Fear and Loathing in the Technology Ecosystem

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It’s been said that it is the nature of man to fear what he (or she) does not understand, and that’s a lesson we seem to have to keep on learning.

Lessig’s blog collects some of Jack Valenti’s witticisms on the “perils” of new technologies:

First, the cable TV industry:

“[Cable will become] a huge parasite in the marketplace, feeding and fattening itself off of local television stations and copyright owners of copyrighted material. We do not like it because we think it wrong and unfair.”

Then, the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) VCR comparison:

“We are facing a very new and a very troubling assault … and we are facing it from a thing called the video cassette recorder and its necessary companion called the blank tape. We are going to bleed and bleed and hemorrhage, unless this Congress at least protects one industry … whose total future depends on its protection from the savagery and the ravages of this machine [the VCR].”

“[Some say] that the VCR is the greatest friend that the American film producer ever had. I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”

And BoingBoing links to Cory Doctorow’s brilliant summary of why Microsoft should get out of DRM which is here. His presentation features this gem from none other than John Philip Sousa:

These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy…in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal chord left. The vocal chord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.

And then just last night, I opened Leigh Montville’s excellent biography of the great Ted Williams to discover the following passage:

“I started doing the Red Sox games in 1951, ” broadcaster Curt Gowdy says. “We used three cameras to cover the entire game. One from first base, one from third base, one behind the plate. I went to [owner] Tom Yawkey at the end of the season and said, ‘I think we could use a fourth camera from centerfield to show the balls and strikes. I think it would be a great addition.’

“Yawkey surprised me. He didn’t want it. He said the television coverage would become too good. People would stay at home from the ballpark. We didn’t get it.”

Rather than just complain about the situation, we should look at what can be learned from these paranoid fantasies.

  1. Every one of them was wrong about the implications of technology on their business
  2. Every one of them was fighting a technological advance that, in retrospect, was inevitable
  3. Every one of them ultimately benefitted from the technological advance they fought against
  4. More subjectively, it seems as if most if not all of the individuals involved had a limited or poor understanding of the actual technology and its implications
  5. Every one of these decisions was made out of fear, not rational consideration

Looking at these examples, does anyone think Senator Orrin Hatch has learned anything – anything at all from this history? If not, why is he playing an important role in deciding the fate of new technologies for our country? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

UPDATE: Seems as if Ray from the Progress and Freedom Foundation picked up on Yawkey’s shortsightedness a few months ago. Kudos.

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