Technopanics & the Precautionary Principle

I was pleased to see the American Psychological Association’s new statement slowly reversing course on misguided past statements about video games and acts of real-world violence. As Kyle Orland reports in Ars Technica, the APA has clarified its earlier statement on this relationship between watching video game depictions of violence and actual youth behavior. The APA’s old statement said that evidence “confirms [the] link between playing violent video games and aggression.”  But the APA has come around and now says that, “there is insufficient scientific evidence to support a causal link between violent video games and violent behavior.” More specifically, the APA says: 

The following resolution should not be misinterpreted or misused by attributing violence, such as mass shootings, to violent video game use. Violence is a complex social problem that likely stems from many factors that warrant attention from researchers, policy makers and the public. Attributing violence to violent video gaming is not scientifically sound and draws attention away from other factors.

This is a welcome change of course because the APA’s earlier statements were being used by politicians and media activists who favored censorship of video games. Hopefully that will no longer happen.

“Monkey see, monkey do” theories of media exposure leading to acts of real-world violence have long been among the most outrageously flawed theories in the fields of psychology and media studies.  All the evidence points the opposite way, as I documented a decade ago in a variety of studies. (For a summary, see my 2010 essay, “More on Monkey See-Monkey Do Theories about Media Violence & Real-World Crime.”)

In fact, there might even be something to the “cathartic effect hypothesis,” or the idea first articulated by Aristotle (“katharsis”) that watching dramatic portrayals of violence could lead to “the proper purgation of these emotions.” (See my 2010 essay on this, “Video Games, Media Violence & the Cathartic Effect Hypothesis.”)

Of course, this doesn’t mean that endless exposure to video game or TV and movie violence is a good thing. Prudence and good parenting are still essential. Some limits are smart. But the idea that a kid playing or watching violent act will automatically become violent themselves was always nonsense. It’s time we put that theory to rest. Thanks to the new APA statement, we are one step closer.

P.S. I recently penned an essay about my long love affair with video games that you might find entertaining: “Confessions of a ‘Vidiot’: 50 Years of Video Games & Moral Panics

On the latest Institute for Energy Research podcast, I joined Paige Lambermont to discuss:

  • the precautionary principle vs. permissionless innovation;
  • risk analysis trade-offs;
  • the future of nuclear power;
  • the “pacing problem”;
  • regulatory capture;
  • evasive entrepreneurialism;
  • “soft law”;
  • … and why I’m still bitter about losing the 6th grade science fair!

Our discussion was inspired by my recent essay, “How Many Lives Are Lost Due to the Precautionary Principle?”

The race for artificial intelligence (AI) supremacy is on with governments across the globe looking to take the lead in the next great technological revolution. As they did before during the internet era, the US and Europe are once again squaring off with competing policy frameworks.

In early January, the Trump Administration announced a new light-touch regulatory framework and then followed up with a proposed doubling of federal R&D spending on AI and quantum computing. This week, the European Union Commission issued a major policy framework for AI technologies and billed it as “a European approach to excellence and trust.”

It seems the EU basically wants to have its cake and eat it too by marrying up an ambitious industrial policy with a precautionary regulatory regime. We’ve seen this show before. Europe is doubling down on the same policy regime it used for the internet and digital commerce. It did not work out well for the continent then, and there are reasons to think it will backfire on them again for AI technologies. Continue reading →

Here’s a new Federalist Society Regulatory Transparency “Tech Roundup” podcast about driverless cars, artificial intelligence and the growth of “soft law” governance for both. The 34-minute podcast features a conversation between Caleb Watney and me about new Trump Administration AI guidelines as well as the Department of Transportation’s new “Version 4.0” guidance for automated vehicles.

This podcast builds on my recent essay, “Trump’s AI Framework & the Future of Emerging Tech Governance” as well as an earlier law review article, “Soft Law for Hard Problems: The Governance of Emerging Technologies in an Uncertain Future.”

In a new essay for the Mercatus Bridge, I ask, “How Many Lives Are Lost Due to the Precautionary Principle?” The essay builds on two recent case studies of how the precautionary principle can result in unnecessary suffering and deaths. The first case study involves the Japanese government’s decision in 2011 to entirely abandon nuclear energy following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. The second involves Golden Rice, a form of rice that was genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, which helps combat vitamin A deficiency. Anti-GMO resistance among environmental activists and regulatory officials held up the diffusion of this miracle food. New reports and books now document how these precautionary decisions diminished human welfare instead of improving it. I encourage you to jump over to the Bridge and read the entire story.

I concluded the essay by noting that, “It is time to reject the simplistic logic of the precautionary principle and move toward a more rational, balanced approach to the governance of technologies. Our lives and well-being depend upon it.” Some read that as a complete rejection of all preemptive regulation. I certainly was not arguing that, so let me clarify a few things. Continue reading →

The endless apocalyptic rhetoric surrounding Net Neutrality and many other tech policy debates proves there’s no downside to gloom-and-doomism as a rhetorical strategy. Being a techno-Jeremiah nets one enormous media exposure and even when such a person has been shown to be laughably wrong, the press comes back for more. Not only is there is no penalty for hyper-pessimistic punditry, but the press actually furthers the cause of such “fear entrepreneurs” by repeatedly showering them with attention and letting them double-down on their doomsday-ism. Bad news sells, for both the pundit and the press.

But what is most remarkable is that the press continues to label these preachers of the techno-apocalypse as “experts” despite a track record of failed predictions. I suppose it’s because, despite all the failed predictions, they are viewed as thoughtful & well-intentioned. It is another reminder that John Stuart Mill’s 1828 observation still holds true today: “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”

Additional Reading:

CollegeHumor has created this amazing video, “Black Mirror Episodes from Medieval Times,” which is a fun parody of the relentless dystopianism of the Netflix show “Black Mirror.” If you haven’t watched Black Mirror, I encourage you to do so. It’s both great fun and ridiculously bleak and over-the-top in how it depicts modern or future technology destroying all that is good on God’s green earth.

