Articles by Adam Thierer

Adam ThiererAdam is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He previously served as President of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, Director of Telecom. Studies at the Cato Institute, and Fellow in Economic Policy at the Heritage Foundation.


Last month, it was my great honor to be invited to be a keynote speaker at Lincoln Network’s Reboot 2018 “Innovation Under Threat” conference. Zach Graves interviewed me for 30 minutes about a wide range of topics, including: innovation arbitrage, evasive entrepreneurialism, technopanics, the pacing problem, permissionless innovation, technological civil disobedience, existential risk, soft law and more. They’ve now posted the full event video and you can watch it down below.

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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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 →

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.]

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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 →

Is code speech? That is one of the timeless questions that comes up again and again in the field of Internet law and policy. Many books and countless papers and essays have touched on this topic. Personally, I’ve always thought it was a bit silly that this is even a serious question. After all, if code isn’t speech, what the heck is it?

We humans express ourselves in many creative ways. We speak and write. We sing and dance. We paint and sculpt. And now we code. All these things are forms of human expression. Under American First Amendment jurisprudence, expression is basically synonymous with speech. We very tightly limit restrictions on speech and expression because it is a matter of personal autonomy and also because we believe that there is a profound danger of the proverbial slippery slope kicking in once we allow government officials to start censoring what they regard as offensive speech or dangerous expression.

Thus, we when creative people come up with creative thoughts and use computers and software to express them in code, that is speech. It is fundamentally no different than using a pencil and pad of paper to write a manifesto, or using a guitar and microphone to sing a protest song. The authorities might not like the resulting manifesto or protest song–in fact, they might feel quite threatened by it–but that fact also makes it clear why, in both cases, that expression is speech and that speech is worth defending. Moreover, the methods or mediums of speech production and dissemination–pencils, paper, guitars, microphones, etc.–are what Ithiel de Sola Pool referred to as “Technologies of Freedom.” They help people extend their voices and to communicate with the world, while also learning more about it.

Which brings us to the 3D printers and the code behind the open source blueprints that many people share to fabricate things with 3D printers.  Continue reading →