As our nation faces pressing issues, tech leaders and government need to build bridges
Washington, D.C. and Silicon Valley’s adversarial relationship was on full display last month as the Justice Department filed its landmark antitrust lawsuit against Google, and subpoenas were handed down from the Senate to tech executives. Conflicts taking place between government and technology companies have been growing in size and scope for years now, and while some of these fights are worth having to determine the role of tech in our society, some are not completely inevitable. Some are the result of a lack of understanding on both sides that could hold back our economy at a critical time. As innovation moves faster, and regulators seek to keep up, there’s an urgent need for policymakers and tech leaders to find common ground as working partners, not sparring partners.
While the world has changed dramatically in recent years — including a pandemic keeping many workers at home and making us even more reliant on technology — technical literacy among government leaders, and the laws necessary to foster smart innovation, haven’t kept pace. Tech leaders have also too often failed to accept the responsibilities that come with their power and reach. Imagine if more social media executives made it their mission to comprehensively address misinformation rather than playing whack-a-mole in response to a media headline or congressional subpoena. Or if gig economy executives and labor leaders were able to take advantage of mutual interests and advocate together for shared goals like strengthening the society safety net through policies like Medicare for All and a higher minimum wage.
During the Obama administration, I served as an innovation policy advisor to the White House and as chief of staff to America’s patent system. Now I’m vice president of public policy at Postmates. Both experiences have convinced me of the need to bridge the divide between those who are inventing the future and those who are working to make it fair and safe. I believe we can — and must — increase technical knowledge in government and improve collaboration between private tech and elected officials in order to maintain this country’s position as the global leader in innovation.
To begin, Congress should reinstate the nonpartisan Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) that was closed in 1995. Such an office would help lawmakers keep up with technology trends and understand the effects of potential regulation. Just as the Congressional Budget Office scores the potential fiscal impact of legislation, this agency could be tasked with examining emerging sectors, measuring their impacts, and contributing to baseline regulatory standards. Let’s revive the OTA by reintroducing and passing the bipartisan New OTA Act, which was proposed last year.
And whichever presidential candidate wins should reinvigorate the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which helps executive agencies understand how new tech impacts our economy and national security. The OSTP previously had great success promoting science-driven policymaking, increasing research and development budgets across federal research institutes, and promoting advanced manufacturing and supply chain innovation. Unfortunately, it was left empty for the first 19 months of the Trump presidency, and we saw critical public sector organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy pay the price.
We also need a tighter feedback loop between technology leaders and workers. All too often progressive policymaking pits workers and capital against each other instead of identifying long-term, cooperative models that may guide the future of work. Germany, for example, convenes technologists, universities, labor unions, and prospective workers to facilitate job training and career development opportunities so the workforce can effectively contribute to the quickly developing advanced manufacturing sector. The United States should similarly prioritize information sharing to support job recovery from the pandemic.
Meanwhile, tech companies should try harder to appreciate the indispensable role of government. Many technologists and entrepreneurs have a deep-seated distrust for regulation. But when it comes to deciding what kind of online speech is dangerous or supporting workers regardless of their classification or status there’s no substitute for bold national policy. And no one is better suited to inform such policy than those responsible for building the tech in the first place. Tech leaders should look for opportunities to partner with governments, civil society groups, and labor advocates. Government should recruit talent from the frontlines of tech innovation and vice versa.
With a global pandemic raging, climate change worsening, competition with China accelerating, and our economy in crisis, we need more expertise in government — not less. And technologists need to build more empathy for the government in the same spirit that the government needs to build more empathy for tech to ensure we don’t inadvertently hold our country back from winning the era. Let’s get all of the technological know-how to the table so we have what we need to take on the future.
Vikrum Aiyer is the Vice President of Public Policy and Strategic Communications at Postmates, and he was a former innovation policy advisor to the White House under the Obama administration.