SECTION D
DEVELOPING GREATER INTELLECTUAL AND STRATEGIC DEPTH

1. Building a New Intellectual Infrastructure

Previous sections have alluded to a serious structural deficiency in the public interest telecom community: the lack of capacity to develop more cogent, empirically driven intellectual critiques, and then to strategically use them in policy advocacy.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the right-wing foundations invested heavily in developing their intellectual and communications infrastructure; the mainline foundations invested in programs. The former's long-term investments (leveraged by other resources, to be sure) are now paying enormous dividends. Their outreach to the mass public and policy elite is highly effective, and their terms of debate tend to govern. Indeed, conservative foundations have virtually created new cultural conversations out of whole cloth. One example is the "conservative feminism" exemplified by Lisa Schiffren, Laura Ingraham and others; another is the work of Charles Murray (The Bell Curve), whose work has been generously supported and marketed by the same foundations. Industry, too, has developed powerful infrastructures for germinating, developing and marketing intellectual critiques, whether it is the "Wise Use" environmentalism or the American Council on Science and Health ("tobacco is far worse than pesticides"). Industry routinely spends huge amounts on research, strategic analysis, think tanks, polling, marketing and PR.

In today's political/newsmaking/cultural universe, it is vital that public interest telecom advocates and nonprofits have this sort of intellectual and marketing infrastructure. Without it, they are not likely to move far beyond the tired conceptual and rhetorical traditions that are its current subsistence. They will not come forth with the larger analyses or the intellectual sophistication that other players (particularly industry and libertarians) bring to the table. Mainline foundations need to play a more active, creative role in imagining and funding such an infrastructure.

A positive vision is needed, one that takes account of the actual dynamics of new technologies and the marketplace. Moreover, the vision must get beyond "the sky is falling" rhetoric that characterizes so many public-interest campaigns and offer a more positive, hopeful vision. Public-interest alarmism can attract press attention and rattle the cages of industry. But it is ultimately a reactive tool, and thus of limited strategic value.

Two under-developed positive visions are the "open architecture" paradigm developed by EFF and Mitch Kapor years ago, and the "gift economy" that I mentioned earlier. Another positive vision worth developing is a recontextualization of telecom policy in American democracy and culture. Telecom policy is too important to leave to telecom policy experts. After all, it is our democratic culture that is at stake! But the humanists, artists, sociologists, political scientists and others who might inform this discussion are nowhere to be seen. And the policy community is too busy and parochial to develop a broader critique.

Here are some questions that occur to me:

The public interest community must begin to address such questions, particularly if they hope to use telecom policy as an instrument of pro-active reform that can embody their values. Conservatives have long relied upon the Frederick Hayeks, Russell Kirks, and the Milton Friedmans, along with a host of popularizers such as George Gilder, William F. Buckley, Charles Murray and Ayn Rand. By comparison, progressive forces have far fewer intellectuals/philosophers (and even fewer popularizers with platforms and a sense of style) who have sorted through these philosophical dilemmas and given guidance to their colleagues manning the polemical front-lines. They have not done the hard thinking about values and language that their adversaries have, and it shows.

The value of a theoretical framework is that it keeps people's eyes on the prize. Short-term, epiphenomenal developments (which so captivate and divert the press, pollsters and politicians) are not allowed to dictate the evolution of advocacy and policymaking. Without a larger vision, public interest advocates are far more prone to cling to archaic policy paradigms and tropes, and be intellectually flummoxed. An example: When the telecom bill first started down the pike in 1994, public-interest advocates called for a 35% "set-aside" of space -- a notion that was highly confusing if not nonsensical in a networked environment (what does 35% of a network mean?). This intellectual deficit was privately rationalized as an expedient "place holder" for an issue, which could be assigned to the FCC to figure out later.

Compare this expedient (if necessary) performance to the writings of George Gilder and Esther Dyson, and you begin to see that public interest advocates suffer from a "strategic intelligence gap" of enormous proportions. This is no surprise. We have no institutions or resources or venues to develop creative new critiques - or to draw new linkages between emerging empirical realities and policymaking. I.F. Stone once said that "facts are subversive." It's an insight that could have enormous value for the public interest community in deflating some pernicious policy paradigms: marshal data about real people and real circumstances in order to break through the conservative discourse.


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