Tech Policy as a Space

A recent podcast with Alex Howard, Tim Karr and Christopher Preble at the Cato Institute has got me thinking about the way technology is conceptualized in tech policy circles. First off and I mean no offense to the parties involved, but there is a dearth of knowledge about media history. I am not saying that these policy analysts do not know contemporary telecom policy; in fact, I am in awe of their knowledge of the 1920s onward. Though, the 1920s is not the starting point for contemporary media history. Nor was the American Revolution, for that matter. The American Revolution was a stop off in a thread of history that began with the Guttenburg printing press of 1440 and ended with the German unification of 1871. Though, calling it a history belies the essentially ecological nature of the affair. History suggests linearity. The creation of the modern public, the industrial revolution, state building – all of these are integral ecological items. They interact with each other, leading to the creation of a new space, for which new actions were possible.

The event was entitled, “The Internet and Social Media: Tools of Freedom or Tools of Oppression?” as though only one or the other is possible. Early on, all agreed that something else was going on, something that was both oppressive and free. Both were and are possible with the Internet, but that pesky little word or puts us in a hell of a predicament. It forces us to choose between the two. Is the Internet a tool of freedom or a tool of oppression? Neither, I would argue, because that is the wrong question, which is sad, because it is the question we continually ask. I want to consider these technologies through a different line of questioning, but to get there, we first need to look at words.

Consider some of the ways that we describe policy and its relationship to government:

  • The policy sphere
  • The expanding role of government
  • Expanding policy

In talking about technology, a similar pattern emerges:

  • Seeing what is on the horizon
  • Pushing the boundary
  • The possibilities of cyberspace

Both technology and policy rely upon the use of spatial metaphors. Though I have hardly done enough work here to document it, spacial metaphors are rampant in discussions of technology. [For some other example see Nunes, Strate, Holmes]

I want to go a little further, though. To help set the stage, take a second and think of what is possible in a cathedral compared to a town square. Naturally, the possibilities for action are different, constrained mainly by social rules and architecture. There is only so much that one can do in a church. The potential within a city square is greater, but again, there are still limits. Regardless, we can all agree that action occurs within a space. There must be a site for this action to occur.

I want to try to convince you that all possibilities for action are constrained by space, though it is real in its consequences. This is by no means a new point. Indeed, as the Bard said, all the world is a stage, but that stage has its various boundaries. Like the architecture of a cathedral or town square, we are limited by the architecture of our technologies. This is why Lessig’s point about code, that left to its own it will become the perfect tool of control, is so important to tech policy. He wants to convince us that the space of the Internet naturally lends itself to repression, and that in order to keep it open, we have to regulate various parts of it.

Similarly, like the social rules in a cathedral, the possibilities we have are enforced by society and government.

The image below helps to visualize this metaphor. As there are changes in each of the boundaries, new space for action opens or closes. Much like a cathedral, different spaces, which are created under different regimes, have their own potentials for action. As technologies advance, new space is opened, while others are closed. As governments enforce new regulations be it explicit or implicit, boundaries close. As a society becomes more liberal, again, space opens up.

This is a working theory, subject to change as I get more deeply involved in its application in 15th century social and political events. Right now, however, I encourage you to think of the Internet as opening up space for value laden actions, like oppression and freedom, rejecting the idea that Internet can ever be value laden itself.

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