The CollegeHumor team picks up on that and rewinds the clock about a 1,000 years to imagine how Black Mirror might have played out on a stage during the medieval period. The actors do quick skits showing how books become sentient, plows dig holes to Hell and unleash the devil, crossbows destroy the dexterity of archers, and labor-saving yokes divert people from godly pursuits. As one of the audience members says after watching all the episodes, “technology will truly be the ruin of us all!” That’s generally the message of not only Black Mirror, but the vast majority of modern science fiction writing about technology (and also a huge chunk of popular non-fiction writing, too.)

Continue reading →

I have been covering telecom and Internet policy for almost 30 years now. During much of that time – which included a nine year stint at the Heritage Foundation — I have interacted with conservatives on various policy issues and often worked very closely with them to advance certain reforms.

If I divided my time in Tech Policy Land into two big chunks of time, I’d say the biggest tech-related policy issue for conservatives during the first 15 years I was in the business (roughly 1990 – 2005) was preventing the resurrection of the so-called Fairness Doctrine. And the biggest issue during the second 15-year period (roughly 2005 – present) was stopping the imposition of “Net neutrality” mandates on the Internet. In both cases, conservatives vociferously blasted the notion that unelected government bureaucrats should sit in judgment of what constituted “fairness” in media or “neutrality” online.

Many conservatives are suddenly changing their tune, however. President Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, have been increasingly critical of both traditional media and new tech companies in various public statements and suggested an openness to increased regulation. The President has gone after old and new media outlets alike, while Sen. Cruz (along with others like Sen. Lindsay Graham) has suggested during congressional hearings that increased oversight of social media platforms is needed, including potential antitrust action.

Meanwhile, during his short time in office, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has become one of the most vocal Internet critics on the Right. In a shockingly-worded USA Today editorial in late May, Hawley said, “social media wastes our time and resources” and is “a field of little productive value” that have only “given us an addiction economy.” He even referred to these sites as “parasites” and blamed them for a long list of social problems, leading him to suggest that, “we’d be better off if Facebook disappeared” along with various other sites and services.

Hawley’s moral panic over social media has now bubbled over into a regulatory crusade that would unleash federal bureaucrats on the Internet in an attempt to dictate “fair” speech on the Internet. He has introduced an astonishing piece of legislation aimed at undoing the liability protections that Internet providers rely upon to provide open platforms for speech and commerce. If Hawley’s absurdly misnamed new “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act” is implemented, it would essentially combine the core elements of the Fairness Doctrine and Net Neutrality to create a massive new regulatory regime for the Internet. Continue reading →

[This essay originally appeared on the AIER blog on May 28, 2019. The USA TODAY also ran a shorter version of this essay as a letter to the editor on June 2, 2019.]

In a hotly-worded USA Today op-ed last week, Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) railed against social media sites Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. He argued that, “social media wastes our time and resources,” and is “a field of little productive value” that have only “given us an addiction economy.” Sen. Hawley refers to these sites as “parasites” and blames them for a litany of social problems (including an unproven link to increased suicide), leading him to declare that, “we’d be better off if Facebook disappeared.”

As far as moral panics go, Sen. Hawley’s will go down as one for the ages. Politicians have always castigated new technologies, media platforms, and content for supposedly corrupting the youth of their generation. But Sen. Hawley’s inflammatory rhetoric and proposals are something we haven’t seen in quite some time.

He sounds like those fire-breathing politicians and pundits of the past century who vociferously protested everything from comic books to cable television, the waltz to the Walkman, and rock-and-roll to rap music. In order to save the youth of America, many past critics said, we must destroy the media or media platforms they are supposedly addicted to. That is exactly what Sen. Hawley would have us do to today’s leading media platforms because, in his opinion, they “do our country more harm than good.”

We have to hope that Sen. Hawley is no more successful than past critics and politicians who wanted to take these choices away from the public. Paternalistic politicians should not be dictating content choices for the rest of us or destroying technologies and platforms that millions of people benefit from. Continue reading →

I (Eye), Robot?

by on May 8, 2019 · 0 comments

[Originally published on the Mercatus Bridge blog on May 7, 2019.]

I became a little bit more of a cyborg this month with the addition of two new eyes—eye lenses, actually. Before I had even turned 50, the old lenses that Mother Nature gave me were already failing due to cataracts. But after having two operations this past month and getting artificial lenses installed, I am seeing clearly again thanks to the continuing miracles of modern medical technology.

Cataracts can be extraordinarily debilitating. One day you can see the world clearly, the next you wake up struggling to see through a cloudy ocular soup. It is like looking through a piece of cellophane wrap or a continuously unfocused camera.

If you depend on your eyes to make a living as most of us do, then cataracts make it a daily struggle to get even basic things done. I spend most of my time reading and writing each workday. Once the cataracts hit, I had to purchase a half-dozen pair of strong reading glasses and spread them out all over the place: in my office, house, car, gym bag, and so on. Without them, I was helpless.

Reading is especially difficult in dimly lit environments, and even with strong glasses you can forget about reading the fine print on anything. Every pillbox becomes a frightening adventure. I invested in a powerful magnifying glass to make sure I didn’t end up ingesting the wrong things.

For those afflicted with particularly bad cataracts, it becomes extraordinarily risky to drive or operate machinery. More mundane things—watching TV, tossing a ball with your kid, reading a menu at many restaurants, looking at art in a gallery—also become frustrating. Continue reading →