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Is congress tech savvy enough to make laws?

As Elon’s Musk’s Twitter defamation suit follows the same patterns of ignorance and misunderstanding as Zuckerberg’s hearing, the answer appears to be no.

A few days ago in Washington DC, the Honourable Stephen Wilson, judge, told a group of prospective jurors that Elon Musk ‘posted a series of tweets on his Twitter’, according to Elizabeth Lopatto of The Verge, who was there. A defamation case has been brought against Musk by UK national Vernon Unsworth, who claims Musk unduly accused him of paedophilia. It’s a hell of a story, and the trial is proving to be an odd one, but that’s not what I’m asking you to focus on here.

Wilson’s statement would have been checked and crosschecked by numerous staffers, both sets of lawyers, not to mention Wilson himself – currently serving as a district judge. ‘A series of tweets to his Twitter’.

Notwithstanding the fact that tweeting anywhere other than Twitter is impossible, Wilson here gives the public a glimpse into the depth of technological ignorance currently at play in the nation’s capital. But he shouldn’t feel too bad; he’s not the only one wielding the hammer of the law over tech companies he very clearly does not understand.

Lindsey Graham, the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told NBC’s Meet the Press in 2015, ‘I don’t email… I’ve never sent one’. He’s since served on a subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and a caucus on International Conservation. Here he is using a flip phone…

Jim Sensenbrenner, who in the past has served as a senior member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, reportedly uses an IBM Selectric II to tap out correspondence.

When experts testified before congress in May 2018 in a hearing about quantum computing technology – which, if allowed, could radically streamline research into everything from pharmaceuticals, to machine learning, to carbon sequestration –  representative for Illinois Adam Kinzinger joked, ‘I can understand 50% of the things you say’. Hilarious. Until you think too hard about the consequences.

These luddite tendencies are familiar to those of us who’ve been called up by helpless grandparents looking for basic advice on how to make their printer work or how to delete emails. And whilst this might border on charming when it comes from your relatives, the appeal is significantly lost when the cluelessness is harboured by those legislating on cryptocurrency, regulating self-driving cars, and passing laws on data privacy and social media monopolies.

When Google CEO Sundar Pochai testified before congress last December, Texas rep Ted Poe refused to accept that there wasn’t a simple yes or no answer to his query about whether Google tracks your movements. ‘I have an iPhone’ said Poe, attesting to his unparalleled powers of observation. ‘If I move from here and go over there and sit with my Democrat friends… does Google track my movement?… Yes or no.’

Pochai patiently tried to explain that ‘Google’ itself had no autonomous jurisdiction over location sharing, and that their data records depended on which apps you’d downloaded, whether your GPS was active, and myriad other factors. Poe, 70, seemed unsatisfied. He then went on to give recommendations about the future of the company.

Poe has since retired, presumably to live out the rest of his analogue days in bliss. But, be afraid, his position has no doubt been filled by yet another digital reluctant worryingly ready to ignore the rapid evolution and ever-increasing complexity of technological developments.

What congress really seems to need is a permanent, trustworthy, and non-biased body of independent technical and scientific experts to exclusively advise them on the crucial details (as well as the basic framework) of how modern tech works and its potential impact on our lives. Oh wait, they had one of those, and they canned it.

The History of the OTA

There wasn’t always such a dearth of advisors on capitol hill who could serve up unbiased info on science and tech legislation. From the 70s through to the mid-90s congress had its own thinktank of highly valued experts in these fields: the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).

During its heyday, the small agency conducted research on everything from artificial hearts to solar technology, functioning as a crucial early-warning signal regarding emerging technologies and what policy options were available to deal with them.

Lawmakers would frequently consult the OTA nerds for help as they developed policy – a far cry from the essentially useless, (literally) trumped up collections of industry lobby-jockeys and partisan ‘experts’ that make up special advisory councils to the current administration.

