How Tech Populism is Undermining Innovation

This report explores how populism has overtaken many tech policy debates and proposes a counter philosophy of tech progressivism to better guide discussions and debates around tech policy issues.

There was a time when technology policy was a game of “inside baseball” played mostly by studious wonks from government agencies, legislative committees, think tanks, the business community, and other experts. They brought sober, technical expertise and took a methodical approach to advancing the public interest on complex issues such as intellectual property rights in the digital era or electronic surveillance of telecommunications networks. 

But those days are long gone. Tech policy debates now are increasingly likely to be shaped by angry, populist uprisings—as when a stunning four million submissions flooded into the Federal Communications Commission in response to its request for public comment on the issue of net neutrality, or when a loose coalition of protesters staged a dramatic blackout of popular websites in January 2012 to halt legislation that was intended to curb online piracy.

Populism is nothing new.  It is deeply rooted in U.S. political thought, from essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings on individualism to philosopher William James’ reactions against the emerging industrial economy.  As a political doctrine, it has ebbed and flowed with varying degrees of influence through much of America’s history, generally pitting the rights and powers of common people against those perceived to be privileged elites.  But populism has gained many followers recently among those who embrace an ethos of self-interest over social responsibility, and it has found a new target in the technologies that are increasingly ubiquitous in the economy and everyday life.  Technology policy discussions have thus morphed into emotionally charged battlefields where sound bites and slogans trump facts and reason and where mutual respect has given way to vitriol. This phenomenon is undermining good innovation policy and slowing the pace of innovation progress.

This paper examines eight tech policy issues that mark the rise of tech populism, and it argues that an alternative philosophy of tech progressivism can provide a better path forward for policymakers and public stakeholders alike.

Watch Rob Atkinson discuss this report.