• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Memo to the Candidates

What about the Internet?

May 8, 2016

To:  Presidential Candidates

From:  The Internet

Notwithstanding different platforms and personalities that distinguish your campaigns, you all seem to be missing a critical component: The Internet. Allow me to make the case.

Viewed in broad strokes, the United States has witnessed three big historical shifts: from agriculture to industry, and from industry to an information technology.  That is not to say that there is no role for agriculture or industry in the United States, but by and large successful agricultural is now industrial and industry is increasingly using information technology – including robotics and artificial intelligence -- in a manner that distinguishes it from its heyday  man-as-the-machine past.  Information drives not only the United States but world economy. To wit: Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft.
Why is no one talking about the Internet? 
The Populist Movement marked the American political landscape in the years after the Civil War leading up to the administration of the first Roosevelt. The immediate concern was on irregular and exploitative railroad rates; anger against “banks” ranked a close second. Zoom out and we see an agricultural economy on its way to an industrial one. With the benefit of hindsight what would we like to say to those farmers?  “Fellow citizen, let’s regulate railroads and banks (and the U.S. did, somewhat, with the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887 and the Federal Reserve Act 1913) but take note: your way of life is receding into the past.”
Further, “Rather than hold this country back, let us help you transition to the present. Urbanize, industrialize, and accept the abundant pluralism of the United States by embracing its liberated slaves and hardworking immigrants.  Have access to the housing, health care, and education you need while we electrify and connect transportation and communications across our beautiful and rugged expanse. Respect the past, but embrace the future. Prepare America for the century upon us.”
Similar circumstances mark now us. Why can’t we face it? Two candidates placate the increasingly dislocated industrial worker and the third gets tied in rhetorical knots. Here is what might be said. “Fellow citizens, we acknowledge an obligation to help you transition from the industrial to the information economy.  Let’s regulate the banks and incentivize corporate America to keep jobs here and taxes too … but that’s not all. From founders of the Internet, the U.S. has fallen below 50 other countries on a scale of broadband penetration.  We owe you connectivity.  We want you to participate in education, commerce and culture. We will help you retool educationally, if you need it, and be sure your children get the digital and information literacy necessary to compete in the global marketplace. Embrace the 21st century by embracing the influx of immigrants to revitalize and refresh us, new industries to keep apace of international developments in trade, data and commerce, and move toward sustainable, renewable energy across our map.  That is how we can make America great!”
Where is the candidate to say it? Already in the White House. We may not appreciate that fact, but the Obama Administration has offered an early road map by prompting the F.C.C. to reclassify the Internet as a utility in the U.S. As a utility it can be taxed. That tax supports broadband deployment and attention to people and locations less served by the commercial I.S.P. market.  Similarly, K-12 has not been ignored by this administration when it comes to technology, but that attention has not been sufficient.  No one seems to talk about it very much anymore. This week another major vertical merger of I.S.P. up-the-stack-to-content took place between Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks occurred without so much as a peep from the public. This event stands in contrast to the critical attention paid to the Comcast-Universal NBC merger just five years passed.  After the “net neutrality” win of 2015, do voters think we are done with all that?
So much of this country has distracted itself in an antiquated brand of conservatism and jingoistic nationalism that looks for its image in a rearview mirror. Why do we eschew a focus with a future in it? Apart from oft-stated observations such as the anti-intellectualism of American life (in which historically the Populists played a leading part) and the entertainment culture in which we are now steeped, I am going to offer what is undoubtedly a very controversial thought: we’ve grown lazy.  There is too much lassitude in our thinking about ourselves, too much sloppy inward focus that lacks energetic imagination to get us out of a by-gone era that never actually existed, and with it an industrial mindset that in its moment hardly seemed like nirvana to those who lived in it. 
Nationalism at the level it is being represented, with a fear of immigrants and the child’s notion of a fence to keep people out, is lazy thought. Simple fiscal fixes to complex economic problems might sound attractive because they seem so easy to implement but are so ill-informed and sophomoric as to be of use only as a starting point that a teacher might take to explain to a pupil willing to learn something about global money and wealth. Manichean renderings of who is good and who is bad reminds me of reductionist thought leaning toward the decline and fall of the Roman Empire two millennium ago.  For some of these candidates, the failure to speak truth may be the failure to see it.  For one other, the tact to play it safe begets the courage to say it. 

If we are to confront the challenges of this century, we have to apply ourselves to deeper, more robust thought.  Let’s expect more of our leaders than entertainment. Not every industrial worker out of a job lacks vision, even if their immediate interests are at stake.  Not every white man is a racist and sees lost opportunity the result of giving African-Americans or immigrants a fair shake. Not every voter wants to be coddled. If we want our leaders to lead, voters have to demonstrate a desire to be brought up. 
To look back is a memory, forward, without a progressive vision, is fantasy.  We can make American great by realistically addressing our challenges.  We require an educative, inclusive and vivacious roadmap to a future that makes sense in the real world around us.  That world is one defined by profound technological and market transformations that require in-kind economic, social and legal shifts.  Such a path requires disciplined effort.  For all of the drama that this campaign season has generated, it is still not clear that voters are willing to embrace that much effort.  I haven’t heard a word about maintaining a balance between innovation and incentive in copyright, and yet even our founding fathers thought that matter important enough to include in enumerated rights of Congress.  Where has access to the Internet gone in campaign rhetoric? How will we reform education in a way that makes sense in a global information economy?  And yet, these are among the most important choices that voters have to make. 

Hewing to polls is a negative feedback loop and constrains campaign speech. Higher education, therefore, has a very crucial role to play at this juncture of presidential election politics. Colleges and universities can showcase those who can discuss connections between economic and fiscal woes that incorporate technological, legal, social and market dynamics.  Higher education can demonstrate how to embrace complexity for the simple sake of citizenship. I know of no better lesson than that.  Let us cut through election detritus and start to make this season one not reflective of just our weaknesses but worthy of our strengths. The Internet is not the only or, necessarily the most important issue upon which we should focus, but a campaign season notably without a discourse that weaves its law and policy issues into it is one stuck in a rut.  Time to get up and out.  We’ve had our entertainment.  Now it is time to get to work.  



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