Of Giraffes and Trade Deals: Why the TTIP might be bad for innovation

If you get excited about the politics of regulation and international trade (and who doesn’t?!), then you’ve probably heard by now about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, also known as TTIP; a trade deal being negotiated between the United States and the European Union. The general consensus about TTIP, which I am inclined to agree with, is that it is a Bad Thing, due to the fact that it would weaken labour and environmental protections, expand internet surveillance, and impose a little clause called Investor State Dispute Resolution which would allow foreign private companies to sue governments for lost profits due to regulation.

I’m going to write here about the effect of this treaty and others like it on technological innovation and transitions. A few have already looked on how these kind of beyond-the-border regulatory harmonisation treaties empower patent trolls, so I’m not going to get into that. Instead, I’m going to look at one of the central justifications for the treaty, namely the idea that regulatory harmonisation will create jobs and prosperity. I went to a panel discussion about the TTIP last week, where the treaty’s one supporter; argued that differences in standards and regulations between countries cost money, and that a lot more money could be made if companies didn’t need to devote resources to meeting these mismatched regulations when selling worldwide. That sounds like a pretty common-sense argument, and even if you dislike the TTIP more generally, you might agree that that is a silver lining (Although the math suggests it’s a pretty small one). I want to argue that even if regulatory harmonisation does save money, it could still be a bad thing.

But before I do so, I need to address how we think about technological progress, using a biological analogy. Technological development is often imagined as an evolutionary process, roughly analogous to the biological evolution of organisms. But in at least some popular and political discourse, this is based on a Lamarckian rather than a Darwinian model of evolution. These diagrams describe the difference between the two:

Darwinian vs. Lamarckian evolution: According to Lamarck, the giraffes strive to grow taller. According to Darwin, the shorter ones simply starve to death.

According to Lamackian evolution, creatures grow stronger, faster, smarter, and generally better through intentional striving. The classic example is that giraffes started with short necks, but by reaching to get higher and higher leaves, they forced blood into their necks, causing them to grow longer. These gains were passed on to the next generation, which grew in turn until giraffes became the long-necked creatures we know today.The popular model of technological development is quite similar: The willful exertion of engineers’ and entrepreneurs’ energies supposedly leads to products getting better over time, while new and superior products are developed.

Today, however, we know that evolution is a more complicated process. The giraffes’ necks got longer because the short-necked giraffes can’t reach their food, and therefore starve. It gets more complicated than that, however. In most species, the gene pool is too big to allow even a beneficial mutation to survive very long-it will simply be diluted. Furthermore, the fossil record does not usually show slow, gradual changes-species seem to evolve in short, rapid bursts. So biologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed punctuated equilibrium. The gist of the idea is that occasionally, a small population of a species gets separated and isolated in a new environment, where the small gene pool allows rapid adaptation. In the case of the giraffe, then, giraffes evolved when a handful of short-necked giraffe-like ancestor species got lost in a place with a lot of tall trees, and had to adapt quickly.

When you look closely at it, techological evolution is much more like Darwininan evolution than Lamarckian evolution. It’s full of false starts, while supposedly antiquated technologies fight to compete with new ones new ones. We can even speak to some extent about a technological ‘gene pool’: New technological ideas have to survive in a larger market full of established players who may resist new ideas, even if they have major advantages over the status quo.

And so the natural conclusion is that, just like in biology, technologies rely not just on variability in the gene pool (created by engineers and entrepreneurs working on diverse ideas), but also variation in selection environments, to be a driver of change. So where does variation in technological selection environments come from? There are a few places. The basic physical environment is one; it’s unlikely that Mexican engineers would have developed the snowmobile, for example. Another one is culture. It’s been argued, for example, that Scottish Presbyterian values might have had an impact on that country’s shipbuilding industry in the 19th century. We could list a few more. But an obvious one is regulation. If one country has different regulations from another governing technology, then its engineers will develop different innovations, while its entrepreneurs will fund different technological models. The result is greater technological diversity, which allows us more freedom in selecting the best option.

