Democracy Dies in Darkness

Innovations | Perspective

Will modern Luddites smash tech’s future?

October 30, 2017 at 10:00 AM

It’s become hip lately to bash the tech industry, and especially those of us who work in Silicon Valley. Current technologies, including social media and news sites, as well as emerging innovations in artificial intelligence, 5G mobile networks, data analytics, autonomous vehicles and the Internet of Things, are being blamed for everything from skewing election results to destroying culture, displacing workers and monopolizing, well, everything.

Attacks are coming from the left and the right, from traditional media, think tanks, and even from some notable tech elites, including Tesla’s Elon Musk, Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

Former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon, for example, is leading a war against what he calls Silicon Valley’s “Lords of Technology,” while Omidyar is arguing that social media has become a “direct threat” to democracy. Musk is denouncing advances in artificial intelligence as a “fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.” And the New York Times, which recently published a long magazine piece entitled “Silicon Valley is Not Your Friend,” regularly refers to Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft as “the Frightful Five.”

In some ways, there’s nothing new here. Fear of disruptive innovations goes back at least to the dawn of the industrial revolution, when a late 18th century textile worker named Ned Ludd, suffering perhaps from mental illness, smashed his knitting machines. Anti-technology activists ever since have been known as Luddites.

But while outbreaks of tech dystopias come and go, there’s something more virulent about the current strain. Its sources are both complicated and cumulative. One source is displaced anger over recent election results, including the Brexit vote and the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That anger is being fed by smug posturing from some of Silicon Valley’s older, idle billionaires, wringing their hands about the irresponsibility of a new generation of entrepreneurs — who are, by and large, more thoughtful than the billionaires were.

But the real driver of unrest is the speed with which these changes are occurring and the sheer scale of new technologies entering commercial use. The ongoing revolution in computing, in which core components continue to get faster, cheaper and smaller, invariably accelerates stress on individuals and institutions. Twenty years ago, I referred to that phenomenon as The Law of Disruption: technology changes exponentially, while humans change incrementally.

For pundits and politicians, stoking the flames of tech dysphoria is all fun and games. But there’s a very real cost to the vacuous doom-and-gloom, which may delay or even destroy substantial social benefits now due on our long-term investments in disruption.

Autonomous vehicles, for example, have the potential to save 30,000 lives lost every year to human error in the United States alone. The Internet of Things, likewise, will make it possible for an aging population to stay in their homes. Drones and analytics can revolutionize farming and emergency services. Smart cities and infrastructure will reduce traffic and reduce energy use. 3-D printing is already changing health-care outcomes with customized prosthetics and the possibility of replacement organs.

It’s true that many of these emerging technologies challenge fundamental social norms, including urban development, the nature of full-time employment, and the relationship between individuals and society in an increasingly transparent world of data.

In some cases — drones, genetic engineering, alternative energy sources — there’s clearly a role for targeted regulation and oversight. But most calling for government intervention just leave it at that, expecting that lawmakers will just do something — anything! — to cure our malaise, whatever the collateral damage.

Their tired platitudes, punctuated by vague calls to “regulate” or arbitrarily “break up” the companies experimenting with these applications, may crash the party before it’s barely gotten started. The European Union is leading the wrong-way charge here, citing its goal of a Digital Single Market as cover for punishing successful U.S. Internet companies with giant fines and impossible legal mandates.

Even here in California, the capital of tech innovation, Gov. Jerry Brown recently vetoed a bill that would have simplified and standardized deployment of communications equipment essential for next-generation 5G mobile networks. 5G will deliver wireless speeds that surpass today’s fastest networks, using smaller, low-powered equipment that doesn’t require new cell towers. The most promising applications of tomorrow will need it to deliver volumes of data with both speed and reliability.

The California bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the legislature, but was opposed by local authorities who see dollar signs in inflated rental fees for attaching the new equipment to city-owned utility poles and buildings — a long-standing source of sometimes not-so-petty graft.

Other, more vocal opponents of the bill, echoing growing anti-development sentiment, simply don’t want the new networks at all.  They don’t want private investment or the jobs that go with it; they don’t want higher speeds, greater reliability, and the chance to close what remains of the digital divide.

As one of the “community” groups demanding Brown’s veto proclaimed, “I am thrilled that Governor Brown showed strength and stood up to this powerful wireless industry and said no — you are not going to do this in my state!”

Luddism in Silicon Valley’s own not-in-my-backyard, of course, creates opportunities for other states to take the lead, collaborating with technology developers to create the kind of environment California once had that encouraged innovation.

Many regions are working to emulate the model invoked by Google and now Amazon, where cities, hospitals, universities and other anchor institutions propose themselves for new investments, offering not financial incentives so much as streamlined zoning, permits and review — precisely what the vetoed bill required.

(Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Last week, I detailed that strategy to a conference of state lawmakers outside California, citing Brown’s veto of the 5G bill as both an omen and an opening.  Many — Democrats and Republicans — have since followed up to ask how they can jump-start technology disruption in their states. It’s not as much fun as pressing the panic button on the future. But it may actually improve the lives of their constituents.

Still, if the rest of the United States does catch the anti-tech virus, there are plenty of other countries who will gladly step into the driverless seat.

Every year, venture capital analyst Mary Meeker lists the most valuable Internet companies in the world, which last year approached $4 trillion in value, nearly all of it created in the last two decades. The United States continues to dominate the list, with 12 of the 20 leaders. (Note to Gov. Brown: 10 are headquartered in California.)

Over-regulated Europe has no companies on the list, and seems unlikely to create any. But every year, more and more Chinese companies appear. Perhaps that’s because Chinese consumers, business leaders, and the government — despite its own anxiety about the Internet — share a common belief that disruptive innovation offers China its best chance for entering new markets.  And dominating them.

Just saying.


Downes is co-author with Paul Nunes of “Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation” (Portfolio 2014). He is a project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy.

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