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Tech Exceptionalism with a Dose of Reality

· November 18, 2013

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TUCSON—There’s little that the tech industry can’t do… if only the rest of us would leave it to its own devices.

That was one conclusion I could not help drawing at times from Techonomy 13, a three-day conference that wrapped up Wednesday at a Ritz-Carlton resort here.

This big-picture talkfest offered its share of useful insights in panels and presentations (for instance, the NSA would have done well to attend a Big Data discussion that warned how a collect-everything obsession can leave you dumber than before). But it also served up a few sales pitches and forecasts that seemed to wish away too much inconvenient reality.

Entrepreneur Max Levchin assured us that market trends would lead China to become a better citizen of the world without mentioning pollution or human rights (after confidently forecasting that science will extend human lifespans to “some definition of forever”). Researcher Kate Krontiris made an effective case for using to technology to ease voting without noting how some politicians are working to make voting harder. Writer and veteran futurist Stewart Brand said we’re not that much R&D funding away from reviving extinct species through genetic engineering–and we’re all sure nothing could possibly go wrong with that, right?

The idea that we’d be better if we just let the techies have at it, without interference from incumbent competitors or governments, has had a powerful appeal in digital circles since at least John Perry Barlow’s 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” and its grandiose opening sentences:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.”

I heard a version of that at last year’s Tech Policy Summit, when a variety of Silicon Valley types expressed their wish that the government would just leave them alone to innovate. It came up again at Google I/O this summer when Google co-founder Larry Page mused that it might be helpful to experiment with technology on some plot of land beyond governments’ reach, leading to a memorable parody by Wired’s Mat Honan.

And at startup pitch conferences like TechCrunch Disrupt and DEMO, the sense that we’re the right app or API away from upending an entire market might as well be piped into the room through the air-conditioning ducts.

This is not a bad attitude to have if you really do want to change the world–certainly better than trusting that the system will work or assuming it’s too difficult to move things in a different direction. And from the Internet itself on, digital types have left profound dents in the universe.

But when enough people repeat this empowering message to each other–especially in the welcoming confines of a fabulously well-catered gathering behind closed gates–you may not get the desired outputs.

(Disclosure: One of the sponsors that helped pay for Techonomy’s comfortable setting, Ford, also covered travel costs for myself and other journalists.)

At one level, the “we’re from Silicon Valley and we’re here to help” introduction doesn’t always go over as well as its authors might expect. Especially when it’s coupled with overblown promises of how, say, massively open online courses, self-driving cars, Bitcoin, or just the “collaborative economy” (in less poetic language, people renting stuff to each other) will transform our world.

Things rarely change as fast or as cleanly as people think, but small-c conservatism often gets left off the invitation lists of high-minded tech gatherings. The resulting messianic overreach, in turn, opens doors to facile, “everybody in the business is a fraud” denunciations of tech-ideology strawmen.

More important, this school of tech exceptionalism can set back its well-meaning advocates if it leads them to overlook how the incumbents are not always so old and slow as to be ignorable. While the futurists plot a course to the Singularity, those established actors have usually been busy working the refs, leveraging their influence to shape the behavior of legislators, regulators and even courts.

People who stuck around to the end of Techonomy would have gotten a useful reminder about that from O’Reilly Media founder Tim O’Reilly. After warning how things like anti-science politics, religious fundamentalism, and expensive wars could block the bright futures sketched out over the prior two days, he told attendees that stopping those trends can’t be other people’s problem: “We all have to invest cycles in making sure that our government is up to speed.”

And that, in turn, was also what Barlow had in mind in his 1996 declaration–written to protest the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and its unconstitutional Title V, the Communications Decency Act.

Innovation

New technologies are constantly emerging that promise to change our lives for the better. These disruptive technologies give us an increase in choice, make technologies more accessible, make things more affordable, and give consumers a voice. And the pace of innovation has only quickened in recent years, as the Internet has enabled a wave of new, inter-connected devices that have benefited consumers around the world, seemingly in all aspects of their lives. Preserving an innovation-friendly market is, therefore, tantamount not only to businesses but society at large.