There are concrete examples of this. A great one is California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate. In 1990, to deal with increasing pollution, the state required all car makers wishing to sell cars there to produce and market a certain percentage of zero emission vehicles. The mandate was changed over the years due to lobbying and a series of court cases, but it did successfully lead to the development of some electric and hybrid vehicles, and probably played at least a small role in the current promise of companies like Tesla. The TTIP, or some future beyond-the-border trade deal like it, could lead to these kinds of regulations being challenged, creating a globally homogeneous regulatory environment and therefore far less technological diversity.

Columnist Thomas Friedman has become famous in part for declaring that now, in the neoliberal era,  “The world is Flat”. The TTIP essentially follows that logic by proposing to flatten all the different regulatory frameworks that shape technology around the world. But even if you ignore all the economic, social, and environmental objections to globalisation, however, a flat world is not necessarily a good thing. Topography creates diversity in cultures, policies, and economies. And these differences can be a big generator of change. So even if you take its proponents completely at their word, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership may very well still be a Bad Thing.

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The Case for a Truly Public Internet

Cable and Railway monopolies

On the left: G. Frederick Keller’s depiction of the railway monopoly in California, 1882. On the right: South Park’s depiction of the cable monopoly, 2013. Comedic style has changed, but the basic complaint about infrastructure monopolies is timeless.

Right now, the American Federal Communications Commission is considering new rules that would essentially destroy net neutrality by allowing Internet Service Providers to give preference to the data from companies that pay a premium rate. In practice, this means that that companies like Comcast and Time Warner (who, incidentally, are about to have a merger) would be able to make the internet look a little bit more like a cable TV network, where whoever has the deepest pockets gets the greatest access to an audience. Big corporate websites will pay for the fast-lane, meaning that their websites will load almost instantly, at the expense of smaller startups, nonprofits, and personal websites, which would have to be content with whatever bandwidth is left over. Companies like Netflix, which competes with the ISPs’ cable TV services, could also suffer. Netflix, in fact, already has.

This touches at least three important political issues that I can think of. Firstly, business and innovation: The erosion of net neutrality will reduce the revolutionary potential of the internet by allowing entrenched interests to curb the threat it poses. Second, free speech: Most political speech today happens via the internet, and this could take a big hit if corporate interests start to limit bandwidth to parties who are critical of them. Third, social justice. A huge amount of interpersonal communication today happens via services like facebook, twitter and instagram, and if these suddenly see their traffic curtailed, or are forced to charge fees for a premium, faster service, then it will hurt the ability of marginalized classes to make their voices heard.

We have seen all this before, and not just in debates over the internet. The current rage against the monopolistic ISPs in the United States is virtually identical to the rage that was directed against utilities providing gas, electricity and railway travel as early as the nineteenth century. Before that, people raged against private turnpike operators. This kind of rage actually played a big role in the switch to a car-dominated transport system. The railways were seen as monopolistic, and so they were saddled with restrictive regulations that made it hard for them to compete with motor vehicles, which were far more flexible.

This problem seems to crop up again and again with any private industry that provides any kind of infrastructure. When somebody invests money to connect cable, phone lines, electricity, or railways to an area, they immediately secure a massive advantage in serving that area. If a competitor tries to come in and build their own infrastructure (which is usually not a very profitable business decision), the result will be a messy tangle of wires, pipes or tracks, and a massive waste of resources and space. So through business deals, regulations, or simple economic rationale, people run infrastructures like the internet tend to become the sole provider to a given area. This, of course, makes them a monopoly and makes it very tempting to engage in profiteering. This, as South Park has ably demonstrated, is exactly what has happened in the cable industry:

To solve this, governments often regulate these industries. But regulation has its pitfalls. It can be too stringent, in which case the old infrastructure is hobbled when a new competitor comes along. Or lobbying can make it too lax, so that profiteering happens anyway. The internet is already regulated, such as by the FCC in the United States, but the constant attacks on net neutrality seem to suggest that this is not a good long-term option. This problem isn’t limited to the United States, either. If net neutrality falls in the USA, then expect the internet companies to try and lobby for similar changes in other countries.

