduce the price of service accordingly.

Similarly, every rural household in:

Tier 2 states (ten states) would receive a $30 monthly discount.

Tier 3 states (ten states) would receive a $19 monthly discount.

Tier 4 states (ten states) would receive a $13 monthly discount.

Tier 5 states (ten states) would receive a $6 monthly discount.

Tier 6 states (five states) would receive a $3 monthly discount.

$3 per month per rural household doesn’t sound like much but, for each of these states (Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island), this is more than the state currently receives in rural funds. In Connecticut, for instance, the current high-cost funding amounts to about 25 cents per rural household per month.

Under this (tentative) scheme, the US government would actually save $25 million per year from the current disbursements. And these are conservative numbers since they assume 100% participation from every rural household in the US. It’s hard to know what participation would look like but consider Lifeline, which is essentially a phone and broadband voucher program for low-income households. At $9.25 per month, 28% of those eligible for Lifeline participate. This is just a starting point and needs more analysis (see link below for spreadsheet), but it seems conceivable that the FCC could increase the rural voucher amounts above, expect 50% participation, and still save the program money.


As Jerry Hausman and Howard Shelanski have said, “It is well established that targeted subsidies paid from general income tax revenues are often the most efficient way to fund specific activities.” Current law doesn’t allow allow for tech vouchers from general income taxes, but the FCC could allow states to convert their current high-cost funds into tech vouchers for rural households. Vouchers would be more tech-neutral, less costly to administer, and, I suspect, more effective and popular.


Excel spreadsheet of tech vouchers by state (Dropbox): link.