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  • Associated Press The Google Pixel 2 phone, left, and the Pixel 2 XL, featuring Google's powerful artificial-intelligence technology for quick and easy access to useful information, are but one example of the accelerating pace of technological change.

  • Downes

Friday, November 03, 2017 1:00 am


Will modern Luddites smash future of technology?

Larry Downes

LarryDownes is a project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy. He wrote this for the Washington Post.

It's become hip 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 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 headlined “Silicon Valley is Not Your Friend,” regularly refers to Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft as “the Frightful Five.”

Deep-seated fear

In some ways, there's nothing new here. Fear of disruptive innovations goes back to at least the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when a late 18th-century textile worker named Ned Ludd, perhaps suffering 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” 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.

Fundamental change

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 in California, the capital of tech innovation, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, 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.

Keen competition

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 Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

I recently 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.