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SOPA Debate Highlights Congress's Ignorance

The divide between new technology and what the government understands about it threatens the U.S., says Clay Johnson of Expert Labs.

When members of Congress earlier this month considered the Stop Online Piracy Act — better known to anyone who actually hangs out on the Internet as #SOPA — the most notable feature of the debate turned out to be the sheer ignorance of the elected officials discussing it. One after the other, members of the U.S. House of Representatives professed — nay, bragged about — approaching this weighty legislation from the vantage point of someone who is not “a nerd” or a “tech expert.”

Nerds and tech experts, and plenty of savvy Internet users who don’t consider themselves either of these things, cringed in unison. They retaliated with an Internet meme, of course, an open digital letter informing Congress that it is finally “No Longer OK To Not Know How The Internet Works.”

The episode — and the backlash it engendered — raised serious questions about how much personal expertise is required of elected officials with the power to regulate technical niches, from stem cell research to Internet commerce. But, perhaps more importantly, it raised this question: Where do members of Congress get their expertise? They don’t all arrive in town as born experts on medical cost curves and equity derivatives.

“If the pharmaceutical industry, for instance, chose to ignore Washington,” said Clay Johnson, who works on just this question as the director of engagement at Expert Labs, “then we’d be having hearings about biopharm drugs or hearings about the FDA where you’d hear members of Congress saying, ‘I’m not a biologist, but…’ or ‘I’m not a bio-scientist, but…’”

This doesn’t generally happen, though.

“If you look at just about any other industry,” he went on, “you see members of Congress very well versed in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. And that’s because there’s a lobbyist there who’s constantly telling them what it is that they want.”

The tech world, Johnson argues, doesn’t do this very well. Congress could be more educated about the Internet and technology. But he turns this problem on the people who’ve been complaining about it: if your member of Congress doesn’t know how the Internet works (or why SOPA would in fact harm its basic architecture), that means no one with a vested interest in its regulation has turned up in Washington to try and explain it to him or her. Yes, like some septuagenarians elsewhere, many 70-year-olds in Congress don’t get technology. But techies don’t get Congress very well, either.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Johnson writes about this challenge in his new book The Information Diet. The most dangerous special interest in Washington, he argues, is the electorate that’s completely disconnected from the levers of power in the capital. Activists and voters tend to write off their representatives as cloistered sell-outs who only listen to lobbyists with the largest checkbooks. But in their cynicism, they decline to engage representatives themselves — and this of course only leaves more empty scheduling time and attention bandwidth for lobbyists to fill.

“To date,” Johnson said, “I’ve never heard a congressional scheduler say, ‘Oh gosh, my congressman is so busy meeting with constituents here in Washington, D.C.’”

People who care about tech issues and Internet regulation need to become essentially special interests themselves (by which Johnson doesn’t mean caricatures of shady back-room lobbyists, but rather active constituents lobbying their cases on issues like SOPA).

The tech community’s libertarian roots have generally kept the industry far from Washington, as has the long-held belief that good technology can always innovate its way around government regulation. But that time is over. There’s just too much commerce taking place on the Internet now. The Internet has become too important to escape Washington’s intervention.

“This is the point where it’s time for the tech community to understand that they have to participate,” Johnson said. “And by participate, I mean meeting with a member of Congress, calling a member of Congress on the phone. It means wearing a suit and tie and looking like a professional, not showing up in a hoodie, and blue jeans and flip-flops in the halls of Congress. And it means running for office, too.”

It also means recognizing that automated form letters aren’t an effective means of advocacy in Washington.

All of this is terribly important, Johnson believes, because the disconnect between technology and government is becoming one of the most important problems the country faces (right up there, he says, with health care and climate change). The definition of literacy is evolving. Eventually, people who say, “I’m not a computer person” will be as disconnected from society as someone who says today, “I don’t know how to read.” And we can’t afford for those people to be elected officials and government employees charged with regulating technology.

Techies often talk about a concept called Moore’s law, a rule-of-thumb about computer chips that in essence says that technology becomes half as expensive and twice as fast, every 18 months. In applying this idea, Johnson makes his own prediction that you could walk into any government office and see two computers on every desk: one, about a decade old, that’s assigned to the government employee, and another one, much newer, that the employee brings in from home to actually do her job.

“Those two computers are an example of government being disconnected from Moore’s law, while the rest of society is connected to Moore’s law,” Johnson said. “As technology advances, you’ll see that gap between those two computers get further and further apart. And if government can’t acquire and use technology to the fullest extent, how is government going to regulate and understand technology? We’re looking at a future where we may all be in flying cars, but our government employees are driving around in Buicks.”

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