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Which came first, the technology or the policy?

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 23, 2003

Cory Doctorow wrote a short piece for Warren Ellis’s Statements of 2004 series:

The last twenty years were about technology. The next twenty years are about policy. It’s about realizing that all the really hard problems — free expression, copyright, due process, social networking — may have technical dimensions, but they aren’t technical problems. The next twenty years are about using our technology to affirm, deny and rewrite our social contracts: all the grandiose visions of e-democracy, universal access to human knowledge and (God help us all) the Semantic Web, are dependent on changes in the law, in the policy, in the sticky, non-quantifiable elements of the world. We can’t solve them with technology: the best we can hope for is to use technology to enable the human interaction that will solve them.

Kevin Werbach responds:

A nice formulation, but, with all due respect, a wrong one. Technology and policy are always intertwined. Both of them always matter. Was the Napster saga “about” peer-to-peer technology, or the current state of copyright law and the music industry? Was the rapid growth of the commercial Internet in the US “about” advances in data networking or enlightened FCC policies? The danger lies in thinking about either element in a vacuum. Geeks and the technology industry love to think they can ignore policy battles, which is just as misguided as policy-makers thinking they can adopt laws without regard to technological reality.

Technology and policy are always intertwined, but policy often plays catch-up with technology. I think that’s what Cory’s on about here. The Internet, ubiquous & cheap data storage, portable & connected devices of all sorts, the digital abstraction of media…that’s a lot of significant technology that our global society is being asked to handle and politics & culture are scrambling to catch up. Forward-thinking industries, companies, and countries have spurred the development of some of this technology (egged on by consumers in some cases), but my feeling is that in this instance, technology is definitely playing the horse to policy’s cart.