A Bridge to Somewhere: the Tech Policy Summit (and C-PET’s Agenda)

Tech Policy Central‘s annual Summit this past week in San Mateo brought together luminaries from several worlds. In three packed days of panels, discussion flowed widely and expertly across fields from IP to broadband access to the haunting problem of the perceived lack of sympathetic understanding of the federal government for the tech community. Highlights were tweeted as we went along (#tps09). One such: that when President Obama handed the British Queen an iPod, he was probably breaking both the TOS and US copyright law. Another: that when you write an email, during its lifecycle it goes through probably eight different sets of legal status. Another: one speaker reeled off a list of ways in which the Obama administration, deemed to be far the most connected with tech leaders the US has known, is challenging its interests – from anti-trust to offshore earnings.

I was impressed – especially with the quality of the panelists. If representation from Washington was not at quite the highest levels, this was no great surprise. And it neatly illustrated the disconnect that ran through much of the discussion and that is one of the key reasons we are building C-PET.

TPS’s agenda was generally focused on the present and the near-term future -the cultural and legislative gaps between the feds and the Valley. Yet this current failure is a taproot of the key strategic issue around which C-PET is being formed – the fundamental lack of high-level policy interest in the future impact of emerging technologies. If the current situation were healthier, the question of the future would be simpler to address. Which is one reason why the current gaps, and TPS’s efforts to bridge them, are so important. Of course, there are others: we sorely need a vibrant and coherent address to such issues of privacy and IP in the context of current and emerging technologies.

Perhaps the most disappointing part of the program lay in the panels that were intended to touch on the Great Gap. Not that panelists lacked smarts and articulate reflection. But they seemed either to have despaired of change, or to believe that it would come about by additive efforts. One preached that we needed to do “more and more and more” to get the issues in front of our legislators. And one of the federal speakers himself made a plea for more lobbying.

This ain’t gonna cut it. And my disappointment lay in the fact that no-one – at least no-one when I was listening, as I sat and tweeted and emailed and did all the distracted things we now do at conferences in technoworld – said simply: this is a strategic issue; indeed, a series of strategic issues; they will not be resolved by lobbying and getting a smattering of people from the Valley into government; we face a vast question and need to come up with some quite fresh answers.

Here’s my take. Strategic issues include:

1. We are in the middle of a tech-driven Kulturkampf. A cultural revolution. Legislative process and political leadership in general (even the Blackberry-toting President) are the creatures of a way of understanding the world, and the relations between technology and the world, that were laid down (at best) in the days of Vannevar Bush and Eisenhower. Our approach to IP of course goes back much further, and has barely adapted (as illustrated by current lawsuits against Myriad Genetics on the breast-cancer gene, and Google on their use of trademarks as ad triggers). And the protection of privacy (as noted above) is a bizarre affair. Think Gestalt. Think tectonic shifts. Think Thomas_Kuhn.

2. It is not simply that things are changing. Our mechanisms to manage this change are very weak. The Science Committee of the House of Representatives is not exactly the capstone committee; the place where aspiring members want to top out their careers. Its members and staff have done a fine job. But they are not the leaders of opinion, even Hill opinion. It remains to be seen whether the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) will take more initiative in this administration than the last (and I expect it will), but most people, including (to my surprise; but on reflection perhaps not) assorted attendees at TPS, did not know what it was. The demise of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which offered a non-partisan view of the implications of new technologies, goes back to Newt Gingrich’s reforms of Congress. If OTA were around today (and, interestingly, Hillary Clinton advocated its reinstatement during her campaign) it would have a lot on its docket. (And while some tech advocates assume that such assessments will always be negative, savvy investors – who know what GMO stands for – take a broader view of the value of social critique. We need many things – not just an Office of Technology Enthusiasm.) And when did the Washington Post, which has a lot to do with the federal agenda (setting and reflecting) last lead with a tech story (aside, perhaps, from stem cells, which should be filed under politics rather than tech).

3. Geography. If a key goal of TPS is to seek to build the Bridge to Somewhere (aka DC), why is it convened on the wrong coast? The United States has perhaps the most “geographical” government of any nation on the planet (though the phenomenon is characteristic of federal entities). What happens in Mexico may stay in Mexico. What happens in DC is what happens. I’m not making a practical criticism – if TPS09 had been convened in DC it might have garnered some more senior federal panelists, but would have lost maybe two-thirds of its attendees (and no-one in DC expects to pay to go to anything, let alone to have to sit through tree days of it!). Which says something about the reciprocal problem of DC and the Valley. But there’s no doubt about it: out-of-towners and lobbyists don’t cut the mustard. If you want to be taken seriously, strategically seriously, in the Beltway – at least on something other than a narrow money/language/vote issue – you need to hang out in the right zipcode. And it’s an interesting reflection on the subtle impacts of IT that “geographicality” is perhaps even more important now than it was; as it is constantly surprising us.

4. Which raises the question of the commitment of our political class, and the people they represent, to S and T. That’s the Big One. It lies behind the lackadaisical interest in the particulars in tech as such (rather than its ad hoc use) on the part of cultural and political leaders. The general disinterest of the major think tanks in the issues that will ultimately provide the context for all issues. The generally hobbyist treatment meted out by the press in their “technology” sections. And so on.

5. And that in turn brings us to C-PET’s agenda, which of course is more future-focused. The need is not just to bridge into today’s tech policy, but tomorrow’s.

So, thanks to Natalie and Marc and their colleagues. An agenda of profound importance laid bare – importance to entrepreneurs, and citizens, and the United States. We have much work to do.

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