Today the R Street Institute’s Zach Graves moderated “When Lawmakers Clash with Technology,” a panel discussion exploring the consequences of a technology-illiterate Congress. I think most people would understand that Congress (with everyone else they have going on) might not be early adopters of technology, but learning that some do not yet use e-mail is disconcerting. When asked to make policy decisions regarding digital surveillance, national security and the U.S. Patriot Act, Congress does not have the knowledge necessary to legislate. Robyn Greene, Policy Counsel at New America’s Open Technology Institute, added that evidence of legislator incompetency is apparent. Just consider the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) legislation that would have allowed authorities to block entire Internet domains (among other things), or the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) that has had no effect on making the country less susceptible to terrorist attacks.
Adam Keiper, Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, pointed out that established ways of learning about issues are limited. Congressional hearings are no longer held for Congress to learn about an issue but rather “attention getting” platforms. The times have changed. Adam cited a 1955 “Automation and Technology” hearing that lasted two weeks with days of testimony from a great number of experts. No longer does Congress take a deep dive into any issue. Moreover, the 1995 closing of the Office for Technology Assessment (OTA), the only government agency that thoroughly analyzed scientific and technological issues, was not a prudent decision.
Daniel Schuman, Policy Director at Demand Progress reminded us that technology-illiteracy impacts all three branches of government. The speed of technological change is a part of the problem, but lawmakers indeed live in a “bubble.” Unlike Silicon Valley’s highly iterative process of testing and failing and gaining new understandings to try again, lawmakers have an undeclared mandate to pass legislation that gets it right the first time.
It was an interesting program that, unfortunately, added to my doubts of the efficacy of the government, but there is a bright side. Now more than ever, grassroots advocacy holds a better chance of being successful. The government is going to need us to show them the way.