Philosophy & Cyber-Libertarianism

After reading LM Sacasas’ recent piece on moral communities, I couldn’t help but wonder if the piece was written in the esoteric mode.

Let me explain by some meandering.

Now, I am surely going to butcher his argument, so take a read of it yourself, but there is a bit of an interesting call and response structure to the piece. He begins with commentary on “frequent deployment of the rhetorical we,” in discussions over the morality of technology. Then, channeling Langdon Winner, he notes approvingly that “What matters here is that this lovely ‘we’ suggests the presence of a moral community that may not, in fact, exist at all, at least not in any coherent, self-conscious form.” Continue reading →

Contemporary tech criticism displays an anti-nostalgia. Instead of being reverent for the past, anxiety about 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.  

The distance between the now and the future finds its hook in tech policy in the pacing problem, a term describing the mismatch between advancing technologies and society’s efforts to cope with them. Vivek Wadhwa explained that, “We haven’t come to grips with what is ethical, let alone with what the laws should be, in relation to technologies such as social media.” In The Laws of Disruption, Larry Downes explained the pacing problem like this: “technology changes exponentially, but social, economic, and legal systems change incrementally.” Or, as Adam Thierer wondered, “What happens when technological innovation outpaces the ability of laws and regulations to keep up?”

Here are three short responses. Continue reading →

To read Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction (2016) is to experience another in a line of progressive pugilists of the technological age. Where Tim Wu took on the future of the Internet and Evgeny Morozov chided online slactivism, O’Neil takes on algorithms, or what she has dubbed weapons of math destruction (WMD).

O’Neil’s book came at just the right moment in 2016. It sounded the alarm about big data just as it was becoming a topic for public discussion. And now, two years later, her worries seem prescient. As she explains in the introduction,

Big Data has plenty of evangelists, but I’m not one of them. This book will focus sharply in the other direction, on the damage inflicted by WMDs and the injustice they perpetuate. We will explore harmful examples that affect people at critical life moments: going to college, borrowing money, getting sentenced to prison, or finding and holding a job. All of these life domains are increasingly controlled by secret models wielding arbitrary punishments.

O’Neil is explicit about laying out the blame at the feet of the WMDs, “You cannot appeal to a WMD. That’s part of their fearsome power. They do not listen.” Yet, these models aren’t deployed and adopted in a frictionless environment. Instead, they “reflect goals and ideology” as O’Neil readily admits. Where Weapons of Math Destruction falters is that it ascribes too much agency to algorithms in places, and in doing so misses the broader politics behind algorithmic decision making. Continue reading →

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 Continue reading →

I recently posted an essay over at The Bridge about “The Pacing Problem and the Future of Technology Regulation.” In it, I explain why the pacing problem—the notion that technological innovation is increasingly outpacing the ability of laws and regulations to keep up—“is becoming the great equalizer in debates over technological governance because it forces governments to rethink their approach to the regulation of many sectors and technologies.”

In this follow-up article, I wanted to expand upon some of the themes developed in that essay and discuss how they relate to two other important concepts: the “Collingridge Dilemma” and technological determinism. In doing so, I will build on material that is included in a forthcoming law review article I have co-authored with Jennifer Skees, Ryan Hagemann (“Soft Law for Hard Problems: The Governance of Emerging Technologies in an Uncertain Future”) as well as a book I am finishing up on the growth of “evasive entrepreneurialism” and “technological civil disobedience.”

Recapping the Nature of the Pacing Problem

First, let us quickly recap that nature of “the pacing problem.” I believe Larry Downes did the best job explaining the “problem” in his 2009 book on The Laws of Disruption. Downes argued that “technology changes exponentially, but social, economic, and legal systems change incrementally” and that this “law” was becoming “a simple but unavoidable principle of modern life.” Continue reading →

In cleaning up my desk this weekend, I chanced upon an old notebook and like many times before I began to transcribe the notes. It was short, so I got to the end within a couple of minutes. The last page was scribbled with the German term Öffentlichkeit (public sphere), a couple sentences on Hannah Arendt, and a paragraph about Norberto Bobbio’s view of public and private.

Then I remembered. Yep. This is the missing notebook from a class on democracy in the digital age.   

Serendipitously, a couple of hours later, William Freeland alerted me to Franklin Foer’s newest piece in The Atlantic titled “The Death of the Public Square.” Foer is the author of “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech,” and if you want a good take on that book, check out Adam Thierer’s review in Reason.

Much like the book, this Atlantic piece wades into techno ruin porn but focuses instead on the public sphere: Continue reading →

“Responsible research and innovation,” or “RRI,” has become a major theme in academic writing and conferences about the governance of emerging technologies. RRI might be considered just another variant of corporate social responsibility (CSR), and it indeed borrows from that heritage. What makes RRI unique, however, is that it is more squarely focused on mitigating the potential risks that could be associated with various technologies or technological processes. RRI is particularly concerned with “baking-in” certain values and design choices into the product lifecycle before new technologies are released into the wild.

In this essay, I want to consider how RRI lines up with the opposing technological governance regimes of “permissionless innovation” and the “precautionary principle.” More specifically, I want to address the question of whether “permissionless innovation” and “responsible innovation” are even compatible. While participating in recent university seminars and other tech policy events, I have encountered a certain degree of skepticism—and sometimes outright hostility—after suggesting that, properly understood, “permissionless innovation” and “responsible innovation” are not warring concepts and that RRI can co-exist peacefully with a legal regime that adopts permissionless innovation as its general tech policy default. Indeed, the application of RRI lessons and recommendations can strengthen the case for adopting a more “permissionless” approach to innovation policy in the United States and elsewhere. Continue reading →

[originally published on Plaintext on June 21, 2017.]

This summer, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of two developments that gave us the modern Internet as we know it. One was a court case that guaranteed online speech would flow freely, without government prior restraints or censorship threats. The other was an official White House framework for digital markets that ensured the free movement of goods and services online.

The result of these two vital policy decisions was an unprecedented explosion of speech freedoms and commercial opportunities that we continue to enjoy the benefits of twenty years later.

While it is easy to take all this for granted today, it is worth remembering that, in the long arc of human history, no technology or medium has more rapidly expanded the range of human liberties — both speech and commercial liberties — than the Internet and digital technologies. But things could have turned out much differently if not for the crucially important policy choices the United States made for the Internet two decades ago. Continue reading →

[Remarks prepared for Fifth Annual Conference on Governance of Emerging Technologies: Law, Policy & Ethics at Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ, May 18, 2017.]

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What are we to make of this peculiar new term “permissionless innovation,” which has gained increasing currency in modern technology policy discussions? And how much relevance has this notion had—or should it have—on those conversations about the governance of emerging technologies? That’s what I’d like to discuss here today.

Uncertain Origins, Unclear Definitions

I should begin by noting that while I have written a book with the term in the title, I take no credit for coining the phrase “permissionless innovation,” nor have I been able to determine who the first person was to use the term. The phrase is sometimes attributed to Grace M. Hopper, a computer scientist who was a rear admiral in the United States Navy. She once famously noted that, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”

“Hopper’s Law,” as it has come to be known in engineering circles, is probably the most concise articulation of the general notion of “permissionless innovation” that I’ve ever heard, but Hopper does not appear to have ever used the actual phrase anywhere. Moreover, Hopper was not necessarily applying this notion to the realm of technological governance, but was seemingly speaking more generically about the benefit of trying new things without asking for the blessing of any number of unnamed authorities or overseers—which could include businesses, bosses, teachers, or perhaps even government officials. Continue reading →

Written with Christopher Koopman and Brent Skorup (originally published on Medium on 4/10/17)

Innovation isn’t just about the latest gee-whiz gizmos and gadgets. That’s all nice, but something far more profound is at stake: Innovation is the single most important determinant of long-term human well-being. There exists widespread consensus among historians, economists, political scientists and other scholars that technological innovation is the linchpin of expanded economic growth, opportunity, choice, mobility, and human flourishing more generally. It is the ongoing search for new and better ways of doing things that drives human learning and prosperity in every sense — economic, social, and cultural.

As the Industrial Revolution revealed, leaps in economic and human growth cannot be planned. They arise from societies that reward risk takers and legal systems that accommodate change. Our ability to achieve progress is directly proportional to our willingness to embrace and benefit from technological innovation, and it is a direct result of getting public policies right.

The United States is uniquely positioned to lead the world into the next era of global technological advancement and wealth creation. That’s why we and our colleagues at the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University devote so much time and energy to defending the importance of innovation and countering threats to it. Unfortunately, those threats continue to multiply as fast as new technologies emerge. Continue reading →