The politics of diffusion

Last post I pointed to a study noting the huge costs of delaying the spread of beneficial technologies. But I ended by adding a caveat: When the rapid spread of a technology makes it harder to regulate (broadly construed) that potentially strengthens the case for moving slower.

So what does that look like? And how often does it happen?

Three buckets come to mind:

  • Influence peddling: The spread of a technology creates a new interest group, most obviously the people making it, that lobbies for its interests in a way that limits the technology’s benefits.
  • Destabilization: The rapid spread of a technology destabilizes politics or some other aspect of society in a way that threatens well-being.
  • Entrenchment: The rapid spread of a technology entrenches existing elites or regimes such that further political progress is harder.

The first one is certainly common, but I suspect the takeaway isn’t so much so slow down tech as it is just build good political institutions. Business will always have some sway in politics, but tech or no tech you want to set up political institutions that cannot be easily captured. And in a lot of cases, new interest groups created by tech aren’t exclusively bad: Yes, big tech companies might capture some areas of legislation but ridesharing pushes back on cab cartels and, far more importantly, renewable energy companies are a countervailing force to the fossil fuel lobby. Broadly, it seems, the lesson isn’t to slow down tech until you’ve limited businesses’ influence on politics but just to do as much as you can to limit businesses’ influence on politics! Sometimes new tech makes that a bit harder and sometimes it might even make it a bit easier.

That leaves destabilizing and entrenching technologies.

Perhaps the most obvious category is weapons. Their spread can certainly be destabilizing or entrenching. But it’s not obvious that they’re beneficial in the first place, so the lesson is Don’t spread malicious technologies more than it is Slow the spread of useful tech to make it easier to regulate.

A better example might be radio, which spread really quickly from 1920 to 1940.

Remember, the question isn’t whether radio will be entrenching or destabilizing, both, or neither. It’s whether, assuming it seems net positive at the beginning, faster diffusion limits its eventual benefits.

Radio certainly had all sorts of unanticipated consequences, like nationalizing a new pop culture and bringing more advertising into homes. And it would be used as a tool of propaganda during World War II. But it’s not clear that any of those effects depended on the pace of its spread. The main effect of that rapid spread was egalitarian. The rapid drop in price allowed rural Americans to get access just a few years after their urban counterparts.

Robert Gordon’s book The Rise and Fall of American Growth shares a couple of quotes on its impact:

“[A survey in the 1930s found] Americans would rather sell heir refrigerators, bath tubs, telephones, and beds to make rent payments, than to part with the radio box that connected the world.”

“The radio… offered the compensations of fantasy to lonely people with deadening jobs or loveless lives, to people who were deprived or emotionally starved.” (p. 195)

Radio is the sort of technology, like social media, with potentially far reaching social effects. But as far as I can tell the speed of its diffusion was net positive.

Last post I ended by noting that it’s an empirical question how often rapid diffusion prevents adequate regulation such that you’d want to seriously slow it down until the institutional context improves. My hunch is that it’s more the exception than the rule.

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