Will ‘Techno-Populism’ Undermine Innovation?

A new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation is critical of those using emotion and personal opinion to drive and affect technology policy.

by / April 2, 2015

Future advancements in technology may suffer because of popular opinion driving policy, according to a new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).

How Tech Populism is Undermining Innovation investigates the connection between emotion and personal gain, and how those elements are shaping technology regulation in the U.S. Robert Atkinson, president of the ITIF, said much of the debate on tech topics the last few years -- such as network neutrality and red light cameras -- were “fundamentally based in self-interest and selfishness,” and marked by “fear and distrust.”

In an event promoting the report on Wednesday, April 1, Atkinson defined “tech-populism” as a doctrine where people allow their passion for a technology issue to push for change, leading to hyperbole and demonizing a differing viewpoint. The notion of populism isn’t new. Similar stances were taken generations ago, notably with the advent of the telephone, telegraph and railroad, Atkinson added.

Instead of selfishness, Atkinson and the ITIF contend that policymakers need to be more receptive to those with a more “technology-progressive” approach that will balance the populist leanings currently infiltrating tech policy discussions.

Citing the FCC’s Feb. 26 decision to use Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 to ensure an open Internet as an example, the report noted that commission Chairman Tom Wheeler caved from his initial set of rules that would promote network neutrality, but still allow for “commercially reasonable” exceptions for innovation and better customer network traffic experiences.

Instead, after millions of people contacted the FCC about their concerns with the private sector manipulating the Internet, including comments from President Barack Obama, Wheeler embraced a more traditional regulatory approach. The ITIF was against that move and believes the chairman’s action was based on popular opinion instead of rational thought.

Atkinson also pointed to the opinion that automation and robotics are job-killers as another “techno-populism” fallacy.

“In the last four or five years, [decision-makers] in the U.S. have accepted the methodology that robots and technology kill jobs – I say that because it is pure myth,” Atkinson said. “All economic studies and history suggest it’s not true. It’s now become part of the myth and largely pushed by the tech populists that want to protect the individual worker over the rest of us.”

Atkinson and the ITIF see four ways to help move the U.S. away from techno-populism and back toward a more progressive approach to tech policy:

  • Expose techno-populism when it’s observed – promote the ideal that if people want to get involved in a technology debate, they need to study the issue first, before “firing off” demonizing statements on a topic.
  • Don’t over-estimate the impact of techno-populists – politicians need to see there’s a lot of smoke, but usually very little fire.
  • Lead, don’t follow – elected officials need to stop “bowing to mobs” and instead focus on being champions of innovation.
  • Embrace progressivism – the industry and government need to figure out a way to refocus on the greater good when it comes to technology innovation, instead of pandering to outcries.

Panel Skeptical

While the ITIF was lauded by event panelists for its work on the topic, not everyone agreed that techno-populists were solely responsible for changing the landscape of technology policy alone. Elliot Maxwell, author and technology policy adviser, said he sees things as a failure on both sides. He took issue with ITIF’s report as only looking at the issue from one viewpoint.

Maxwell argued that while there are selfish people, firms and businesses can be “just as selfish and sparing with the truth.”

“If I was writing this paper, it would be about both sides. It would be recognizing the importance of openness of information and process, and the responsibility of policymakers to dig in and make independent decisions [in] what is critical for public policy,” Maxwell said. “Not to demonize or sugarcoat the failings on both sides of these issues where the whole truth isn’t given, and their interests trump societal benefits.”

Larry Irving, president and CEO of the Irving Information Group, said, “pandering to populism” is an issue for him, because progressivism has a bigger problem that no one is seriously addressing – the digital divide.

“In Harlem, we have people with no Internet,” he said. “[The digital divide] is a huge problem.”

Irving admitted, however, that the ITIF’s report does help getting people thinking about the larger scope of tech policy concerns. He noted that in every worldwide discussion about the Internet, the “adult at the table” has been an American, promoting a policy that is open and pragmatic. But as a result of the FCC’s decision on network neutrality, that leadership and “voice of reason” could be challenged in the future.

“When the U.S. goes backward in time and regulates [the Internet] because of demography," Irving said, "that’s a problem.”

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.