July 16, 2024

Understanding the Newts

Recently I’ve been trying to figure out the politics of technology policy. There seem to be regularly drawn battle lines in Congress, but for the most part tech policy doesn’t play out as a Republican vs. Democratic or liberal vs. conservative conflict.

Henry Farrell, in a recent post at Crooked Timber, put his finger on one important factor. This was part of a larger online seminar on Chris Mooney’s book “The Republican War on Science” (which I won’t discuss here). Here’s the core of Henry Farrell’s observation:

There’s a strand of Republican thinking – represented most prominently by Newt Gingrich and by various Republican-affiliated techno-libertarians – that has a much more complicated attitude to science. Chris [Mooney] more or less admits in the book that he doesn’t get Newt, who on the one hand helped gut OTA [the Office of Technology Assessment] (or at the very least stood passively to one side as it was gutted) but on the other hand has been a proponent of more funding for many areas of the sciences. I want to argue that getting Newt is important.

What drives Newt and people like him? Why are they so vigorously in favour of some kinds of science, and so opposed to others? The answer lies, I think, in an almost blindly optimistic set of beliefs about technology and its likely consequences when combined with individual freedom. Technology doesn’t equal science of course; this viewpoint is sometimes pro-science, sometimes anti- and sometimes orthogonal to science as it’s usually practiced. Combining some half-baked sociology with some half arsed intellectual history, I want to argue that there is a pervasive strain of libertarian thought (strongly influenced by a certain kind of science fiction) that sees future technological development as likely to empower individuals, and thus as being highly attractive. When science suggests a future of limitless possibilities for individuals, people with this orientation tend to be vigorously in its favour. When, instead, science suggests that there are limits to how technology can be developed, or problems that aren’t readily solved by technological means, people with this orientation tend either to discount it or to be actively hostile to it.

This mindset is especially dicey when applied to technology policy. It’s one thing to believe, as Farrell implies here, that technology can always subdue nature. That view at least reflects a consistent faith in the power of technology. But in tech policy issues, we’re not thinking so much about technology vs. nature, as about technology vs. other technology. And in a technology vs. technology battle, an unshakable faith in technology isn’t much of a guide to action.

Consider Farrell’s example of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the original Reagan-era plan to develop strong defenses against ballistic missile attacks. At the time, belief that SDI would succeed was a pretty good litmus test for this kind of techno-utopianism. Most reputable scientists said at the time that SDI wasn’t feasible, and they turned out to be right. But the killer argument against SDI was that enemies would adapt to SDI technologies by deploying decoys, or countermeasures, or alternatives to ballistic missiles such as suitcase bombs. SDI was an attempt to defeat technology with technology.

The same is true in the copyright wars. Some techno-utopians see technology – especially DRM – as the solution. The MPAA’s rhetoric about DRM often hits this note – Jack Valenti is a master at professing faith in technology as solving the industry’s problems. But DRM tries to defeat technology with technology, so faith in technology doesn’t get you very far. To make good policy, what you really need is to understand the technologies on both sides of the battle, as well as the surrounding technical landscape that lets you predict the future of the technical battle.

The political challenge here is how to defuse the dangerous instincts of the less-informed techno-utopians. How can we preserve their general faith in technology while helping them see why it won’t solve all human problems?


  1. Joe,

    Opponents of DRM mandates are a diverse group, including people of all political persuasions, and many big companies (e.g. most of the high-tech industry) as well as consumers.

  2. Most anti-DRM activists appear to be liberal, & might be confused by the fact that the pro-DRM politicians in Congress don’t split on liberal/conservtive or Democratic/Republican lines.

    Take for example the co-sponsors of the audio briadcast flag bill:

    Ferguson, Mike [R NJ]
    Blackburn, Marsha [R TN]
    Bono, Mary [R CA]
    Davis, Lincoln [D TN]
    Gordon, Bart [D TN]
    Terry, Lee [R NE]
    Towns, Edolphus [D NY]
    Waxman, Henry A. [D CA]

    Four Dems and four Reps. What to do? But look at the states: TN, NY and CA have large recording industries. Is it hard to figure out what’s going on? This is a struggle between content creators (and the politicians who represent them) and content consumers, legitimate and pirate. It is not an ideological battle between the forces of liberty and tyranny, or any such grandiose framing.