The recent development of Google Fiber suggests an alternative solution: Competition against entrenched commercial interests through the development of new technology. People like Google Fiber because it is breaking up the ISP monopoly. But this only kicks the problem down the road. Can you assume that Google won’t adopt Comcast’s practices once they dominate the internet service market? No, you probably can’t.

Others have suggested taking the infrastructure into their own hands, through what has been called the DarkNetPlan, and maybe in Google’s Project Loon, depending on how you interpret it. But this is likely to be far less efficient than a dedicated infrastructure built by a centralized provider, and at this moment the technology is very uncertain. It’s an interesting idea to work towards, for sure, but we shouldn’t count on it.

So maybe we need to look back at the solutions that have already been used in many places to avoid the monopolies of the railways and the electricity companies. What if we saw the internet not as a private for-profit business like cable TV, but instead more like roads: a public resource essential for society to function effectively in the twenty-first century? In today’s connected society, the internet is probably at least as important as roads. It has become crucial for everything from business to education to health. So why, then, should we be content to make exploitative private companies responsible for the internet? An alternative would be to make the internet a truly public service, run by a government corporation responsible not to its shareholders but to the electorate. Such a company could still break even or even turn a profit, but would have far less temptation to gouge the public or mount attacks on net neutrality. This would ensure that our connectivity is secure, and that it can be taken advantage of by everybody. At the very least, people in very remote areas, where internet currently costs a fortune, would probably appreciate the pooling of resources.

This plan is not without its problems. A public corporation might be more vulnerable to spying by groups like the NSA, for example, although the current corporate internet seems to offer little help on that front.  And even the utopian project of a ground-up, distributed internet could probably be hacked in one way or another So do we really have very much to lose on this front? Another problem lies in the ability of a public internet company to take advantage of the latest in technology such as Google Fiber. But such a company would be responsible to politicians who are ultimately responsible to the electorate, the rolling out of high-speed internet nationwide could be a very popular campaign promise.

Public utilities are not a perfect solution, but they do provide probably the best solution to providing socially just infrastructure that we have discovered yet. If infrastructure companies are beholden first and foremost to their shareholders, as ISPs currently are, then the outcome will always be monopolism and abuse. So we need to find ways to make them accountable primarily to their users and to wider society. This means that perhaps they should be more than a common carrier. Maybe they should simply be a public good.

The Ideological Nature of Transportation

The British Public were so excited about the motorways in the 1960s that they printed postcards of service stations. The railways had a hard time competing in this modernist cultural environment.

Here’s an interesting  fact to mention next time you hear somebody railing against railway subsidies: During its entire history of operation since it was created in 1970, Amtrak, the American public passenger rail network, has received less in subsidies than the American highway network receives in a single year. Amtrak’s total subsidies since 1972 are estimated by the Cato institute (which has every reason to overestimate them) at around $13 billion, while the American Road and Transport Builders’ Association cites federal highway investment at around $40 billion per  year for at least the last few years.

This shouldn’t really be seen as paritcularly damning either of Amtrak or the highways, because it’s a pretty well-recognized fact that good transportation networks need subsidies. I have yet to encounter a single form of mass transportation that can be profitable on its own. Cars, trucks and buses need roads, and the various fuel taxes and fees paid for by drivers generally don’t cover the costs of building, maintaining and policing them. Trains are virtually always subsidized. Aviation is massively subsidized, with airlines receiving government bailouts fairly frequently. With the possible exception of active transportation such as walking and cycling (and even cyclists need roads), there are probably very few modern transportation networks don’t receive some money from the taxpayer.

One obvious implication of this is that we shouldn’t be pointing to subsidies to argue against the usefulness of particular modes of transport-something that critics of rail are particularly guilty of. But this has another important implication, namely that transportation infrastructures are inherently politicized. Regardless of your political position, you would have to be incredibly naive to believe that the government, in its benevolence, wisely considers the methods of transportation available to it and supports the most promising one. Subsidies are doled out at least partly due to political and ideological commitments. And this means that transportation networks are an inherently political and ideological entity.

To take one example from my own research, consider the competition between road and rail transportation in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain. After the Second World War, the British government undertook several projects to repair and update its transport system. On the railways, this took the form of the modernisation plan, which was launched in 1955. The plan was intended to introduce improved signalling systems, electric traction, station refurbishments, and a whole host of other improvements to prepare the newly nationalised British Rail for the demands of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Transport was also beginning to build the country’s first motorways. Starting with the Preston Bypass and the M1, which ran from London to Birmingham, the country’s modern road network gradually began to take shape. This all happened in the cultural and ideological context of modernism. This was a period of high modernism, when visions of a Jetsons-like future of a rational, efficient, high-tech and technocratic society were extremely popular. This modernism, I believe, played a very important role in shaping the transportation system as it exists today in the United Kingdom.

If  you read discussions about these two programs in both parliament and the press, however, you realize that the public perception of a modernised railway system was not the same as it was for a modernised road system. On the one hand, newspaper columnists tended to aggressively support motorway construction. This support was often based on the idea that the promotion of cars, buses and trucks was an essential part of being a progressive nation in the later part of the Twentieth Century. The Daily Mail put it in 1953, “like it or not, we are in the motor age, and we must make the best use of it” [1]. When the motorway program suffered setbacks, the government weathered a storm of criticism in the press. The Daily Express’s motoring correspondent, apparently not one for subtlety, penned one article about the motorways whose headline was “DREADFUL, DREADFUL, DREADFUL” [2]. Nobody questioned the costs of the project, and almost everybody with a platform seems to have been pressuring the government to make it happen as quickly as possible. The motorways were seen as modern marvels inherently deserving of support and investment

The railway modernisation plan had a very different hearing. While it did get some tentative support in the press, there wasn’t anything near the same pressure to see it through to the end. There were, indeed, many questions as to whether it was worthwhile in the first place. The editor of The Guardian speculated that it would be “…an unfortunate economic waste if, for example, the modern diesel trains now coming into service should fail to pay by 1970 because people had taken to their cars” [3]. One phrase that comes up again and again in the discussions of railway modernisation is the phrase “nineteenth century”. Increasingly, the railways were seen as an obsolete nineteenth century transport system when measured against the motorways and the cars that drove on them. The result was that when the financial situation got a little bit tighter, the modernisation program was curtailed and eventually gave way to the Beeching cuts, which eliminated more than half of Britain’s railway network in an attempt to make it profitable. The cuts got more support in the press than the modernisation, and that the phrase “nineteenth century” continued to be repeated by journalists supporting Beeching’s plans. The Daily Mirror, for example, proclaimed that “The plan for making Britain’s 19th century railway system fit snugly into the second half of the 20th century will impress the travelling public by its inescapable logic—and shock them with its ruthlessness” [4]. Many people saw the railways as an old-fashioned system, a relic of the previous century. And this meant that it was only logical to dramatically scale it back while motorways were being built.

To put it more simply: The railways were an easy target, and the suffered financial cuts as a result. The public and the press insisted on having motorways, while they were much less enthusiastic about the supposedly old-fashioned railway network. The ideology of modernism played a big role in this. Whether they drive on the motorways or travel on the scaled back railways, Britons today are living out the legacy of 1950s and 1960s technological ideology.

What this says for the present day is that we need to be very explicitly conscious of the role of ideology in the present transportation system. Cars are seen as the embodiment of freedom, individuality, and masculinity, and that supports continued public investment in roads. But cars are also increasingly seen as dangerous, antisocial, polluting machines. The clash between these two understandings of today’s transportation system will have important implications not only for tomorrow’s transportation system, but also for the global environment.

Primary Sources

[1] The Daily Mail., 1953. “Money for the Jam.” The Daily Mail. 24 July 1953. P. 1.

[2] Cardew, Basil., 1956. “Look, Mr. Watkinson! Look at this!”. The Daily Express. 24 February, 1956. p. 4.

