As I’ve been starting to get to grips with technology policy over the last few years one of the things that has fascinated me is how little reference to history there is. When I read historical books and talk to people about technology and innovation history I find some frequent gaps. We need to learn from history if we are to make the best of the opportunity created by the current waves of innovation and technology.

Whatsapp and Columbus

The Landing of Columbus by John Vanderlyn

For example, people talking about the wonders of technology talk about how few staff WhatsApp had when they were bought by Facebook, yet don’t talk about how few people sailed in the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria when Columbus sailed across the Atlantic. After Columbus’ expedition more and more people crossed the Atlantic, for exploration, for business and for pleasure.

WhatsApp’s success built on the internet, the web, cryptography and smartphones. Similarly Columbus relied on inventions in navigation and shipbuilding. Neither could have achieved what they did without those previous inventions. Are they analogous?

Learning lessons from history

Recently I read a couple of books that helped me sort out some of my thinking about lessons from previous waves of technology-driven change. The books were Ruling The Waves by Deborah L. Spar and The Master Switch by Tim Wu. They are good books. If you’re interested in technology policy you should read them too. I’ll lend you my copies if you want.

Ruling The Waves uses ocean sailing, telegraph, radio, satellite television, cryptography, personal computer operating systems and digital music to explore innovation. It proposes that they show four common phases: innovation, commercialisation, creative anarchy and rules. Different actors dominate in each those phases.

There are piratical adventures in the early years before the surviving, and now dominant, winners encourage government to work with them to bring order to the new technology. Using the model of this book would show that my silly Whatsapp/Columbus analogy is fatally flawed. Columbus was in the innovation phase, Whatsapp (and other messaging services) are in either the creative anarchy or rules phase. They’re very different kinds of innovators.

Ruling the Waves argues that the eventual rules tend to be dominated by intellectual and property rights. It shows that it can take decades, or even centuries, from innovation until stable rules are in place.

The Master Switch uses the Greek myth of the titan Kronos devouring his children as an analogy for existing monopolies devouring startups. This is Goya’s verion of that myth, using the titan’s Roman name of Saturn.

The Master Switch looks at lessons from the telephone, radio, broadcast and cable television, and Apple to propose that all information technologies go through a cycle of decentralisation to centralisation ending with a corporate (or state) monopoly where innovation, the economy and consumers suffer.

It argues that a separation principle can help prevent this fate.

This principle would keep a distance between young industries and existing monopolies to enable new technologies to show their worth; between different markets to make it harder for monopolies to spread; and between the public and private sectors to prevent government from favouring friendly monopolies.

After reading the books I was more convinced than ever that the waves of change bought about by the internet and web will take decades, if not centuries, to be absorbed into our societies. It is seductive but false to think that we can legislate for technology and data quickly. We have to allow for experiments to learn the right legislative and regulatory frameworks.

Gaps in the lessons

But there were gaps in the books. That’s not unique. I see the same gaps in lots of technology policy and thinking.

Despite the best efforts of Victorian inventors the vast majority of dinner tables do not yet feature a minature railway delivering food to bearded men. Picture from Victorian Inventions by Leonard de Vries

Major enabling waves of technology like the internet and web underpin lots of other innovation — like smartphones, social media and search engines—that each have their own journeys to go through. Some of these smaller waves will have lasting impact, some may disappear and get washed away, others are badly timed and will come back in a while. But the waves don’t stop. They are continuous. That is one of the reasons why open culture is so important. It keeps us open to innovation, new ideas and challenges from outside of a small circle of friends and organisations.

Both books miss the impact of data in the current period of change and that much of this data is personal data. It is data about you, me and billions of other people. Most data is about interactions between people, or between people and organisations staffed by other people. It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine who ‘owns’ data. For most data there will be multiple people and organisations who have rights. This makes it hard to rely on property rights as a way to shape and bring rules to the market. The challenge of building good governance for data infrastructure will need a more systemic response than property rights.

There’s a whole world of innovation out there. (Gall-Peters projection, image by Strebe CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The books also focus on the US and UK, with some excursions into mainland Europe. While they describe the differences between European and US approaches to regulation, with Europe typically intervening more, I would love to see more about the lessons learned by other countries. The web, the internet and data infrastructure cross, and therefore soften, national boundaries. Learning from and listening to other countries and societies will become even more important as these waves of technology reach their full power. These excellent recent reports from the Web Foundation are useful for those in a US/UK filter bubble who want to start listening more widely.

Innovation has limits

And finally both books miss the influence of societies and people. They are books about economy, regulation and business. They miss the social side of the change.

Lots of the impact of technology is societal as well as economic. Similarly the forces that impact on and affect technology change are both societal and economic. People adapt to technology and innovation, but sometimes they push back and reject it. Those rejections can be learned from.

The innovations that led to Christopher Columbus crossing the Atlantic also led to industrialised slavery. Slavery might have helped create the modern world but it is an evil that should not have happened and should not still be happening. We could have intervened earlier and stronger to stop it. A modern world similar, but not the same as, our current one would still have been built. It would have taken longer but it would have damaged billions fewer people in the process. Our societal norms now reject slavery and many of the other things that that particular innovation enabled.

As our societies matured we embedded some of those societal norms and values into legislation. Human rights, worker’s rights, anti-discrimination, health and safety, and data protection are some obvious examples. They are strong signals from society indicating where innovation is encouraged and where it isn’t.

The precise rules will vary by country but while the boundaries of legislation will contain things that need to adapt as we learn how to do things better at the core of the legislation are societal norms and values. We cannot and should not forget our values as we go through this wave of change. Those values do change but that change should be vigorously and openly debated.

Something the team at the ODI say a lot.

Innovation can take strange paths and be used for unintended purposes. We need to engage and work openly with societies and people if we are to both understand the limits and share the benefits of the current waves of technology.

What does this have to do with my job?

Over the last couple of years I’ve been working at the Open Data Institute where I spend about 50% of my time working with the private and public sectors delivering projects and building services. We help businesses and governments understand and adapt to the wave of change being bought about by data. The other 50% of my time is spent developing our policy thinking based on what I and the rest of the team and network learnt from delivery and research.

In that second half of my time one of the many things I’ve been helping on is developing a line of thinking that data is becoming a new form of infrastructure. That a data infrastructure which is as open as possible is one that will create the most impact and be best for people, businesses, societies and the planet and that we need to build an open future for data.

Clearly data is not “good” infrastructure right now, too many people can’t get the data that they need, so we think a lot about how governments and businesses can help strengthen it. We look at history when we do that. This is all part of my research. How did we recognise things becoming infrastructure in the past? How did we learn how to design and build good infrastructure? How long did it take? Do historical examples contain useful lessons?

What should I read next?

Anyway, like all of my blogs, I’m thinking out loud. These are some of the things my recent work and reading about history has made me think about. The gaps in the last two books led me to pick a book on the anthropology of roads as my next one. What should I read or who should I talk to after that?