  3. I don’t think you have a clear grasp of a phenomena seen elsewhere in the Republican perspective on the workings of government. I think you can see as an example the long-standing conflict between the Presidency and the State Department over who actually is making American Foreign Policy. This is a conflict between The Elected and The Embedded, and recently* The Elected have decided a vigorous persecution of the Embedded is needed, hell is the only way to get a Foreign Policy that reflects the will of the electorate. Confirmed on the State Department, aggravated when the CIA grew it’s own State Department (Valarie), and now applied throughout the Executive branch. I think you can count Newt as a Science supporter and enthusiast, yet more profoundly committed to Representatives of the electorate calling the shots.

    It is an issue of control, especially now that even low level federal employees apparently go to the press before going to their elected bosses. The term ‘Civil Servant’ is only an old joke today, everybody is political, everybody lies.


    *recently in a historical sense – Reagan,yes Bush41,no Bush43,yes

  4. excuse typos

  5. The financial interests that motivate the legislative climate, that affect technology and intellectual property development, are connected to the interests of those who want to control its direction.

    The “enlightened” elite have always used the knowledge and capital intensive leverage they have over the general population, in order to set the tone for the rules of engagement and control the processes that are shaping our future.

    It is not surprising that the same people who support spending 450 billion dollars on war also lobby vigorously to shape the advancement of nanotechnology. We are living in a world that is shape by the ideas and ideals of its people.

    My point is that the financial interest that guide the big corporations decision making process is closely related to political environment, where some political actors many times look out for their own self interest. These Interests have many time have noting to with political affiliation or ideals.

    In this predatory environment the strongest economical a political interest win, regardless of what the “consumer” gets in return.

    Can you imagine what would happen if all the people that watched American Idol one day all decided to become day traders?

    This will probably never happen. Many Americans are to busy working, worrying about health insurance and how they are going to put bread on the table. It takes time, discipline, knowledge, effort and talent to become a successful day trader.

    I see hackers and The pirate bay as natural organisms that are fighting against manipulative, ruthless and nonexclusive organisations who actually believe the bullshit they spew out. This shows us that people like sharing and is not afraid to fight the powers that be.

    I don’t think it would be to hard to use the resources that are used to construct jails and send kids out to war on things that would help people change certain negative and restrictive attitudes. This is a direct result of the socio-economical climate these people inhabit.

    The problem is that certain interest at the top would have do deal with an “enlightened” and heavily politically active population that might actually have the ability to influence the political process.

    It’s funny that technology has not been able to make the democratic and political processes more transparent and reachable to the people it manipulates.

  6. Hollywood would never agree to that. And it doesn’t go far enough to support fair use and consumer rights. Any circumvention once the copyright expires should be legitimate, no matter what onerous terms were originally tied to the content. Otherwise, Hollywood’s “perfect circle of protection” of DRM + DMCA will continue to threaten to create orphan works with no ability to archive and preserve for posterity.

  7. IMHO, there needs to be a distinction made between circumvention devices which have a fair-use application and those that do not. In the absense of an agreement waiving fair-use rights, the purchase of a piece of software or media content includes such rights; if the purchaser agrees before making payment or incurring any cost or obligation that the rights associated with the content will be limited, the purchase does not include such rights.

    Companies would then be instructed to use different protection methods from goods that were only sold under special agreements, and those that were sold at retail (or otherwise sold without such agreements). Some means would have to be used to make the law work logically with regard to existing content, but if companies released restricted-use content (e.g. content which may only be used for a limited time) using protection methods that were not used by any content for which fair-use rights applied, circumvention devices for such content would have no legitimate use.

  8. Christopher says

    With a number of technology-specific debates coming to a head now (and in recent years) – stem cells, alt. fuels, DRM, nuclear energy…take your pick) It will be interesting to see how politicians will take their views on the campaign trail in the coming months. Politicians and the press have struggled with the political rule making v. technological trajectories for a long time…reminds me of an instance I read about from about 10 years ago.
    Virgina Postrel, in her book -The Future and its Enemies- recalls Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen’s reaction to a campaign speech made by Steve Forbes back in 1996. Cohen critizes Forbes pretty harshly, mistaking his attempts to give an open-ended definition of the term *disability* for inarticulateness, if not cluelessness. Cohen wrote:

    “when asked what he would do about the disabled, his system just crashed and errant words filled the air. The definition of ‘what constitutes’ disabled is changing, he said. Technology is playing a role of some sort. The one-time disabled now were not so disabled. Something about technology again. Finally the little lights went on. ‘If you need assistance, we should provide assistance.’ Oh.”