[3] Savage, C.I., 1958. “What future for the railways? Next Few Years Decisive.”. 29 April, 1958. P. 11

[4] Beechcroft, J., and Morton-Smith, 1963. “The Railway Revolution”. The Daily Mirror .28 March, 1963. p. 15

It’s Time to Leave the Ivory Tower

Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences; a very striking feature of the city where the conference was held. The architecture is stunning, but public engagement with science requires more than expensive buildings.

Last week, I attended an early career researcher conference in Valencia, Spain. As an historian, I was a bit of an odd duck in a conference fairly dominated by more quantitative methods, but that’s a discussion for another time. Today, I want to address a much more pertinent issue that came up in a roundtable discussion. The roundtable featured four speakers from academia, industry, policy, and politics, who discussed the relationship between our academic discipline and the real world of innovation and innovation policy that exists in business, policy, and politics.

The discussion started out pretty tame. The representatives from the academic, business, and policy spheres each had interesting things to say. To me, the most obvious theme to all their talks was that academics in innovation studies are still in a bit of an ivory tower. There are, apparently very few ways for academic ideas to find their way into business or policy practices. People working in business or policy rarely read academic journals, and while some of these people may have postgraduate training, the theoretical knowledge gained from this is not always relevant to their day-to-day work.

These ideas however, they were somewhat overshadowed by the speech delivered by David Hammerstein, a Green Party activist who was invited to represent the political sphere. Hammerstein wasn’t kidding when he warned that his talk would be a little bit confrontational. His speech aggressively criticized what he perceives as the blindness of scientists and other researchers to their social context, and used some very choice words to describe some of his least favourite research policies. Among his targets were the European Union’s experimental fusion reactor, and the common practice of private companies to turn the findings of publicly funded research into proprietary corporate secrets. The general thrust of his talk was that scientific and technological research needs to be better attuned to matters of genuine public interest, and that we PhD students need to promote public debate about scientific and technological issues.

I think that Hammerstein had a point. The social, political, economic, cultural, and environmental influence of scientific and technological research today is massive. And yet far too often, scientists and engineers are assumed to function in a sterile, apolitical world where they are servants only to objective natural truths and (maybe) economic incentives. It will not do for either the public or the scientists themselves to go on believing this. Science and technology are as political as anything else, not least because scientists and engineers are human beings with political opinions. As long as new technologies have the potential to bring about radical social changes, the public will have a stake in what kind of research is done, and how it is applied.

There are a few promising developments which might help the public realize that stake. Crowdfunding of both technology and science are fairly promising, as is the precendent set by Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Penny4NASA campaign”. But for the public to constructively engage with science and technology, they need to be able to critically evaluate science and technology. The good news here is that this critical engagement has been going on since at least the 1960s in at least three academic fields. History of Science and Technology has a tradition of considering scientific and technological achievements in light of their social context, Science and Technology Studies critically considers the links between science, technology and society and Innovation Studies attempts to describe the circumstances under which new technologies and practices are created. The bad news is that the public remains mostly ignorant about all three of these disciplines. It isn’t enough for a handful of academics to be discussing these things at conferences. The material complexity of the modern world demands that the public engage with these ideas as well.

And so I believe that it’s time for scholars in all three fields to start popularizing their work. In the fifty-odd years since their creation, all three of these disciplines have matured considerably and have made some impressive findings. The time is now ripe to diffuse that work more publicly. We need televised documentaries about the history of science and technology that explicitly link scientific and technological developments to their social contexts, rather than depicting great men of science. We need scholars active in science and technology studies to start writing science fiction which incorporates their ideas. We need innovation theorists to get involved in the discussion every time a politician tries to use words like “innovation” or “excellence” in soundbytes. And we need to bring all this research to bear on crucial societal problems such as climate change and medical research.

This is much easier said than done. If, as the roundtable pointed out, academic ideas have so little traction in policy and business, then the task of popularizing them among lay audiences will be extremely difficult. It will take some very clever people to take the arcane, academic jargon of these three fields and translate it into something that will interest the public. But the task is absolutely essential. If we are going to have more informed debates about scientific issues such as climate change and vaccination, or about technological ones such as pharmaceutical development and fusion power, then we need to make academic research about these things accessible to the public. Hopefully this blog can be a small part of that effort.