On Permissionless Innovation

On Permissionless Innovation

Many libertarians in Silicon Valley are advocates for permissionless innovation. They eschew waiting around for permission from a nanny state. They are impatient and see themselves above the law.

On the one hand you can understand this. They have a good idea, a good product and they want to roll it out, people want to use, it may create jobs, for instance with Grab in Indonesia, which has created 10,000 of jobs in delivery.

This approach makes sense perhaps for certain kinds of experimental medical treatment, for instance, that is, if a person wants to experiment on themselves they can.

But that is for an individual. In the city, regulations are there to protect workers, the environment, health and safety. These regulations are there for good reason, I would argue. A city involves a lot of coordination and collaboration between individuals, governments, and business. A city isn’t a computer that can be hacked, when it is, the delicate balance of ethics, morals, and laws can be convoluted.

In the cities where “permissionless innovation” has occurred what you have is city regulation trying to catch up with, for example, Uber and AirBnB to protect pre-existing industries of transport and lodging. The technolibertarians may not like the defence of incumbancy and it may be a result of pre-existing powers of lobbyists over regulators, it may be inherently conservative and not radical and cool, but it is also necessary in some ways.

I am not alone in arguing that what we need more of is regulation of technology companies, the frackas about Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and the Russian hacking of the US election is a result of the lack of regulation of technology companies.

I am of the opinion that if we can have more responsive regulations, the delay in getting approval can be expedited. But this is a problem with the deliberate and time consuming process of democracy. In my opinion, the state—with all its recalcitrance—is better than rule by Silicon Valley tech-bros and technology.

If more regulation means a product or service comes out a year later than the techlibertarians want than they are just going to have to accept that, it would give them more time to work out their bugs in the software and how the platform is going to disrupt democratic functions.

Most importantly, we need a change in the culture of Silicon Valley from one whose mantras are “Move fast and break things” “disruption”, “release early and update often,” and “permissionless innovation” to a slower more deliberate process. You don’t have to be a billionaire by 30.

35 is fine.

Personalised network technologies are now central to our urban lives, as such the companies that makes them need to be more responsible, and that takes time and patience and democratic deliberation.

Adam Fish is cultural anthropologist, video producer, and senior lecturer in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University. He employs ethnographic and creative methods to investigate how media technology and political power interconnect. Using theories from political economy and new materialism, he examines digital industries and digital activists. His book Technoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) describes his ethnographic research on the politics of internet video in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. His co-authored book After the Internet (Polity, 2017) reimagines the internet from the perspective of grassroots activists and citizens on the margins of political and economic power. He is presently working on a book about hacktivist prosecution called Hacker States and a book and experimental video called System Earth Cable about “elemental media”–atmospheric and undersea information infrastructures in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Iceland, and Indonesia.

One Reply to “On Permissionless Innovation”

  1. Phrasing the argument in terms of regulation falls straight into a political trap. Given a choice between “Freedom!” and regulation by a Nanny State seen with some justice as bloated, incompetent and firmly in the grip of special interests, the two sides instantly polarize and the argument for more regulation must fight an uphill battle. A more productive starting point might be the distinction explicated in Robert Kuttner’s Everything for Sale (and buttressed, though not explicitly, by George Soros’ Open Society) that we need to start from the difference between public and private goods, those essential for equal opportunity and human decency (good education, healthcare, a basic income, good public transportation, and Internet/WordWideWeb access are possible candidates) and those that are optional (everything else from soft drinks to haute couture and private jets). The issue shifts from regulatory restriction to basic human rights and substantive arguments that cut across established categories. Should, for example, cosmetic surgery be a right and, if so, under what circumstances?

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