May 23, 2018

The "…and Technology" Debate

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.

Comments

  1. Shorter version: Facts don’t matter in politics.

    Plus a lot less people than we think, care about issues that we are passionate about. If you have any doubt whatsoever about the nonrepresentativeness of the net.crowd, two words – “Ron Paul” (this is a guy who polls at rounding errors in the general population, but if you followed Internet ranters, you’d think he was real contender, or even a foregone conclusion).

    And they also have the negative example of Al Gore, who really is a smart guy interested in information technology, and is to this day still smeared for talking about his extensive legislative efforts to help create the modern Internet.

  2. “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.?

    I think that is very true, but today’s politics has more of a slant to value judgement and moral arguments such as flag burning then they might have in the past.

  3. Michael R. Bernstein says:

    “It’s that their answers depend, to an unusual degree, on technical fact rather than on value judgment.”

    And this is different from, say, the direct economic impacts of policies, how exactly?

  4. Note I’d also say that Net Neutrality is no more “a task best entrusted to experts rather than to the citizenry at large” than many other issues, especially energy or health. I’m not taking sides in this comment, but rather saying that it’s not something unique super-special precious among topics. There’s just a huge amount (and I mean, a HUGE AMOUNT) of noise about it in our little corner of the world.

  5. Looking at the “issues”, it’s clear that it’s a liberally loaded group. What a shame there’s not an honest, non-partisan list.

  6. I think some of the responsibility lies with us… that is, we haven’t been successful in framing tech policy issues as visceral apple-pie issues that can be distilled, communicated and absorbed in small bite-sized chunks. Net neutrality? Your average voter probably thinks that’s a Swiss fishing net…

  7. I read in one of the comments of a science site (I think at scienceblogs.com, might have been Pharyngula), that technology would probably end up taking most of the precious time, since these politicians usually avoid talking anything scientific like the plague. As you implied, technology itself is pretty uncontroversial, what is controversial is the applications of it, if anything.

    And, in a country where the current president (and presumably some recent past ones too) and many powerful politicians don’t “believe” in evolution, and oppose stem cell research in the grounds of killing “souls”, and demonize homosexuals when there is mounts of scientific evidence that there’s nothing wrong with it, etc., it seems that forcing them to talk more about what they actually know of the world, or the universe (a.k.a. reality), instead of watching them weasel ideas around about the application of well-known facts (technology, as you say) is a pretty darn good idea. There is no weaseling around actual knowledge, if the judging panel and/or moderator is adequate, of course.

  8. I believe that the political sphere is made more uneasy by ICTS than other technology. This is odd, considering that a woeful energy/environmental policy may doom us all to a level of environmental chaos that could bring down the modern globalized economy. But that it too large to imagine. In contrast, weird guys with video cameras flipping a Senate race and blogs that bring down a Distinguished Senior Senator in a primary are now imaginable, and scary. If its scary, don’t talk about it.

    As ICTS become perceived as an arm of the press, politicians will be increasingly wary of it.

  9. A debate on technology must take a holistic approach. Most discussions on technology view technology as in terms of simplistic engineering. Few seem to ask if the engineering is being deployed to actually advance our standard of living or if it is restrictive for the purpose of controling the consumer.

    Just today, the NY Times had an article, “Today’s HDTV, or Next Year’s?”. In that article Larry Magid, when refering to an earlier version of HDTVs, states “But it lacked a place to plug an HDMI, or high definition multimedia interface.” My problem with this statement is that it hides from the consumer that this is not the deployment of technology to enhance the ability of the consumer to watch HD content, but the deployment of a “false” technology to restrict the consumer.

    I hope that the debate on technology won’t be limited to arguing the fine engineering points, but will consider that certain technological deployments are not to the benefit of society and should be discouraged.

  10. … the minor issues he might delegate to a vice-president include “information technology, which is the future of this nation’s economy.”

    There seems to be a presumption that because the USA has in the past been very successful in IT and IT-related industries, then it automatically must stay a world leader into the future. It’s not a completely unreasonable presumption, except that IT is one area where fortunes (and, let’s be honest, fashion) can change rapidly. Putting this another way: the IT train is already on the tracks and chugging, it doesn’t need an overhaul right now.

    What do governments actually do? They make regulations, and they distribute tax money. Most people in the IT industry agree that more regulations probably aren’t going to help (especially the sort of regulations that a government might come up with) and the IT industry gets a pretty decent share of investment from the private sector and military so asking for taxpayer handouts would be a bit unreasonable. Industry lobyists don’t want to get too much attention, low profile is good.

    One theory would be that, despite their protestations to the contrary, political leaders do not understand how important digital technology is.

    Coming from a tech specialist, such a comment might be considered biased. Take a step back and think about what is the worst case scenario for worldwide IT if all our leaders do their best to screw things up (i.e. the most realistic estimate)… new developments will be a little bit slower than they might have been. I mean, the invention of the digital computer isn’t about to undo itself. From a US perspective, what is the worst case? Well, suppose China and India suddenly zoom to the top and become huge IT exporters, the US doesn’t export quite as much, and balance of trade drops a bit… not a complete disaster.

    “It’s that their answers depend, to an unusual degree, on technical fact rather than on value judgment.”

    And this is different from, say, the direct economic impacts of policies, how exactly?

    It seems to me that IT experts generally have a better than even chance of being able to predict the effect of their actions. Any economists want to start keeping score on the accuracy of their predictions?

    More importantly, Democracy never was designed to get an optimal result. The purpose of Democracy is to achieve a consistently mediocre result, and to avoid the worst type of governments. Non-democratic forms of government tend to result in large scale depopulation, the outlawing of independent thinking, frequent petty wars, and the entrenchment of a powerful elite who rapidly become interested in maintaining their own status quo and nothing more. This is why we don’t allow small groups to make broad policy decisions no matter how qualified they might be (although we do seem to spend a lot of time listening to economists, for reasons I can’t explain).

  11. For both budgetary and environment benefits, we have been encouraging our clients to travel less and use technology more — even when learning best practices and getting expert consultation from us at TFI! We help by holding conferences in diverse regions of the world, combining client visits with public presentations, placing our consultants in numerous countries, and delivering consulting and insights through web-conferencing, Online Games teleconferencing. This goes for our consulting and research on manufacturing strategies, supply-chain and logistics efficiencies, and Lean and Green environmental consultations.