Getting Back to the Future of Policy

If you imagine the future as pollution, crime, technology run amok, or worse, I wouldn’t blame you. Popular movies and books about the future are almost always dystopian. That isn’t necessarily bad; imagining the negative helps us avoid it.

But we’ve become so focused on averting the bad we’ve forgotten how great the future could be — and how we’re already getting there. When policy work is about avoiding dystopia, everyone on the other side of an issue presents an existential threat. This is particularly dangerous now as political toxicity and populism are growing all around the world. Only 6 percent of Americans think the world is getting better. The disconnect between technological progress and how we perceive it is growing.

We can’t keep operating this way. Whether or not we’re mentally prepared, we’re on the verge of some of the most rapid, significant changes in the human experience to date: universal high-speed internet, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, drones and holographic reality. It’s all right around the corner — and the possibilities are awesome.

But our institutions are already being tested. Governments are struggling to keep up with these rapidly evolving times. Reactionaries fear change and yearn for stability. Technocrats talk excitedly about the future but often can’t resist trying to manage change from the top down. Both want certainty and resist the evolutionary process. Instead of focusing government’s role narrowly on addressing real problems, fears of dystopia drive preemptive control. And even those skeptical of Congress often default to giving broad discretion to the executive branch — especially if their party is in power.

But as change accelerates, these debates will become less and less about Left versus Right. We’ve seen this since the dawn of the internet age, with strange bedfellows coalitions coalescing issue by issue, whether to fight, try to manage, or to embrace change.

So how can we improve the situation? One problem is that we’ve lost sight of a better future. We should be imagining what a brighter future could look like, and exchanging ideas on how to get there — not just what gadgets we’ll have, but what it means for us as individuals.

We can’t forget how much our lives have been improved by technology already — how much we’ve been given seemingly limitless potential to learn and achieve. As we digitize our lives and break down physical barriers, there is so much more space for people to build, create and connect.

Today, we can learn a language for free, practicing with people around the world. Hundreds of thousands of researchers are working together with new intelligent tools to find cures for cancer and other diseases. We’re inventing ways for the blind to see, and ways to experience life around the world through someone else’s eyes. Family and friends can stay close when we move away. Or better yet — we can live in the places we love, and work virtually. We have new ways to express ourselves artistically and new communities who appreciate us. We have the whole of human knowledge at our fingertips, to access and build on as we choose.

A brighter future doesn’t only mean reducing inconvenience, disease or poverty. It’s about expanding the human experience, giving us all more control over our destiny — more ways to be human.

My organization, TechFreedom, launched in 2011 by convening respected commentators across the political spectrum to write and speak on the challenges of “the Next Digital Decade” — and how to face them. We’ve since made the case for a light-touch, bottom up legal framework that we believe would best serve the interests of Americans. But we’ve always engaged with those who saw things differently. As we approach the end of the beginning of the internet age, we’re imagining the next phase and the one after.

We’re also reframing our work to help explain how it’s relevant to individuals and society as a whole. We learn by telling each other stories, and TechFreedom’s specialty — deep legal analysis — has a story to tell, too. We’re creating context around how it relates to the foundation of the American system, impacts the digital security behind every new technology, supports the shift from analog to digital life and paves the way to the next frontier. We’ll be answering those questions, and, as before, we don’t intend to go it alone.

As our think tank continues to grow and build capacity, we intend to work with anyone making a good-faith effort to craft policies that work with, rather than against, an organic, person-driven future. No one organization or political philosophy will figure it all out. Like the future itself, policymaking for the future will be an ongoing, messy process of trial-and-error, of learning from a multiplicity of sources.

To every technologist, policymaker, academic, and advocate who believes that humanity can rise to this challenge and wants to see what we make next, join us. Rather than fighting over how to manage scarcity, let’s start by identifying ways of life our children can look forward to. Finding common principles and common framings will create more space for us to work together on the big picture, and work more constructively on specific disagreements. We’ve laid out areas for this kind of agreement and work in the past. We’re going to keep iterating to find policy approaches that work.

Most of us who follow tech policy are early adopters. We’re excited to fit new innovations into our lives before they’re broadly accepted. Let’s show the way here too, and not give in to fear or tribalism. Instead of reacting to what happens, let’s be proactive; let’s build the foundation for a future we want to call home.

Austin Carson is the executive director of TechFreedom, a nonprofit, nonpartisan technology policy think tank.

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