The OTA saved lives. When Nixon’s defence secretary pitched an intercontinental ballistic missile strategy with wildly underrepresented casualty estimates, the agency forced the defence department to revise its calculations. Moreover, the OTA was instrumental in ensuring US Medicare covered mammograms and pap smears for all women, and almost single-handedly discredited the use of polygraph testing in the court system.

It even gained international renown; in an inversion of the usual dynamic, a delegation from the Netherlands came to the US to study the OTA so they could replicate it back home. I haven’t seen many officials from across the pond racing to copy anything the US government has done lately.

But the OTA made a faux pas that’s been the downfall of many independent bodies on capitol hill and refused to compromise its objectivity to curry political favour and thus ensure its funding. Predictably steadfast to the facts, in the 80s they refused to back the Reagan administration’s proposed ‘Star Wars’ missile defence system. Never heard of it? Yea, that’s because it didn’t work. But the republicans went ahead with it anyways, and resentment at the OTA’s rebuke smoldered with particular ferocity because of the failure of the program.

Finally, an opportunity for revenge emerged in the 90s. As part of his promise to the American public to shrink the power of government – his ‘Contract with America’ – Newt Gingrich under Reagan dissolved the OTA.

Why we need the OTA back

The governments that western Gen Zers have grown up with are a joke. Truly – they are subject of genuine international hilarity. Though the US government has a long history of making mistakes, with a few less than graceful blights (hello Clinton), it at least used to wield some measure of influence. The worldwide climate of fear that lead to widespread support for the Iraq campaign after 9/11 was only possible due to the fearmongering of the Bush administration.

Now, the leader of the free world wields so little influence that groups of foreign leaders make a sport of mocking him; he’s more likely to make headlines for Twitter rants and worrying his staffers by showing signs of senility (I was tempted there to write ‘early’ signs of senility, before I remembered that Trump is actually a very acceptable age to be senile). When it comes to being out of touch, the senators aren’t falling far from the White House tree.

One thing that Trump represents above all others is the championing of rhetoric over facts. And nothing illustrates that we live in such a ‘post-truth’ age more than the fact that an OTA-equivalent doesn’t exist. How much easier to be a climate-change denying senator knee-deep in Texas oil money when there’s no independent scientific body you need to officially recognise. No, your voting caucus probably comes directly from Jesus himself.

This lack of tech savvy causes problems well beyond wrangling with the Facebooks and Googles of the world, for the simple reason that tech is baked into all policy areas. Regulators worry that software installed in medical devices could be hacked. Lawyers and activists are concerned about bias in the algorithms used to assess bail. Legislators who want to fight climate change need to know which renewable energy sources are ready for commercialization. But the lack of expertise hamstrings Congress throughout the entire policy process—from deciding which issues to prioritize, to drafting bills, to exercising oversight.

Congress is simply lagging behind the oeuvre of the modern voter, and it’s time we thought about the real-world impact of this cavity in experience. People are becoming increasingly frustrated with rampantly uneven wealth distribution, and the more the government shows how out of touch it is the less power the public sector will wield. This influence will relocate to the hands of the independent billionaires and entrepreneurs who have the most vested interest in keeping inequality the status quo.

Politicians have a responsibility to measure up to the perceived competence of the Musk’s and Gates’ of the world, or they risk ushering in a society where big business runs the show and democracy is just an afterthought. People are constantly expressing fear about the amount of social and political power institutions like Facebook are amassing, but perhaps we should be asking ourselves why it was so easy for them to get this power in the first place.

Whilst they don’t have to have Musk’s level of technical know-how, politicians must seek advice from people who do, and who also don’t have a vested interest in seeing the power of the government diminished. They must have an OTA.

So many of the issues Gen Z hold dear, like protecting privacy online, combating climate change, and safeguarding the next election from hacking, are precisely the issues congress is likely to mess up if it doesn’t have the expertise it needs. The consequences of failing on this front will be felt for years to come: not the least of which will be watching the once revered US government fall even further into disrepute.