From the Dec. 2008 Issue
Technologies are not inherently good or bad. The same Gutenberg printing press that brought Bibles to the common people and led to the Age of Enlightenment also flooded Europe with low-cost pornography and created the need for the first copyright laws.
Likewise, the telegraph that linked the American continent was abused for the purpose of dirty jokes, libel and cross-country extra-marital affairs. The telephone brought telemarketing, television eroded traditional values, and cell phones empowered a new generation of drug dealers. And on and on.
The point is that the technologies themselves are not at blame, but rather it’s a matter of how we use and abuse them. In the case of how the U.S. government uses technology, we now have two clear-cut examples that should serve as a warning against the impending third.
Let’s begin in the 1920s, in the era just after The War To End All Wars. Students of history will remember that the government of the United States learned during the Great War that telephony was a national priority essential to rapid communication. It did not take long to decide that telephony was therefore a matter of national security. In rapid succession, the government pushed to limit competition, establish standard fixed rates, and then declare that every household must have a telephone.
This succession led to the formation of a single national telephone company that stifled innovation, curbed growth and crushed competition. In 1983, the government finally admitted its mistake and broke up the old telephone company, ushering in a new generation of telecommunication miracles.
But the government did not learn. As we so sadly know now, members of Congress decided that the right to own a house was also a national priority. So they used their powers to subvert the safeguards and technologies of the banking industry, fix the prices, establish a massive monopoly for mortgages in Freddie Mac and Fannie May, and to meet a social goal, just as they had with telephony. Only this time, the misuse of banking and the credit markets led to the Crash of ’08.
If we could simply look at the examples of telephony and the banking industry, we could clearly see that taking an industry and its technologies and forcing them into the square peg of social justice can have very bad results. But we have not learned that lesson.
Already we have taken the broadband industry and declared it a national priority. In the wake of 9/11, we have declared the networks to be a matter of national security. And Congress is, even as you read this, pushing legislation that would nationalize the broadband structure, fix standard rates for it, and declare that every household must have a broadband connection. Some irony exists in the fact that one of the leading broadband companies they have targeted for this massive social intervention has the same name as the telephone company they corrupted some 90 years ago. That irony, I fear, is lost on the government.
When technologies are used to support public policy goals, the results can
be powerful and positive. The computer ushered in a new age of American productivity.
The Internet took communications global. Even the modest little hand-held calculator
re-invented small business. And I won’t even begin to talk about cell
phones and how they have changed the world. But the use of technology in support
of social goals needs to be tempered with an understanding of economic realities
as well as human foibles. It must be carefully evaluated to side-step as many
of the unintended consequences as possible. And it must never, ever become the
sole path to the achievement of a social goal.
We learned those lessons the hard way with telephony and with banking. Let’s hope we don’t have to learn the lesson again with broadband Internet access.