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Americans Optimistic about Role of Tech and Platforms

At a time when big tech companies are being attacked over bigness, privacy, elections, and the ordering of their news feeds, the Charles Koch Institute has some good news. While we all have plenty of complaints, Americans also have a lot of good things to say about the platforms, websites, and apps that they use every day.

A recent poll by Ipsos, USA Today, and CKI shows that Americans have mostly positive and optimistic attitudes toward technology. The poll, first released last month, covers many aspects of Americans’ relationship to technology—at home, work, and elsewhere—but pays special attention to comparisons between generations:

…Americans view technology as something that has improved their lives and will continue to do so into the future. Two-thirds of the country views technological advancement as having made their overall lives better compared to the lives of their parents. Americans see the biggest generational improvement due to technology in their ability to keep in touch with family and friends with 84% reporting that technology has made this aspect of their lives better.

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Americans are optimistic that future tech will arrive sooner rather than later. A strong majority expect package delivering flying drones (81%) and commercially available self-driving vehicles (71%) to arrive within their lifetime.

In a story for USA Today accompanying the release of the results, CKI’s Emily Achler emphasizes that the gains from development and deployment of new technology haven’t accrued just to investors and major shareholders. New communications techniques and social media platforms have created valuable opportunities for all of us:

Americans recognize technology’s value in improving the aspects of their lives that matter the most, namely the ability to connect with family and friends. Today, the opportunities to connect meaningfully with each other — down the street or around the world — have never been greater. When your sister is nervous about a job interview, you send a GIF that makes her laugh. When your grandfather is recovering from surgery across the country, you check in using video chat to make him smile.

For deployed military personnel, the ability to video chat with spouses and children has made painful separations a little more comforting. Senior citizens in rural areas are using the power of online connection to erode layers of isolation and loneliness. And the Mormon Church is even revising its own guidelines to let deployed missionaries connect with home more often.

Humans are happiest when we feel loved and can show love to others. Technology has expanded and magnified these moments of happiness and interconnection such that 84% of survey respondents believe that technology has improved their connections with family and friends, while 70% expect this improvement to continue making life better for future generations.

Many of the products and services that enable us to feel so connected are not only cheap compared to the ones they replaced (international long distance in the 1990s, anyone?) but are often available for no charge at all. This upends a lot of the usual calculus when it comes to antitrust and competition policy, which traditionally watches, among other things, the change in prices over time to detect changes in the competitiveness in a market. Yet, even in the absence of consumers having to pay out anything for an increasingly impressive array of tech services, we still have interventionists urging regulators use more esoteric and diffuse markers to detect allegedly problematic corporate behavior, even in the absence of any tangible consumer harm. 

We are truly in a first world problems scenario in which our most pressing public concerns apparently now include our favorite zero-cost software applications not always being configured exactly as we would prefer them to be. It would be as if the 1911 antitrust case against Standard Oil had involved people complaining that the company scheduled free weekly deliveries of kerosene for Mondays at 7:00pm instead of Thursdays at 10:00am. Why do they have to come right when we’re sitting down to dinner!?

The generally positive attitudes documented by the Ipsos/USA Today/CKI poll also suggest that, in the world of public policy, we can craft narrow solutions to consumers’ real, specific concerns rather than up-ending entire industries over a generalized sense of unease about certain social trends.

Worries over net neutrality rose to prominence because many Americans were under the (false) impression that their ISPs were defrauding them by charging for one speed and intentionally delivering another, lower, speed as a matter of course. They weren’t, for example, demanding the federal government adopt a renergized neo-Brandeisian industrial policy. Most Americans don’t have passionately-held opinions about Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 or the jurisdictional boundaries of the Federal Communications Commission’s enforcement authority—they just want a fair deal. The relevant agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, can investigate and resolve actual instances of such misconduct without, in this case, prescribing the management practices of every data network in the country.

I’m ready to embrace these optimistic attitudes and complementary restraints on market intervention. Hopefully other observers of this debate will come along.