Why My New Forbes Column is Called “Technologies of Freedom”

by on March 27, 2011 · 3 comments

I’m very excited to announce that I now have a regular Forbes column that will fly under the banner, “Technologies of Freedom.” My first essay for them is already live and it addresses a topic I’ve dealt with here extensively through the years: Irrational fears about tech monopolies and “information empires.” Jump over to Forbes to read the whole thing.

Regular readers of this blog will understand why I chose “Technologies of Freedom” as the title for my column, but I thought it was worth reiterating. No book has had a more formative impact on my thinking about technology policy than Ithiel de Sola Pool’s 1983 masterpiece, Technologies of Freedom: On Free Speech in an Electronic Age.  As I noted in my short Amazon.com review, Pool’s technological tour de force is simply breathtaking in its polemical power and predictive capabilities. Reading this book almost three decades after it was published, one comes to believe that Pool must have possessed a crystal ball or had a Nostradamus-like ability to foresee the future.

For example, long before anyone else had envisioned what we now refer to as “cyberspace,” 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,” and “there will be networks on networks on networks,” he predicted. “A panoply of electronic devices puts at everyone’s hands capacities far beyond anything that the printing press could offer.” Few probably believed his prophecies in 1983, but no one doubts him now!

Far more importantly, Pool did all this while also providing a passionate defense of technological freedom and freedom of speech in the electronic age. In his closing chapter on “Policies for Freedom,” Pool discussed possible futures for the emerging world of electronic communications and noted that:

Technology will not be to blame if Americans fail to encompass this system within the political tradition of free speech. On the contrary, electronic technology is conducive to freedom. The degree of diversity and plenitude of access that mature electronic technology allows far exceed what is enjoyed today. Computerized information networks of the twenty-first century need not be any less free for all to use without hindrance than was the printing press. Only political errors might make them so. (p. 231)

Pool went on to outline his “Guidelines for Freedom.” #1 was that “the First Amendment applies fully to all media” and #2 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.”

This framework for freedom and innovation has governed everything I have done over my first two decades in the field of technology policy and it will shape everything I pen for Forbes, much like it has here at the TLF through the years. I can’t pretend to possess Pool’s predictive powers, but I can and will commit myself to espousing and defending his beautiful vision of technological freedom and progress.

This is what I wake up and go to work for each day.  The fight for technological freedom!

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