by Adam Thierer
Technology Liberation Front
In a recent essay here “On the Line between Technology Ethics vs. Technology Policy,” I made the argument that “We cannot possibly plan for all the ‘bad butterfly-effects’ that might occur, and attempts to do so will result in significant sacrifices in terms of social and economic liberty.” It was a response to a problem I see at work in many tech policy debates today: With increasing regularity, scholars, activists, and policymakers are conjuring up a seemingly endless parade of horribles that will befall humanity unless “steps are taken” to preemptive head-off all the hypothetical harms they can imagine. (This week’s latest examples involve the two hottest technopanic topics du jour: the Internet of Things and commercial delivery drones. Fear and loathing, and plenty of “threat inflation,” are on vivid display.)
I’ve written about this phenomenon at even greater length in my recent law review article, “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle,” as well as in two lengthy blog posts asking the questions, “Who Really Believes in ‘Permissionless Innovation’?” and “What Does It Mean to ‘Have a Conversation’ about a New Technology?” The key point I try to get across in those essays is that letting such “precautionary principle” thinking guide policy poses a serious threat to technological progress, economic entrepreneurialism, social adaptation, and long-run prosperity. If public policy is guided at every turn by the precautionary mindset then innovation becomes impossible because of fear of the unknown; hypothetical worst-case scenarios trump all other considerations. Social learning and economic opportunities become far less likely under such a regime. In practical terms, it means fewer services, lower quality goods, higher prices, diminished economic growth, and a decline in the overall standard of living.
Indeed, if we live in constant fear of the future and become paralyzed by every boogeyman scenario that our creative little heads can conjure up, then we’re bound to end up looking as silly as this classic 2005 parody from The Onion, “Everything That Can Go Wrong Listed.” It joked that “A worldwide consortium of scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers is nearing the completion of the ambitious, decade-long project of cataloging everything that can go wrong.” The goal of the project was to create a “catalog of every possible unfortunate scenario” such that, “every hazardous possibility will be known to man.” Here was the hilarious fake snippet of the imaginary page 55,623 of the project:
I loved the story’s concluding quote from obviously fake Popular Science writer Brian Dyce, who said:
“Within a decade, laypeople might be able to log onto the Internet or go to their public library and consult volumes listing the myriad things that could go wrong,” Dyce said. “It could prove a very valuable research tool or preventative stopgap. For example, if you’re shopping for a car, you can prepare yourself by boning up on the 98,627 bad things that could happen during the purchasing process. This project could have deep repercussions on the way people make decisions, and also the amount of time they spend locked in their bedrooms.”
So, in the spirit of keeping people locked in their bedrooms, cowering in fear of hypothetical horribles, I have started a list of things we must all live in fear of and plan for! (I actually pulled most of these from articles and essays in my Evernote files that I tagged with the words “fear,” “panic.” and “dread.” I have collected more things than I can count.) Anyway, please feel free to add your own suggestions down below in the comments.
Hey, it could all happen, right?! Therefore, as The Onion proposed, we must “catalog every possible unfortunate scenario” such that “every hazardous possibility will be known to man” and then plan, plan, PLAN, P-L-A-N accordingly!
Alternatively, we could realize that, again and again, humans have shown the remarkable ability to gradually adapt to new technologies and assimilate them into their lives through trial-and-error experimentation, the evolution of norms, and the development of coping mechanisms. It’s called resiliency. It happens. We live, we learn, we move on.