Is Tech Populism Stifling the Potential of the Internet?
Last week, the ITIF (Information Technology & Innovation Foundation) hosted a panel discussion on a theme familiar to readers of this blog. The title of the discussion, based on a report of the same name, was How Tech Populism is Undermining Innovation. The lead author of that report and host of the conversation, ITIF president, Robert D. Atkinson stated that it is time for tech populism to be replaced by tech progressivism, the thesis being that debate over most, if not all, issues pertaining to the digital age — from SOPA to NetNeutrality — is governed not by dialogue grounded in a rational search for sound policy, but by wild, emotionally-charged, populist spin that disguises individual selfishness in a cloak of insincere public interest. To quote the report:
“Populism draws its strength from individuals’ fears, misunderstandings, or distrust, appealing to the prejudices of crowds and relying on demagoguery, distortion, and groupthink. Tech populists focus on maximizing self-interest and personal freedom, even if it comes at the expense of broader public interests. While tech populists are not necessarily anti-technology, many perversely oppose certain technologies because they do not trust societal institutions to establish or enforce reasonable controls over their use. The populist view is that elites, especially big business and big government, will prevent useful rules from being established—or, if those rules are established, will find ways to bypass them at the expense of the broader public. They distrust the private sector because they believe corporations are driven purely by profit, and they distrust the public sector because they believe government is ineffectual and overbearing. As a result, they decry even the most pragmatic of policy solutions.”
Variations on the theme of tech populism have been part of this blog since its launch, but I wanted to address one set of comments from panelist Elliot Maxwell, Chairman of e-Maxwell and Associates. To paraphrase, Maxwell described the ITIF report as a caricature of one side in the debate on tech issues, raising the subject of balance, saying that all parties are responsible for rejecting rhetoric and hype in favor of reasoned debate based on facts. Fair enough, but by way of example, he cited scientific studies funded by the NIH and what he described as unsupported exaggerations made by the scientific publishing community over the long-term effects on research if these studies were made publicly available for free.
I cannot comment on what was or was not said by publishers and/or what data Maxwell reviewed to conclude that the publishers were guilty of hyperbole. I also don’t want to get too bogged down in that specific squabble and lose sight of the larger point about leveraging populist sentiment to generalize away nuanced and complex issues. For instance, even with regard to scientific works produced with public dollars, Maxwell is glossing over the role of publishers in making those works available in a manner most useful for their intended readers. To quote the introduction from a published paper by Adam Mossoff of the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property at George Mason University of Law:
This paper fills a gap in the literature by providing the more complete policy, legal and economic context for evaluating scholarly publishing. It details for the first time the $100s millions in ex ante investments in infrastructure, skilled labor, and other resources required to create, publish, distribute and maintain scholarly articles on the Internet and in other digital formats.
As I say, this post is not really about this specific issue, but Mossoff’s 41-page paper titled How Copyright Drives Innovation in Scholarly Publishing demonstrates that there is complexity in the relationship between scholarly works and the copyright incentive in producing quality, peer-reviewed publication of those works. From Mossoff again:
“Copyright provides the necessary incentives for scholarly publishers to create, invest in, and sustain the business models that make possible the dissemination of reliable, high-quality, standardized, networked, and accessible research that meets the differing expectations of readers in a wide-ranging variety of academic disciplines and fields of research.”
And this seems to be the point being made by the ITIF — the populist, sentimental notion (i.e. all publicly-funded research should be automatically published online for free) oversimplifies a process in the short term whereby society may well lose something in the long term. And this is a subtle but insidious component of populism: that we must always entertain the idea that there are two equal sides to any argument even though this is not always the case. In fact, the populist view is usually the more generalized or simplified argument demanding that the opposing view must “play fair” despite the fact that the latter is often much more complex and nuanced.
To that point, Maxwell segued from his NIH example to broadly promote the positive aspects of “sharing” online, even referring to media like motion pictures that he swept into his larger theme that all parties are responsible for reasoned debate. He acknowledged that populist attitudes about behaviors like “file sharing” may in fact be selfish in nature, but he then implied that the opposing views are likewise selfish because there is usually a profit motive at stake. That might sound fair, but is it?