    Commenting on the press’s reaction to Forbe’s attempts to come to terms with the role of technology in changing the nature of everyday reality, Postrel notes that in this case it was Cohen who failed to recognize the need to engage new definitions so as to account for our rapidly changing realities. Cohen’s language – and that of too many politicians, unfortunately – reflects a political discourse that assumes a static and politically directed future and one that just cannot comprehend alternatives.
    By contrast, Forbes’s opinion, -that technological innovation, not political rule making, may be a better way to tackle our problems- clumsy as it sounded at the time, at least showed some sign of a political candidate’s willingness to engage in a debate much too open-ended and dynamic for the campaign trail.

  9. FYI, here’s Jack Valenti testimony from 1996, showing the position is quite clear, technology is just one part of the plan, law is another:


    “The provisions of this bill that protect copyright protection technology are of paramount importance to content providers. We need to apply technological security measures to protect our property against unauthorized copying and distribution. These self-help measures will be our first line of defense against cyber-pirates. The copyright law can only provide sanctions when and if we are able to identify infringers. Technological security measures can stop the piracy before it happens.

    But all security measures, no matter how sophisticated, can be circumvented by clever hackers. Therefore, the law must provide clear and effective sanctions against those who would violate the security of the NII. This requires more than mere civil remedies. Criminal sanctions are essential. Too many NII bandits, some operating totally in the underground economy, will scoff at the threat of civil damages, which many regard as simply a cost of doing business. There must be criminal penalties attached to deliberate, systematic acts of circumvention if such acts are to be seriously lessened.”

  10. Actually, what we need is to make politicians accountable for failing to deliver on promises. Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s nontrivial…

    Part of what we see is also the political spillover from fights between big businesses. For we consumers, unfortunately, it’s a lot like the tagline for the movie AVP — RealNetworks vs. Apple: whoever wins, we lose.

  11. The theory presented does have some strong merits, my favorite of which is the understanding that governmental support of technology is not based on the likelihood of the technology being useful or successful, but instead on the utopian (or dystopian) goals attached to the technology.

    With this said I do have one objection: I do not believe that most politicians are as naive over how technology works as this theory puts forward. Politicians trying to garner support for their spending are well severed by promising the sky, as long as they are not held responsible for failing to deliver the promise. Regardless of their comprehension on how technology will or will not work, the rhetoric of spinning technology as the answer to all problems, paints politicians as supporters of a savior. I think the true educational need is in enlightening the public to see through these smoke screens.

  12. Alexander Wehr says

    Might I suggest a different approach that simply trying to convince them it won’t work.

    I think it would be more fruitful to explain to them the reality right now regarding how quickly DRM is circumvented regardless of the law, and drive home the point that if a DRM is ever invented which cannot be circumvented by hackers, there would be no need for the law anyway.

    Another way of phrasing it would be that section 1201 has not stopped the widespread introduction and proliferation of circumvention devices, it denies inventors of circumvention devices the ability to contribute to the economy, start firms, and create jobs.

  13. I don’t think that there really is a way to “defuse the dangerous instinct of the less informed” to view technology as a solution to the world’s problems. I favor the thought process started by Ned Ulbricht to view the issue from a cultural anthropological viewpoint. Basically we are making the faulty assumption that a rationale discussion will lead through logic to a rationale conclusion. That is simply not the case.

    For example, one of the long-term debates in environmental planning is the construction of housing in hazardous locations such as along the seashore and bluff tops. Nearly everyone agrees that this is not a good idea but when it comes down to it (preventing this type of development) governments (at all levels) usually role over and allow it. One example this past year was the near destruction of New Orleans. The near destruction of New Orleans was not the result of one monumental mistake; it was the cumulative result of nearly 300 years of incremental and individually insignificant terra forming (engineering/technological) mistakes that finally lead to a monumental and catastrophic failure. The “obvious” solution, we need better engineering to protect New Orleans. However, in terms of the question before us, New Orleans (if rebuilt) is actually in a “negative feedback loop” (maybe the not best term) were greater engineering will eventually result in an even greater failure. Those who think that New Orleans can be saved through even greater engineering efforts view their actions as rationale.

    In conclusion, even when there is a conceptual understanding that engineering/technological solutions may not work to solve a problem, these so called solutions may nevertheless be implemented to appease special interests and to give an appearance by our leadership that they are indeed “solving” our problems.

  14. Slightly off topic, GSArnold’s response bothers me a lot. He says ‘I don’t know why people keep bringing up “SDI wouldn’t have worked” as that that’s why we spent the money on it.’ But, years after the fall of the Soviet Union, we’re _still_ spending billions a year on the SDI! True, it’s never in the news these days–but it’s still in the budget. Why? I’d say there are several reasons, powerful vested interests being one; another is that it’s never in the news these days.

