On May 3rd, I’m excited to be participating in a discussion with Yale University bioethicist Wendell Wallach at the Microsoft Innovation & Policy Center in Washington, DC. (RSVP here.) Wallach and I will be discussing issues we write about in our new books, both of which focus on possible governance models for emerging technologies and the question of how much preemptive control society should exercise over new innovations.
Of all the books of technological criticism or skepticism that I’ve read in recent years—and I have read stacks of them!—A Dangerous Master is by far the most thoughtful and interesting. I have grown accustomed to major works of technological criticism being caustic, angry affairs. Most of them are just dripping with dystopian dread and a sense of utter exasperation and outright disgust at the pace of modern technological change.
Although he is certainly concerned about a wide variety of modern technologies—drones, robotics, nanotech, and more—Wallach isn’t a purveyor of the politics of panic. There are some moments in the book when he resorts to some hyperbolic rhetoric, such as when he frets about an impending “techstorm” and the potential, as the book’s title suggests, for technology to become a “dangerous master” of humanity. For the most part, however, his approach is deeper and more dispassionate than what is found in the leading tracts of other modern techno-critics.
Throughout the year, I collect some of the more notable tech policy-related essays that I’ve read and then publish an end-of-year list here. (Here, for example, are my end-of-year lists from 2014 and 2013.) So, here are some of my favorite essays and editorials from 2015. (Note: They are just in chronological order. No ranking here.)
Larry Downes – “Take note Republicans and Democrats, this is what a pro-innovation platform looks like,” Washington Post, January 7. (Downes explains how governments need to adapt to accommodate and embrace new forms of technological innovation. He notes: “Here at home, the opportunity to wrap themselves in the flag of innovation is knocking for both parties, but so far there are few takers. Republicans and Democrats regularly invoke the rhetoric of innovation, entrepreneurship, and the transformative power of technology. But in reality neither party pursues policies that favor the disruptors. Instead, where lawmakers once took a largely hands-off approach to Silicon Valley, as the Internet revolution enters a new stage of industry transformation, the temptation to intervene, to usurp, to micromanage, to circumscribe the future — becomes irresistible.”) Equally excellent was Larry’s essay later in the year, “Fewer, Faster, Smarter.” (“As the technology revolution proceeds, the concept of government may return to its pre-industrial roots, setting the most basic rules of the economy and standing by as regulator of last resort when markets fail for some or all consumers over an extended period of time. Even then, the solution may simply be to tweak the incentives to encourage better behavior, rather than more full-fledged—and usually ill-fated—micromanagement of fast-changing industries.”)
Bryant Walker Smith – “Slow Down That Runaway Ethical Trolley,” CIS Blog, January 12. (Smith, a leading expert on autonomous vehicle systems, notes that, while serious ethical dilemmas will always be present with such technologies, we should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. “The fundamental ethical question, in my opinion, is this: In the United States alone, tens of thousands of people die in motor vehicle crashes every year, and many more are injured. Automated vehicles have great potential to one day reduce this toll, but the path to this point will involve mistakes and crashes and fatalities. Given this stark choice, what is the proper balance between caution and urgency in bringing these systems to the market? How safe is safe enough?”)
Andrew McAfee – “Who are the humanists, and why do they dislike technology so much?” Financial Times, July 7, 2015. (A brief but brilliant exploration of the philosophical fight over differing conceptions of “humanism.” McAfee, appropriately in my opinion, calls into question technological critics who self-label themselves “humanists” and then suggest that those who believe in the benefits of technological innovation and progress are somehow opposed to humanity. In reality, of course, nothing could be further from the truth!)
Jocelyn Brewer – “Techno-Fear is Hurting Kids, Not Their Use of Digital Devices,” July 7, 2015. (A beautiful piece that makes it clear why “the Internet… is not addictive. Technology is not a drug.” Brewer continues on to make the case for avoiding fear-based messaging about Internet problems and instead adopting a more sensible approach: “Rather than trotting out interminable lists of the negative consequences of our adoption of technology lets raise awareness of how to avoid the pitfalls of not approaching this new era with solutions and proactive thinking.” Amen, sister!)
Evan Ackerman – “We Should Not Ban ‘Killer Robots,’ and Here’s Why,” IEEE Spectrum, July 29, 2015, (A thought-provoking piece about a controversial subject in which Ackerman argues that “banning the technology is not going to solve the problem if the problem is the willingness of humans to use technology for evil”)
Tim O’Reilly – “Networks and the Nature of the Firm,” Medium, August 14, 2015. (Explores the economics of the sharing economy and “the huge economic shift led by software and connectedness.”)
Joe Queenan – “America’s Need for Pointless Updates and Cat Videos,” Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2015. (“The back-to-nature, turn-off-your-cellphone movement is based on a false assumption. . . . Time not spent doing dumb stuff would otherwise be wasted doing other dumb stuff. It’s called ‘play,’ without which Jack is a dull boy. It is a variation on the old saying that nature abhors a vacuum. So nature created the Internet.”)
I recently finishedLearning by Doing: The Real Connection between Innovation, Wages, and Wealth, by James Bessen of the Boston University Law School. It’s a good book to check out if you are worried about whether workers will be able to weather this latest wave of technological innovation. One of the key insights of Bessen’s book is that, as with previous periods of turbulent technological change, today’s workers and businesses will obviously need find ways to adapt to rapidly-changing marketplace realities brought on by the Information Revolution, robotics, and automated systems.
That sort of adaptation takes time, but for technological revolutions to take hold and have meaningful impact on economic growth and worker conditions, it requires that large numbers of ordinary workers acquire new knowledge and skills, Bessen notes. But, “that is a slow and difficult process, and history suggests that it often requires social changes supported by accommodating institutions and culture.” (p 223) That is not a reason to resist disruptive forms of technological change, however. To the contrary, Bessen says, it is crucial to allow ongoing trial-and-error experimentation and innovation to continue precisely because it represents a learning process which helps people (and workers in particular) adapt to changing circumstances and acquire new skills to deal with them. That, in a nutshell, is “learning by doing.” As he elaborates elsewhere in the book:
Major new technologies become ‘revolutionary’ only after a long process of learning by doing and incremental improvement. Having the breakthrough idea is not enough. But learning through experience and experimentation is expensive and slow. Experimentation involves a search for productive techniques: testing and eliminating bad techniques in order to find good ones. This means that workers and equipment typically operate for extended periods at low levels of productivity using poor techniques and are able to eliminate those poor practices only when they find something better. (p. 50)
Luckily, however, history also suggests that, time and time again, that process has happened and the standard of living for workers and average citizens alike improved at the same time. Continue reading →
I was delivering a lecture to a group of academics and students out in San Jose recently [see the slideshow here] and someone in the crowd asked me to send them a list of some of the many books I had mentioned during my talk, which was about future policy clashes over various emerging technologies. I cut the list down to the five books that I believe best frame the nature of debates over innovation and technology policy. They are:
Virginia Postrel, The Future and Its Enemies (1998): Contrasts the conflicting worldviews of “dynamism” and “stasis” and shows how the tensions between these two visions influences debates over technological progress. No book has had a greater influence on my own thinking about debates over innovation and progress.
If you haven’t read these amazing books yet, add them to your collection right now! They are worth reading again and again. They will forever change the way you think about debates over technology and innovation.
Over the course of the year, I collect some of my favorite (and least favorite) tech policy essays and put them together in an end-of-year blog post so I will remember notable essays in the future. (Here’s my list from 2013.) Here are some of the best tech policy essays I read in 2014 (in chronological order).
Joel Mokyr – “The Next Age of Invention,” City Journal, Winter 2014. (An absolutely beautiful refutation of the technological pessimism that haunts our age. Mokry concludes by noting that, “technology will continue to develop and change human life and society at a rate that may well dwarf even the dazzling developments of the twentieth century. Not everyone will like the disruptions that this progress will bring. The concern that what we gain as consumers, viewers, patients, and citizens, we may lose as workers is fair. The fear that this progress will create problems that no one can envisage is equally realistic. Yet technological progress still beats the alternatives; we cannot do without it.” Mokyr followed it up with a terrific August 8 Wall Street Journal oped, “What Today’s Economic Gloomsayers Are Missing.“)
Michael Moynihan – “Can a Tweet Put You in Prison? It Certainly Will in the UK,” The Daily Beast, January 23, 2014. (Great essay on the right and wrong way to fight online hate. Here’s the kicker: “There is a presumption that ugly ideas are contagious and if the already overburdened police force could only disinfect the Internet, racism would dissipate. This is arrant nonsense.”)
Hanni Fakhoury – “The U.S. Crackdown on Hackers Is Our New War on Drugs,” Wired, January 23, 2014. (“We shouldn’t let the government’s fear of computers justify disproportionate punishment. . . . It’s time for the government to learn from its failed 20th century experiment over-punishing drugs and start making sensible decisions about high-tech punishment in the 21st century.”)
Carole Cadwalladr – “Meet Cody Wilson, Creator of the 3D-gun, Anarchist, Libertarian,” Guardian/Observer, February 8, 2014. (Entertaining profile of one of the modern digital age’s most fascinating characters. “There are enough headlines out there which ask: Is Cody Wilson a terrorist? Though my favourite is the one that asks: ‘Cody Wilson: troll, genius, patriot, provocateur, anarchist, attention whore, gun nut or Second Amendment champion.’ Though it could have added, ‘Or b) all of the above?'”)
First, I attempt to show how the central fault line in almost all modern technology policy debates revolves around “the permission question,” which asks: Must the creators of new technologies seek the blessing of public officials before they develop and deploy their innovations? How that question is answered depends on the disposition one adopts toward new inventions. Two conflicting attitudes are evident.
One disposition is known as the “precautionary principle.” Generally speaking, it refers to the belief that new innovations should be curtailed or disallowed until their developers can prove that they will not cause any harms to individuals, groups, specific entities, cultural norms, or various existing laws, norms, or traditions.
The other vision can be labeled “permissionless innovation.” It refers to the notion that experimentation with new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default. Unless a compelling case can be made that a new invention will bring serious harm to society, innovation should be allowed to continue unabated and problems, if they develop at all, can be addressed later.
I argue that we are witnessing a grand clash of visions between these two mindsets today in almost all major technology policy discussions today. Continue reading →
I didn’t have nearly as much time this year to review the steadily growing stream of information policy books that were released. The end-of-year lists I put together in the past were fairly comprehensive (see2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012), but I got sidetracked this year with 7 law review articles and an eBook project and had almost no time for book reviews, or even general blogging for that matter.
So, I’ve just listed some of the more notable titles from 2013 even though I didn’t find the time to describe them all. The first couple are the titles that I believe will have the most lasting influence on information technology policy debates. Needless to say, just because I believe that some of these titles will have an impact on policy going forward does not mean I endorse the perspectives or recommendations in any of them. And that would certainly be the case with my choice for most important Net policy book of the year, Ian Brown and Chris Marsden’s Regulating Code. Their book does a wonderful job mapping the unfolding universe of Internet “co-regulation” and “multi-stakeholderism,” but their defense of a more politicized information policy future leaves lovers of liberty like me utterly demoralized.
The same could be said of many other titles on the list. As I noted in concluding several reviews over the past year, liberty is increasingly a loser in Internet policy circles these days. And it’s not just neo-Marxist rants like McChesney’s Digital Disconnect or Lanier’s restatement of the Unibomber Manifesto, Who Owns the Future? The sad reality is that pretty much everybody these days has a pet peeve they want addressed through pure power politics because, you know, something must be done! The very term “Internet freedom” has already been grotesquely contorted into something akin to an open mandate for governments to meticulously plan virtually every facet of economic and social activity in the Information Age.
Anyway, despite that caveat, many interesting books were released in 2013 on an ever-expanding array of specific information policy topics. Here’s the list of everything that landed on my desk over the past year. Continue reading →
Here are a few Internet policy essays I collected over the past year which I thought were particularly well done and worth highlighting once more. They are listed in chronological order:
L. Gordon Crovitz – “Silicon Valley’s ‘Suicide Impulse,'” Wall Street Journal, January 28. (“It’s a measure of how far Silicon Valley has strayed from its entrepreneurial roots that a top regulator is calling on technology companies to do less lobbying and more competing,” Crovitz argued. “Rather than lobby government to go after one another, Silicon Valley lobbyists should unite to go after overreaching government. Instead of the “suicide impulse” of lobbying for more regulation, Silicon Valley should seek deregulation and a long-overdue freedom to return to its entrepreneurial roots.”)
John Gruber – “Open and Shut,” Daring Fireball, March 1. (An absolutely brutal evisceration of Tim Wu’s recent work.)
As I’ve noted before, I didn’t start my professional life in the early 1990s as a tech policy wonk. My real passion 20 years ago was free trade policy. Unfortunately for me, as my boss rudely informed me at the time, the world was already brimming with aspiring trade analysts and probably didn’t need another. This was the time of NAFTA and WTO negotiations and seemingly everybody was lining up to get into the world of trade policy during that period.
And so, while I was finishing a master’s degree with trade theory applications and patiently hoping for opportunities to open up, I decided to take what I thought was going to be a brief detour into the strange new world of the Internet and information technology policy. Of course, I never looked backed. I was hooked on Net policy from Day 1. But I never stopped caring about trade theory and I have always remained passionate about the essential role that free trade plays in expanding commerce, improving human welfare, and facilitating more peaceful interactions among the diverse cultures and countries of this planet.
Ronald J. Deibert is the director of The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and the author of an important new book, Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, an in-depth look at the growing insecurity of the Internet. Specifically, Deibert’s book is a meticulous examination of the “malicious threats that are growing from the inside out” and which “threaten to destroy the fragile ecosystem we have come to take for granted.” (p. 14) It is also a remarkably timely book in light of the recent revelations about NSA surveillance and how it is being facilitated with the assistance of various tech and telecom giants.
The clear and colloquial tone that Deibert employs in the text helps make arcane Internet security issues interesting and accessible. Indeed, some chapters of the book almost feel like they were pulled from the pages of techno-thriller, complete with villainous characters, unexpected plot twists, and shocking conclusions. “Cyber crime has become one of the world’s largest growth businesses,” Deibert notes (p. 144) and his chapters focus on many prominent recent examples, including cyber-crime syndicates like Koobface, government cyber-spying schemes like GhostNet, state-sanctioned sabotage like Stuxnet, and the vexing issue of zero-day exploit sales.
Deibert is uniquely qualified to narrate this tale not just because he is a gifted story-teller but also because he has had a front row seat in the unfolding play that we might refer to as “How Cyberspace Grew Less Secure.” Continue reading →