There was a time when technology policy was a game 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 4 million submissions flooded into US 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.
Now populism has overtaken tech policy debates and proposes a counter philosophy of tech progressivism to better guide discussions and debates around tech policy issues. 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.