“Innovation” is no substitute for a robust technology policy. Photo: Getty
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The innovation fetish

Left, right, and centre – everyone loves to talk about “innovation”. But what does it mean, this ambiguous, ill-defined buzzword?

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Who today is against innovation? It is a word capable of uniting even the two parties. In December, the House passed a bill called the Innovation Act by a margin of 325 to 91. Cities (like Austin and San Francisco) have established innovation offices. Two years ago, the White House launched an innovations fellows program to place technology-savvy workers inside various (presumably innovation-deficient) federal agencies. The nation’s innovator-in-chief, Barack Obama, has extolled, “Don’t just download the latest app [but] help design it. Don’t just play on your phone [but] programme it.”

As a buzzword, “innovation” appeals to the left and the right, both of which claim it as their own. For the left, the case is plausible, at least in the abstract. The values of innovation – uncompromising experimentation, radical impatience with the current order – seem squarely of progressive provenance. But the left’s ecstatic celebration of innovation helps to conceal its glaring absence of a robust technology policy – at least one that is independent of Silicon Valley and serves social goods greater than flying cars and longevity pills.

Take something as basic as access to knowledge – a theme of the left ever since the days of the Enlightenment. What, one might ask, is the left’s current vision on the issue? Some might point to the Digital Public Library of America – a worthy initiative that seeks to make digital holdings accessible online – but it’s an effort spearheaded by elite universities and private foundations. It barely registers on the radar of policymakers in Washington – and for very good reasons: The success of such a project would require ambitious structural reform of the copyright system. And what politician on the left has the courage for that?

Without a policy, the left prefers to imagine that democratic access to knowledge will magically materialise; that innovation will produce projects that look like Wikipedia – with a strong social dimension and free access. And it’s true that many of the platforms built by the tech industry – from Skype to YouTube – can be used for civic purposes. But it’s also true the companies that have beneficently provided the platforms are intent on maximising their own commercial agendas. These products might disappear as swiftly as they appeared, eliminating the information infrastructure that we already take for granted.

Who today remembers Google Reader – a handy but unprofitable tool for keeping track of news feeds that the company shut down last year? Won’t a similar fate await Google Scholar, a tool used by plenty of academics to keep track of citations and articles? So far, the left has kept quiet about such risks, hoping that some other innovation would come along to replace whatever commercial services face extinction.

But why not acknowledge that some services like Google Scholar are important enough to warrant formal institutionalisation and public support? Of course, saying this would require the left to accept that a non-commercial approach is needed and that Silicon Valley can’t offer much here.

The conservative position on innovation is more ambiguous. It’s hard to imagine classical conservatives – in the mold of Edmund Burke or Michael Oakeshott – getting too enthused about the disruptive potential of apps and gadgets. But today, many on the right eagerly celebrate the fruits of “creative destruction,” without spending a moment fretting about its impact on the culture.

That’s because many conservatives consider “innovation” a mere synonym for deregulation. Some on the libertarian right have become fond of the idea of “permissionless innovation” – a notion that they borrow from recent Internet history. The idea is that the internet only thrived, because its creators didn’t need to beg powerful gatekeepers for permission to invent. That’s a line of argument even some of the founding fathers of the Internet hold. As Vint Cerf, who designed the key internet protocol, said in 2011: “[On the internet] if you want to try something out, you just do it. The Yahoo! guys and the Google guys and the Skype guys didn’t ask permission to build their products and services; they just put them up on the internet and let people come and use them.” Cerf, it should be noted, was primarily concerned with the power of big companies – the likes of AT&T – and not with big government.

For many libertarians, however, the indisputable success of the internet offers a wonderful template for promoting deregulation more broadly. “Advocates of the internet are right to extol the permissionless innovation model – but they are wrong to believe that it need be unique to the internet,” writes Eli Dourado of the Mercatus Center, a bastion of libertarian thought funded by the Koch brothers. “We can legalise innovation in the physical world, too.” Dourado is quick to show how it could be done: Bitcoin can “do for finance what the internet did for communication.” It’s as if there is no difference between AT&T and the Federal Reserve, since both are gatekeepers. That one is a profit-hungry private company and the other one is a political institution erected to carry out a public mission does not seem to matter.

But why assume that innovation – and, by extension, economic growth – should be the default yardstick by which we measure the success of technology policy? One can easily imagine us living with a very different “internet” had the regulators of the 1990s banned websites from leaving small pieces of code – the so-called “cookies” – on our computers. Would this slow down the growth of the online advertising industry, making everyday luxuries such as free e-mail unavailable? Most likely. But advertising is hardly the only way to support an e-mail service: It can also be supported through fees or even taxes. Such solutions might be bad for innovation, but the privacy they afford to citizens might be good for democratic life.

This is where the left’s enchantment with innovation talk is particularly detrimental to its long-term interests. For they too – at least those on the left who deal with the arcane issues of technology policy – have embraced the very same language. Marvin Ammori at the New America Foundation, for instance, warns that “the neutral and level playing field provided by permissionless innovation has empowered all of us with the freedom to express ourselves and innovate online without having to seek the permission of a remote telecom executive.” Here even the freedom of expression hinges upon the correct framework for innovation.

The “permissionless innovation” meme is regularly invoked in defense of the left’s favorite cause of “net neutrality” – the idea that network operators should treat all content passing through their systems equally and without discrimination. But there’s an irony: The big telecom companies complain that net neutrality wouldn’t treat all companies equally. In fact, the law might actually force them to ask the government for permission to innovate – for example, if they want to charge extra for premium online services – where no such permission is needed currently. Ultimately, the public will have to determine which side – the start-ups or the incumbents – produce more “innovation.” And the incumbents will probably win this fight: They don’t have to prove anything – they just have to introduce enough uncertainty to make definitive conclusions impossible. They certainly have the lobbyists to do it.

The lesson for the left is simple: “innovation” is no substitute for a robust technology policy. It must frame its arguments around big themes of equality and justice. Of course, those goals are buried somewhere in its information agenda; it’s just that the left, mesmerised by the jargon of TED Talks and Al Gore, has simply preferred not to emphasise them. Instead, the left accepts that these questions require economic thinking, with its fascination with efficiency and constant change. But the genuine act of innovation would be to redefine the idea altogether.

Evgeny Morozov is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article first appeared on newrepublic.com


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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood