On May 25, 2018 the European Union will begin enforcing the General Data Protection Regulation. It is a forward-thinking collection of legislation meant to govern the way companies use and disseminate data from its citizens and return a measure of privacy to their lives. Despite the admission by Facebook that 90 million users’ data had been compromised during the 2016 election cycle, the US Government has yet to take action to rectify the problem or create policies that prevent similar issues in the future. During Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress it became woefully evident that the majority of lawmakers present lacked the digital literacy to competently question Facebook’s role in the sharing of personal information of its users. A mere five percent of federal lawmakers have technical education or work backgrounds prior to election. As connected technologies become ever more pervasive in everyday life, it is evident that today’s tech titans (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google, and the like) will continue to grow in scope and power. The operational model of Facebook led to a significant impact on the integrity of our democracy. Almost two years later, government leaders are still largely inept regarding how technology can be weaponized to the detriment of their constituents.
Meanwhile, the European Union is on the precipice of enacting the GDPR because legislators in Europe didn’t wait until calamity struck to act. The set of regulations has roots in digital privacy legislation from 1995. That legislation was reviewed in 2011. Five years of proposals, hearings, and revisions led to the law passing in 2016, with two years for businesses and government entities to prepare for implementation. We are being outpaced by our European counterparts on data and privacy regulation, outplayed by Chinese innovators on gene editing policy, and outperformed by Cuban health professionals on infant mortality rates. The aforementioned have been able to excel in science and technology based policies in government by adopting approaches that focus on the future, instead of the next election cycle.
Technology has become too powerful a force in our economy to not consider its near and short term impact from a regulatory perspective. And with Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple wielding nearly $50 million lobbying power in 2017 it is clear the companies have already taken steps to tilt regulation in their own favor. Much like the European Union did with GDPR, the US Government need only look to its past for guidance on how to prepare for the future. In 1972 the Office of Technology Assessment was formed. This arm of Congress provided thorough, objective analysis of scientific and technological developments. The body consisted of equal numbers of members from the major political parties of the US, drawing from Congress and the Senate. This led to unbiased conclusions guided by scientific findings instead of partisan leanings. They published reports on health care advances, climate change, terrorism, computer privacy, and automated machines in the workforce. All issues that continue to hold relevance. Unfortunately, the office was disbanded in 1995 under the guise of budget cuts for more efficient and smaller government. If not for the shuttered doors of the OTA over twenty years ago, surely the US would be better navigating the technological issues of today. Perhaps we would already have a roadmap for how to incorporate self-driving vehicles into our society with allocations for displaced workers and optimized infrastructure to safely incorporate with human drivers. Maybe we would have developed a realistic plan for transitioning to renewable energy sources. Perchance we would have fully assessed the potential power of AI and assigned an organization akin to the nuclear watchdog Advisory Committee on Uranium to advise on its use. Instead, the lack of an Office of Technology Assessment continues to make America late again and again on issues of planning for the future from a comprehensive and multidisciplinary perspective.
Our elected leaders have the brightest tech minds at their disposal for advisory and consultative purposes. But lacking the subject matter knowledge themselves, leads to lack of priority on modernizing technology systems and platforms that carry out essential government functions. Futurists don’t focus on the years to come out of desire to predict the future. That has always been a fool’s errand. They do so because it presents the best opportunity to resolve the biggest problems of tomorrow. We are much more adept at working through problems with adequate time to consider multiple viewpoints and test solutions, as opposed to responding when a crisis has already struck. With this theory in mind, our local and federal governments do a disservice to all citizens by failing to avail themselves of future-thinking problem solvers as we sort out long-term ramifications of current innovations. Whether through the OTA or a citizen-led initiative, our problems of tomorrow could stand the help of futurists today.