  15. Ned Ulbricht says

    Viewed through the lens of cultural anthropology, technology may be described as an aspect of human culture. Of course, that may be akin to saying that a world viewed through tinted glasses appears generally tinted. But I think this lens shows us a similarity between attempting to “figure out the politics of technology policy,” and attempting to “figure out the politics of cultural policy.” Iow, the field of inquiry might benefit from a little narrowing and categorizing before expecting useful generalizations.

    I think there’s a historical stream of patent (and perhaps manufacturing) policy, perhaps inherited from Elizibethan England, as modified by civil war, colonization, revolution, civil war, &c.

    Then there’s a stream of trade and tariff policy.

    And there’s defense technology policy, emerging in inchoate form during the civil war, flowering in WWI, abandoned in the interwar years, rescuscitated for WWII, and permanently established for the cold war.

    Then finally, there’s “high tech” policy—possibly related to communications policy, all tied up with the Bell System monopoly and antitrust.

    All of these historical streams seem to merge together to form a mighty Mississippi of current “technology policy”… little wonder that it meanders with snags and sawyers, eddies and rips….

  16. “There seem to be regularly drawn battle lines in Congress, but for the most part tech policy doesn’t play out as a Republican vs. Democratic or liberal vs. conservative conflict.”

    What you are missing is that neither side is anti-tech. Both sides believe that technology will solve all of America’s problems. Yes, that view is naive and ultimately false, but that is what both sides believe. The difference between them is the definition of what America’s problems really are. Both sides are eager to use technology to solve the problems, but they can’t agree on what the problems are. This leads to what seem to be very contradictory positions on technology in both parties/philosophies. Republicans or Democrats will support one technology, and block another technology. Even when both technologies come from the same root source. Both sides are pro science, but only if it reinforces their own world view or can help solve what they see as the problems facing America.

  17. Good question! If you ever make progress, let me know …

    Note I don’t think Jack Valenti is techno-utopian in the way you mean, though he may use that rhetoric at times. He’s thoroughly realistic about the limits of technology. He merely believes that what technology can’t solve, law can. Which, to be fair, is not an obviously mistaken conception.

    But there’s two different problems, which I’ll state as:

    1) How to convince *geeks* they’re not living in a Robert Heinlein novel

    2) How to convince *businesspeople* they can’t command the waves.

    Those are two very different psychologies, though they intersect at times.

  18. Actually, SDI was a ruse — designed to force the USSR to spend more on defense than they could afford because they BELIEVED we could make SDI work.

    Several Reagan era officials pretty much admitted this publicly a few years ago, so I don’t know why people keep bringing up “SDI wouldn’t have worked” as that that’s why we spent the money on it.

    It did work. The USSR is gone.

    $0.02, Offtopic

  19. Another thing that is often overlooked is that the battle is one of economics and the market. I know mathematics usually talks about number of CPU-years to break a key, but the correct model is “How much will it cost me to secure X / how much will it cost me to break X”.

    DRM loses sales, and of those who are your customers, while the pirates go with little encumberance.

    And with SDI, the question is not if it could be technically defeated, but would the costs of defeating it make that feasible, or if it was X% effective, would it make sense to attempt a first strike.

    I’m in opensource, but realize technological advances and innovation are not free. It isn’t cost-free, or infinite budget technologies v.s. each other, it is economies. The Iraqis are defeating our million-dollar per copy arms with cheap IEDs using cell phones. The 9/11 crew used our own airplanes as huge incendary bombs.

    Standard security is fairly easy since it usually involves a core which must be protected against all but a few known accessors. The methods to break through all have a calculable cost (including social engineering, or bribing the owner’s children). If the core is worth $1M, you can make it cost $1B to get through, while at the same time it doesn’t make sense to spend $2M on insurance to protect a $1M item.

    The problem with DRM as opposed to other security is that media must become public (seen and heard). It fails if it protects too well, but at that point the media has already escaped. The cost of the original can only be that of a single legitimate copy. But then successive copies are only limited by the rapidly deflating costs of transcription and duplication.

    So the nonsense starts when the industry spends millions on a system that will fail, try to pass laws that will be ignored or don’t apply over the entire world to prevent its bypass, and then has to try to convince consumers to use these systems. The return on investment is negative.

    The way to compete with the iTMS is not to try to license FairPlay or to have Apple stop mutating the iPod firmware, but to sell unprotected files from artists who are willing. The artists may even be willing but the industry cartel isn’t.