Fewer, Faster, Smarter

Issue #38, Fall 2015

Fewer, Faster, Smarter

The new innovators and disruptors promise a revolution in how we live. We can’t strangle them with rotary phone-era regulations. The latest installment in our series “Our Digital Future.”

Larry Downes


Academic policy debates about how to regulate disruptive innovations (if at all) have become all too real. We now have daily reminders of the problem: violent protests by French taxicab drivers over popular ride-hailing applications like Uber; IBM’s Watson technology performing medical diagnosis that beats the experts; a partisan Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hell-bent on displacing engineering-based governance of the Internet with regulations born in the days of rotary phones.

While none of the individual blowups may have been expected, the sudden epidemic of collisions at the intersection of technology and the law is entirely predictable. It is the natural consequence of a revolution in computing technology that continues to spread across the world, deconstructing traditional industries as it expands its reach.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Moore’s Law, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s prophetic forecast that computers would continue to grow faster, cheaper, and smaller, doubling performance roughly every two years. After five decades of exponential growth, computers have long since broken free of their B-movie stereotype as inscrutable, fragile machines housed in sterile rooms, tended by emotionless human operators. We now have nearly two billion smart mobile devices worldwide, and soon will have a trillion (yes, trillion!) other connected things.

Information technology, intentionally and otherwise, long ago unleashed a persistent hurricane of creative destruction on the industries closest to it—communications, consumer electronics, and entertainment. And now, with a few more turns of Moore’s Law, it’s ready to disrupt all the others.

That is, assuming old rules and regulations, some going back to the Industrial Revolution, don’t get in the way. In economic sectors as different as agriculture, financial services, manufacturing, education, and health care, new disruptors are coming into conflict with policies that haven’t been seriously reformed for generations—and with regulators who have, until now, been spared the disruptive aftershocks of digital technology.

Even as incumbent businesses align with their longtime regulators to erect quixotic obstacles in front of the disruptors, a tidal wave of new technologies, products, and services is massing at the borders of the industrial economy. In the next few decades, new inventions will radically improve every aspect of our lives. But along the way, they will continue to create chaos for policy-makers still fighting last century’s political battles.

If traditional governments want to remain relevant in the information revolution, they’ll need to embrace the tools of the disruptors, relentlessly questioning and experimenting with the best techniques and technologies to serve efficiently the public interests they were created to protect. Instead of force-fitting new technologies into obsolete categories, we need to reverse engineer public policy back to first principles. What problems are we trying to solve? Do they still exist? And, if so, which institutions are best suited to confront them with the least risk of collateral damage?

FULL article: http://www.democracyjournal.org/38/fewer-faster-smarter.php?page=all


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