Why It’s Important That The Internet Created Technopopulism

After finishing ITIF’s new report on technopopulism, I couldn’t help but think, isn’t this missing a couple of pages, about, you know, the Internet?

While there is much to like about the report, the missing piece, the missing message, as McLuhan famously quipped, is the medium.

Here is the basic gist of the report. In the old days, tech policy was decided by educated wonks who knew the finer points of policy and could  make reasoned arguments. Better outcomes and more nuanced policy proliferated. In the last few years, the debate has been morphed by good ol’ American populism. The new image of technology policy is one of individuals protesting in favor of network neutrality outside Chairman Wheeler’s house. To Rob Atkinson and his co-authors, the new discourse is long on cliches and short on analysis, much to the detriment of consumers.

Yes. I agree to a certain extent, but there’s more to the story.

It is nearly trite to say that the Internet has dramatically changed and continues to change how an individual relates to others and knowledge. Yet hardly a word is mentioned about this important change in this report.

The gatekeeper function of the media has been democratized with the Internet, creating new, expansive spaces to discuss any number of topics. And if there is one thing to unite people on the Internet interested in policy, it would naturally be Internet policy.

While Rob et al might lament the old days where there was balanced and thoughtful discussion, it was only possible because the high barriers to entry limited the number of people that could have possibly been involved in the conversation. Enforcing norms without formal institutional structures could be achieved when the absolute numbers were smaller due to the these constraints. Moreover, to be part of that group required a job that was dedicated to its study, such as an economist, a lawyer, or an analyst at the think tank. Of course, to get that kind of job required formal education that signaled interest and continued dedication to the topic area, which also helped to enforce a set of norms.

Once the conversation expanded via the Internet, the norms and the institutional requirements dramatically changed, leading to the world that the authors detail. Of course, there is still a core of educated discussants, but that has been supplemented by broader ethical and policy conversations over Twitter, discussion boards, Reddit, comment sections and countless other places. But let’s remember, this doesn’t mean the concerns are being translated onto the political stage. Even network neutrality, with its millions of FCC comments, is still largely unknown. Indeed, even after the President’s speech on the topic last November, 54 percent of those polled, including majorities of Republicans and Democrats, said they haven’t heard of the concept.

Indeed, what the report cites as instances of technopopulism is just a small fraction of the entire conversation. What is included are the issues that have, for one reason or another, garnered attention. For the most part, other important issues face far less outsider scrutiny. Take for example, the House Energy & Commerce efforts to update the Communications Act. Arguably, this new Act would be far more important than network neutrality, since it would determine how tech is governed. And yet, even the most commented upon subject, video law, only received 220 responses. Apart from network neutrality, FCC dockets are fairly technical and aren’t often commented upon.

All things considered, I still think we are toiling in relative obscurity. For now.

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