It is perhaps ironic that an Internet tech policy guy like me uses a term from the old analog radio days to say goodbye to the tech policy world . . . for now. But this same term also means to “announce the end of a communication,” and that indeed is how I viewed my job with Verizon over the last 29 years – to engage in continuing dialog and communication with so many of you about important policy issues.
I am indeed leaving Verizon’s policy shop, where I have been involved in a wide range of policy issues concerning the Internet for many years. But I’ve made it a practice to do a policy blog every week if I can, so before I leave, you have to endure one more post from me. This one, unlike those in the past, is much more a personal reflection as I leave my job.
It is tempting to go over the tech trends that I’ve seen over the years or prognosticate about the future in this blog post. Or to talk about how much has changed in our industry (it can sound so trite but it is so true). In fact, when I joined Bell Atlantic in 1985, more than 80 percent of our revenue came from voice services of various kinds. Today, the situation is totally reversed – more than 80 percent of our revenues come from services other than voice. So, yes, change is a relentless force in our industry.
But I care about policy, how it is made, and how effectively it is shaped. So rather than talk about the many tech topics of note in previous years or where technology will head in the future, I thought I would offer some thoughts about making policy in the tech space. While the tech sector is highly innovative, constantly changing and very competitive, policy matters too. It affects how our industry works in many ways. But I’ve learned some lessons in my 29 years doing policy in this space – and I’ve observed some trends – that I think are worth pondering. So here goes.
First, making good policy is not easy. It requires balancing many different interests and ideas. In order to do this successfully, careful thought is necessary. As much as I like the Internet (after all, it is at the root of many of the issues I deal with), it can also detract from careful thought and can stimulate rapid, sometimes unthinking responses. Reacting quickly is at a premium in today’s online world, but it can undermine deeper thinking, and even cause us to get backed into corners. There is a famous story about Abe Lincoln (I’m named after him, but that is not the only reason he is one of my heroes) that relates how he would often react to a slight or a commentary against him in the heat of the moment by writing out a response. But he would rarely send these missives right away, preferring to put them in his desk for a while. Often, he would revisit the letter later and decide it was not prudent to send. A great many letters are in the archives written by Lincoln but never sent. We don’t live in a paper and pen world anymore, but it would not hurt us to pause and reflect more often than we do in thinking about policy or reacting to the ideas of others. Constructive criticism often helps move the ball forward. Quick, reactive commentary can sometimes do just the opposite.
Second, good policy depends on defining the problem correctly. In far too many cases, we debate issues that are not really important to solving a real public policy problem because we are not asking the right questions and hence not really defining the issue that needs to be addressed. One example of this comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Tipping Point.” In it, he discusses the push to enact laws restricting liability suits against doctors alleging malpractice, which, according to some, have been skyrocketing. The problem, as defined by those pushing for these new laws, was that malpractice lawsuits are born of greedy patients and their even greedier lawyers who sue at the drop of a hat. The system makes it too easy to sue according to those espousing this view. Gladwell looked at the data and found that that was not the problem. Instead, the way doctors treated their patients was often the major contributing factor as to whether a suit was filed in a given situation. So the way to lower the number of malpractice lawsuits according to Gladwell was to train doctors to have better bed side manners. It appears those advocating legislation to curb law suits had defined the problem incorrectly.
Another example comes from the realm of one of my great loves, science fiction. Isaac Asimov wrote a wonderful science fiction story that became the movie “I, Robot” starring Will Smith. In the movie (set far in the future), Smith is a detective who does not trust robots, which are everywhere in society, doing virtually everything for humans. They are programmed not to harm humans but Smith suspects that this programming is not failsafe. A scientist who is a good friend of Smith’s dies, and it appears to be a simple suicide. Since the scientist works for the huge conglomerate that makes most of the world’s robots, Smith is suspicious. He goes to the accident scene and interacts with a hologram rendering of the dead scientist, which is only able to answer simple questions. Smith asks a lot of detailed questions about what happened but gets nowhere. Finally, in frustration he shouts that that his friend is good a man and always had a positive outlook on life. “Why would you kill yourself?” he asks. The hologram responds “Now THAT is the right question.” The lesson here is that endeavoring to define the real issue – and whether the evidence even suggests it is a real problem once defined – is critical to good policy making.
Third, facts matter a great deal in establishing the case for policy change and in determining how to make changes. In the tech space, it can often be very difficult to get good facts because of the complexity of the technology, the rapid changes in the industry, and the highly global nature of the Internet with its billions of users. But that should not excuse poor use of facts or mischaracterizing what facts are relevant and what they show. There often is good data out there and while it may take a lot of time to mine it and understand it, it does exist. When I was on the Hill in the “dark ages” (1977-1985), Daniel Patrick Moynihan was then a Senator. He used to say all of the time “You can have your own opinions but not your own facts.” Unfortunately in many of the disputes about Internet policy, the saying has been modified in my view to “You can have your own opinions but not your own facts – but you can have your own spin on the facts.” I understand the desire to get good quotes out there for debate and to try and put the best spin on a story line or position and we can all interpret facts differently. But in today’s rapid fire policy world, it is unfortunately true that busy policy makers may only see a story about a hot topic in brief form, or they may only hear a short snippet of someone interviewed on the radio making a comment. They will often file away the facts they hear – true or not – because of the time constraints they face. Using facts carelessly, or misstating the facts is especially harmful to good policy debate because it can color the views of a policy maker for a long time and unfairly skew views. Good policy demands good, accurate, and fair use of facts.
Finally, I think respect for others is a key part of good policy making. I have seen over the years far too many instances in which someone participating in a policy debate is attacked, not for what they have said, but because of who they are or where they get their support. In my experience, the vast majority of those participating in policy debates have good motives and have principles that are at the heart of what they support and say. That does not mean there won’t be the occasional bad apple, but I believe that is a rarity. However, in recent years, I’ve seen more and more focus on attacking opponents with allegations regarding their motives, and less focus than there should be on the merits of what people are saying. Attacking others may be good politics and feel good sometimes, but it is bad for constructive policy debate. (To return to Malcolm Gladwell: his book Blink has an interesting vignette on this point. He describes a researcher who had studied married couples for years, trying to determine what factors led them to break up. After literally decades of work, he concluded that one factor is the most important in explaining failed marriages – one or both of the parties in the marriage treated the other with contempt or disrespect). People can take a lot – arguing heartily, lustily disputing points, and strongly pointing out the flaws in the arguments of their opponents. If this is done with respect for others, avoiding attacking their motives, it can and often does help reveal new insights.
I don’t mean to lecture in this post, but policy making is important. It is at the heart of what makes a democratic society function. But it is not easy creating good policy, and we make it harder when we fail to live by some of the simple points I’ve discussed.
David Young here at Verizon will be doing the work I have been engaged in. David and I have worked together for a long time and he is both a very savvy “techie” (he’s an engineer, while I only play one on TV) and extremely knowledgeable about communications and Internet policy. Many of you know him and I’m sure he will be around to see those of you who do not.
Take care to all of my policy friends and colleagues. I wish you well and hope to see you around.