What We’re Reading: Five Tech Policy Classics

by on August 20, 2004

Over the years, a number of people have asked me which technology policy books have had the greatest impact on my thinking, or what I would recommend to others just getting started in the field. Toward that end, here’s my list of the 5 books on tech policy that changed my life:

(#1) Ithiel de Sola Pool – “Technologies of Freedom: On Free Speech in an Electronic Age” (1983)

No book has had a more formative impact on my thinking than Pool’s 1983 classic. This technological tour de force is simply breathtaking in its polemical power and predictive capabilities. Reading this book 20 years after it was published, one comes to believe that Pool must have possessed a magic crystal ball or had a Nostradamus-like ability to foresee the future. Long before anyone else had envisioned a place called “cyberspace,” for example, Pool was describing it in this book. “Networked computers will be the printing presses of the twenty-first century,” he argued in his remarkably prescient chapter on electronic publishing. “Soon most published information will disseminated electronically.” Few probably believed him in 1983, but no one doubts him now.

Meanwhile, he did all this while also providing a passionate defense of technological freedom and freedom of speech. Of his 10 “Guidelines for Freedom,” the very first was that “the First Amendment applies fully to all media” and the second was that “anyone may publish at will.” Regarding economic regulation of tech markets, Pool stressed in principles #3 and #4 that “enforcement must be after the fact, not by prior restraint” and that “regulation is a last recourse. In a free society, the burden of proof is for the least possible regulation of communication.” All I can say to that is, Amen Brother!

Pool also had some very interesting things to say about the future of copyright law in the information age and stressed that “copyright enforcement must be adapted to the new technology.” He continued: “A workable copyright system is never enacted by law alone. Rather it evolves as a social system, which may be bolstered by law. The book and music royalty systems that now exist are very different from each other, reflecting the different structures of the industries. What the law does is to put sanctions behind what the parties already consider right. So too with electronic publishing on computer networks, a normative system must grow out of actual patterns of work. The law may then lend support to these norms.” Again, he said all this over 15 years before Napster even hit the scene. Amazing.

Commenting on the lasting impact of “Technologies of Freedom,” Stewart Brand has noted that: “With each passing year the value of this 1983 book becomes more evident. Like no one before or since, Ithiel de Sola Pool saw the world of communications whole and with up-to-the-second knowledge in depth. The book is still ahead of its time… I’ve seen this book convert liberals away from government control of broadcast media toward a guided marketplace approach. Yes, they would even auction radio and TV spectrum rather than allocate it, as now. I’ve seen technology skeptics who doubted that fiber-optic cable to the home would have much to fill it begin to get a gleam in their eye about the broadband frontiers beckoning.”

This book is so important to me that I try to re-read it every 2-3 years. (Note: I also encourage you to check out “Technologies Without Boundaries,” a wonderful collection of his last essays, published posthumously with some editing by Eli Noam of Columbia Univ.) Read these books!

(#2) Jonathan Emord – “Freedom, Technology, and the First Amendment” (1991)

If you care about the First Amendment and freedom of speech, then you simply must read this book. Emord doesn’t begin by making any assumptions about the nature and purpose of the First Amendment; he starts in pre-colonial times and explains how our rich heritage of freedom of speech and expression came about. Emord makes an irrefutable case for a strict reading and understanding of the First Amendment and demolishes competing modern interpretations that would diminish the meaning and power of the amendment.

Like Pool, Emord also makes the case for equality of all press providers and debunks the twisted logic behind much of this century’s corrupt jurisprudence governing speech transmitted via electronic media. Pool and Emord make it clear that if the First Amendment is retain its true meaning and purpose as a bulwark against government control of speech and expression, electronic media providers (TV, radio, cable, the Internet) must be accorded full First Amendment freedoms on par with traditional print media (newspapers, magazines, journals).

What I like best about this book is that Emord is a no-holds-barred defender of freedom of speech. This is no wishy-washy apologia for free speech, rather, it is a celebration of the amazing gift of freedom that the Founding Fathers gave us with the very first amendment to our constitution.

(#3) George Gilder – “Microcosm” (1990)

George is the poet laureate of high technology. No one has ever written about these issues with such a powerful combination of elegant prose and technological expertise. The narrative George uses to tell the story of the microchip relies heavily on the personalities that shaped the industry. You get what feels like a first-hand account of how the semiconductor industry developed from Day 1.

And while telling this amazing story, George doesn’t shy away from stressing the relevance of all this to human liberty. He makes it clear why the microchip is one of the most important “technologies of freedom” to use Pool’s term.

(#4) Bruce Owen “The Internet Challenge to Television” (1999)

An overlooked masterpiece thanks in no small part to the misleading title. Bruce’s book is really about much more than just the Internet and television. It is really a complete history of communications and media regulation from the 1930s to the present. Bruce is a first-rate economist who shows how much of communications and media history can be defined as the triumph of good intentions over good economics. He highlights the unintended consequences of federal regulatory policies in one industry after another and warns of extending misguiding rules to newer technologies and networks. Although a little dated now, it’s still an excellent primer on the issues.

(#5) Peter Huber – “Law and Disorder in Cyberspace: Abolish the FCC and Let Common Law Rule the Telecosm” (1997)

Huber is the author of many important books on telecommunications and technology policy, including his indispensable treatises with John Thorne and Michael Kellogg, “Federal Telecommunications Law” and “Federal Broadband Law.” But “Law and Disorder” is a slender volume that gives you all the highlights you’ll need from those two masterworks.

Having read all of Peter’s books and being lucky enough to work with him a bit over the past decade, I can honestly say that I have never met a more brilliant legal mind in my life. His towering genius is on display in all his work, but the reason I like “Law and Disorder” best is that he essentially offers us a “Cliff’s Notes” manifesto for communications and broadband freedom. If you’re looking for the checklist for free-market reform on this front, look no further than this book. But if you’re an uber-goober like me and want even more, go get those two treatises for your bookshelf. I have probably quoted more passages from these books in my own work than any other books or articles on technology or communications policy. They’re that important.

I hope you find this list useful and I would be interested in hearing what you think belongs on any “Tech Policy Must Read” list.

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