Why politicians should never make laws about technology

As the world gets more and more technical, we can't let Luddites decide the fate of dangerous legislation like SOPA

In the weeks leading up to the SOPA vote (or delayed vote, as it were), I perused my representative's website, looking for a phone number or other means of contact to inform them of the bill's odiousness and potentially catastrophic fallout. I'm reasonably sure they'd heard it before, but had been blithely ignoring it. This simple act underscored a problem possibly bigger than SOPA: the fact that as with far too many of our elected officials, technology legislation isn't even on his radar.

The contact form on his website was apparently his preferred method of communication. I headed over and clicked a drop-down menu to select the subject of my missive. The usual suspects were there: defense, environment, budget, even transportation and agriculture -- but no "technology." All I could do was select "other."

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To frame this clearly: I was using the most advanced technological form of communications ever developed to contact my elected representative about pending legislation regarding the most technological form of communications ever developed. However, the list of 17 possible topics didn't even include technology.

To politicians, this doesn't seem strange. To them, adding "technology" to this list would be like adding "plumbing" or "animal husbandry." Who could possibly care about the underpinnings of our worldwide internetwork enough to contact their representative about it?

Very few politicians get technology. Many actually seem proud that they don't use the Internet or even email, like it's some kind of badge of honor that they've kept their heads in the sand for so long. These are the same people who will vote on noxious legislation like SOPA, openly dismissing the concerns and facts presented by those who know the technology intimately. The best quote from the SOPA debates: "We're operating on the Internet without any doctors or nurses on the room." That is precisely correct.

The life of a politician doesn't match well with that of highly skilled techies. The old stereotype of the computer geek shying away from social interaction isn't terribly far off. Most computer gurus process data in binary form: There are truths and there are untruths. When Chris Dodd stated, "The entire film industry of Spain, Egypt and Sweden are gone" due to piracy, a few minutes with Google would prove him absolutely wrong. A techie would simply discard that statement -- while many politicians appear to believe opinions have the same standing as facts, even when those opinions are based on demonstrable falsehoods. Say it with enough conviction and it counts.

That doesn't fly with techies. After all, if you start inserting vague notions into code or network architecture, at best it doesn't work very well, and at worst, everything breaks. Developing legislation isn't much different -- if it's built on bullcrap, it's a bad idea and it'll cause problems.

The only problem is that you can't run a debugger against legislation, and it will always compile without errors -- before it becomes law. Only after it goes into production do the flaws appear. To a techie, that's even more motivation to make sure it's exactly right. To a politician, it doesn't matter.

But who am I kidding? It's been a while since the U.S. Congress had the actual interests of U.S. citizens in mind. There's very little motivation to do the right or even the appropriate thing these days, and that's certainly not limited to turds like SOPA. If there were a true techie caucus in the federal government today -- a group composed of actual computer and math professionals -- my guess is that it wouldn't last long. There's far too little reason and logic within that body for minds that require those very elements to operate.

The best we can do for the short term is to throw everything we can behind legislation to reinstate the OTA (Office of Technology Assessment). From 1974 through 1995, this small group with a tiny budget served as an impartial, nonpartisan advisory to the U.S. Congress on all matters technological.

For the reasons stated above, it's not surprising that Newt Gingrich and others succeeded in dismantling the office as part of the 1995 "Contract with America" nonsense. Just as the United States was entering a period of monumental and unprecedented technological development and growth, while the world was rocketing forward to the vast networked environment we inhabit today, the U.S. Congress destroyed its logic center. The OTA was the closest thing it had to a technological brain.

If that isn't a metaphor for the current state of politics in the United States, I don't know what is.

This story, "Why politicians should never make laws about technology," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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