When an invitation to the facebook group came along, I was happy to sign up as an advocate of ScienceDebate 2008, a grassroots effort to get the Presidential candidates together for a group grilling on, as the web site puts it, “what may be the most important social issue of our time: Science and Technology.”
Which issues, exactly, would the debate cover? The web site lists seventeen, ranging from pharmaceutical patents to renewable energy to stem cells to space exploration. Each of the issues mentioned is both important and interesting, but the list is missing something big: It doesn’t so much as touch on digital information technologies. Nothing about software patents, the future of copyright, net neutrality, voting technology, cybersecurity, broadband penetration, or other infotech policy questions. The web site’s list of prominent supporters for the proposal – rich with Nobel laureates and university presidents, our own President Tilghman among them – shares this strange gap. It only includes one computer-focused expert, Peter Norvig of Google.
Reading the site reminded me of John McCain’s recent remark, (captured in a Washington Post piece by Garrett Graff) that the minor issues he might delegate to a vice-president include “information technology, which is the future of this nation’s economy.” If information technology really is so important, then why doesn’t it register as a larger blip on the national political radar?
One theory would be that, despite their protestations to the contrary, political leaders do not understand how important digital technology is. If they did understand, the argument might run, then they’d feel more motivated to take positions. But I think the answer lies elsewhere.
Politicians, in their perennial struggle to attract voters, have to take into account not only how important an issue actually is, but also how likely it is to motivate voting decisions. That’s why issues that make a concrete difference to a relatively small fraction of the population, such as flag burning, can still emerge as important election themes if the level of voter emotion they stir up is high enough. Tech policy may, in some ways, be a kind of opposite of flag burning: An issue that is of very high actual importance, but relatively low voting-decision salience.
One reason tech policy might tend to punch below its weight, politically, is that many of the most important tech policy questions turn on factual, rather than normative, grounds. There is surprisingly wide and surprisingly persistent reluctance to acknowledge, for example, how insecure voting machines actually are, but few would argue with the claim that extremely insecure voting machines ought not to be used in elections.
On net neutrality, to take another case, those who favor intervention tend to think that a bad outcome (with network balkanization and a drag on innovators) will occur under a laissez-faire regime. Those who oppose intervention see a different but similarly negative set of consequences occurring if regulators do intervene. The debate at its most basic level isn’t about the goodness or badness of various possible outcomes, but is instead about the relative probabilities that those outcomes will happen. And assessing those probabilities is, at least arguably, a task best entrusted to experts rather than to the citizenry at large.
The reason infotech policy questions tend to recede in political contexts like the science debate, in other words, is not that their answers matter less. It’s that their answers depend, to an unusual degree, on technical fact rather than on value judgment.