What Maxwell seemed to be saying is that the shoplifter is selfish but that so is the shop owner because his interest is making money; so these competing, yet equally selfish interests should be balanced, and the shop owner is responsible for contributing to a reasonable debate on the subject. But even if the shop owner were to exaggerate the damage caused by the theft of a single candy bar and rend his garments in a ridiculous display of feigned agony, this would in no way lend credence to the underlying rationale supporting the interest of the shoplifter. And the logic (or lack thereof) does not change if we scale the example to Hollywood and movie piracy. Yet, this is what the debate often sounds like. Just because populist sentiment wants to call piracy “file sharing” so that it sounds friendly and humanist and socially beneficial, that does not mean rational people are obligated to treat this rhetoric with the respect due to a legitimate, progressive proposal. But in a populist climate as we have today, there is little distinction between a public policy proposal and raw self-interest. To quote the ITIF report:
“Populists support weakening copyright protections because they focus almost exclusively on how they personally benefit from weaker laws, ignoring the tangible, economic harms brought by copyright infringement.”
Of course, contemporary populism, which I do believe has been amplified by social media, is affecting issues far more acute than copyright. As a simple but useful example, Popular Science, in October of 2013, discontinued comments on its website because discussion on its pages disintegrated rapidly (as they so often do) into social, political, or religious arguments, none of which further the interest of science. Science does not care if you personally feel threatened by Darwin, but if you do, boy does the populist Internet have places for you to express those gripes with likeminded scaredy cats. See, I just offended people who believe that there are two sides to an evolution debate, and that’s because even entertaining the idea that a debate exists at all is a useless, regressive aberration of the notion of “fairness” that has been distorted by populism, which itself has been intensified by social media.
Of course, the irony in citing this particular example (and I’ve raised this point before) is that the tech populist cheers for an unfettered Internet on the premise that “information and culture” must flow freely to enrich society, yet this view fails to recognize that the same populism simultaneously produces school boards that will insist evolutionary biology be taught alongside “intelligent design.” In other words, there is no reason to assume populism can only produce progress. Quite often it does not.
Consider that contemporary populism is why we’re suddenly having “debate” in this country over so-called religious freedom laws. These are, I have to say, a bizarre twist on the idea that “freedom” must now extend to the right to persecute, disrespect, or mistreat an individual who does not conform to the orthodoxy of another individual. The logic is circular, one that says, “Telling me not to discriminate against that guy infringes my right of religious worship.” This is the narcissistic psychology that occurs when one’s sense of “fairness” becomes warped by the gravitational force of one’s ego. And this same narcissism is the primary ingredient in tech populism as well. The rhetoric of Internet freedom claims to serve public interest, but it is often just self-interest that, when aggregated by social media, will produce fleeting moments of apparent consensus. And far too often, consensus swarms around information that is reported inaccurately.
In my home state of California, some nut job introduced a ballot measure that would effectively create an American Taliban, granting legal authority to anyone who wants to kill gay people. The ballot measure won’t go anywhere, and sadly, neither will psychos with heinous ideas; but the outlandishness of this example is why I’ve never really liked the fact that anyone with a ballpoint pen can potentially get a measure on the state ballot. And that’s kind of how I feel about the Internet right now as a tool for democratic, social, and economic progress. It could become all those things, but not if it remains a populist Wild West, largely run by just a handful of companies that figured out how to monetize the madness itself posing as debate. From the conclusion of the ITIF report:
“Tech progressivism offers a path forward for both parties. Policymakers should embrace government regulation to provide community benefits, but narrowly craft rules to mitigate specific harms. They should respect the power of markets and the innovativeness of the private sector by engaging in light-touch regulation so as to not stall much-needed innovation. And they should evaluate technology issues holistically and objectively to develop pragmatic policy solutions. By adopting the tenets of tech progressivism, policymakers can encourage innovation, productivity and broad-based growth, while also protecting individual rights, fostering a free and open Internet for all, and advancing the public good.”
© 2015, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.Follow IOM on social media: