Many are understandably pessimistic about platforms and technology. This year has been a tough one, from Cambridge Analytica and Russian trolls to the implementation of GDPR and data breaches galore.

Those who think about the world, about the problems that we see every day, and about their own place in it, will quickly realize the immense frailty of humankind. Fear and worry makes sense. We are flawed, each one of us. And technology only seems to exacerbate those problems.

But life is getting better. Poverty continues nose-diving; adult literacy is at an all-time high; people around the world are living longer, living in democracies, and are better educated than at any other time in history. Meanwhile, the digital revolution has resulted in a glut of informational abundance, helping to correct the informational asymmetries that have long plagued humankind. The problem we now face is not how to address informational constraints, but how to provide the means for people to sort through and make sense of this abundant trove of data. These macro trends don’t make headlines. Psychologists know that people love to read negative articles. Our brains are wired for pessimism.

In the shadow of a year of bad news, it helpful to remember that Facebook and Google and Reddit and Twitter also support humane conversations. Most people aren’t going online to talk about politics and if you are, then you are rare. These sites are places where families and friends can connect. They offer a space of solace – like when chronic pain sufferers find others on Facebook, or when widows vent, rage, laugh and cry without judgement through the Hot Young Widows Club. Let’s also not forget that Reddit, while sometimes a place of rage and spite, is also where a weight lifter with cerebral palsy can become a hero and where those with addiction can find healing. And in the hardest to reach places in Canada, in Iqaluit, people say that “Amazon Prime has done more toward elevating the standard of living of my family than any territorial or federal program. Full stop. Period”

Three-fourths of Americans say major technology companies’ products and services have been more good than bad for them personally. But when it comes to the whole of society, they are more skeptical about technology bringing benefits. Here is how I read that disparity: Most of us think that we have benefited from technology, but we worry about where it is taking the human collective. That is an understandable worry, but one that shouldn’t hobble us to inaction.

Nor is technology making us stupid. Indeed, quite the opposite is happening. Technology use in those aged 50 and above seems to have caused them to be cognitively younger than their parents to the tune of 4 to 8 years. While the use of Google does seem to reduce our ability to recall information, studies find that it has boosted other kinds of memory, like retrieving information. Why remember a fact when you can remember where it is located? Concerned how audiobooks might be affecting people, Beth Rogowsky, an associate professor of education, compared them to physical reading and was surprised to find “no significant differences in comprehension between reading, listening, or reading and listening simultaneously.” Cyberbullying and excessive use might make parents worry, but NIH supported work found that “Heavy use of the Internet and video gaming may be more a symptom of mental health problems than a cause. Moderate use of the Internet, especially for acquiring information, is most supportive of healthy development.” Don’t worry. The kids are going to be alright.

And yes, there is a lot we still need to fix. There is cruelty, racism, sexism, and poverty of all kinds embedded in our technological systems. But the best way to handle these issues is through the application of human ingenuity. Human ingenuity begets technology in all of its varieties.

When Scott Alexander over at Star Slate Codex recently looked at 52 startups being groomed by startup incubator Y Combinator, he rightly pointed out that many of them were working for the betterment of all:  

Thirteen of them had an altruistic or international development focus, including Neema, an app to help poor people without access to banks gain financial services; Kangpe, online health services for people in Africa without access to doctors; Credy, a peer-to-peer lending service in India; Clear Genetics, an automated genetic counseling tool for at-risk parents; and Dost Education, helping to teach literacy skills in India via a $1/month course.

Twelve of them seemed like really exciting cutting-edge technology, including CBAS, which describes itself as “human bionics plug-and-play”; Solugen, which has a way to manufacture hydrogen peroxide from plant sugars; AON3D, which makes 3D printers for industrial uses; Indee, a new genetic engineering system; Alem Health, applying AI to radiology, and of course the obligatory drone delivery startup.

Eighteen of them seemed like boring meat-and-potatoes companies aimed at businesses that need enterprise data solution software application package analytics targeting management something something something “the cloud”.

As for the other companies, they were the kind of niche products that Silicon Valley has come to be criticized for supporting. Perhaps the Valley deserves some criticism, but perhaps it deserves more credit than it’s been receiving as-of-late.

Contemporary tech criticism displays a kind of anti-nostalgia. Instead of being reverent for the past, anxiety for the future abounds. In these visions, the future is imagined as a strange, foreign land, beset with problems. And yet, to quote that old adage, tomorrow is the visitor that is always coming but never arrives. The future never arrives because we are assembling it today. We need to work diligently together to piece together a better world. But if we constantly live in fear of what comes next, that future won’t be built. Optimism needn’t be pollyannaish. It only needs to be hopeful of a better world.  

Last week, I had the honor of being a panelist at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s event on the future of privacy regulation. The debate question was simple enough: Should the US copy the EU’s new privacy law?

When we started planning the event, California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) wasn’t a done deal. But now that it has passed and presents a deadline of 2020 for implementation, the terms of the privacy conversation have changed. Next year, 2019, Congress will have the opportunity to pass a law that could supersede the CCPA and some are looking to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for guidance. Here are some reasons for not taking that path. Continue reading →

In recent months, my colleagues and I at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University have published a flurry of essays about the importance of innovation, entrepreneurialism, and “moonshots,” as well as the future of technological governance more generally. A flood of additional material is coming, but I figured I’d pause for a moment to track our progress so far. Much of this work is leading up to my next on the freedom to innovate, which I am finishing up currently.

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Over at the Mercatus Center Bridge blog, Trace Mitchell and I just posted an essay entitled, “A Non-Partisan Way to Help Workers and Consumers,” which discusses the new Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Economic Liberty Task Force report on occupational licensing.

We applaud the FTC’s calls for greater occupational licensing uniformity and portability, but regret the missed opportunity to address root problem of excessive licensing more generally. But while FTC is right to push for greater occupational licensing uniformity and portability, policymakers need to confront the sheer absurdity of licensing so many jobs that pose zero risk to public health & safety. Licensing has become completely detached from risk realities and actual public needs.

As the FTC notes, excessive licensing limits employment opportunities, worker mobility, and competition while also “resulting in higher prices, reduced quality, and less convenience for consumers.” These are unambiguous facts that are widely accepted by experts of all stripes. Both the Obama and Trump Administrations, for example, have been completely in league on the need for comprehensive  licensing reforms. Continue reading →

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.

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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.

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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 →