Tim Wu’s ‘Politics of Innovation’
Upon entering what felt like a club I had no invitation to, I opened an iced glass door stylishly marked 548 off 4th st. into Brigade’s San Francisco office. The immediate narrow stairwell lead me into their ultra hip work space, epitomizing the stereotypical San Francisco startup: euro-sleek desks scattered according to proper feng shui, exposed wood beams accented with steel trim, a neat sprawl of Inc., Wired, The Chronicle in the foyer, all topped with a craft beer bar for the night’s guest speaker: Tim Wu.
Tim Wu is a Columbia professor, who back in 2004 coined the term “network neutrality” in his paper Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination. Nearly 10 years later, this scholarly term has since boomed into the leading buzz word used in the latest debate rocking the White House and Federal Communications Commissions (FCC). Now in 2014, Tim Wu is also running for Lieutenant Government of New York state, and was here in San Francisco to lead a talk on the “Politics of Innovation”.
True to any motivational candidate speech, Wu first began asking,
“What leads to successful entrepreneurship—a sense of opportunity…that gives people the motivation to make the leap from having a secure job, to pursuing what they’re passionate about, what they believe can ‘make it’? “
Certainly a question that provokes a larger, more ambiguous discussion, Wu instead tackled what he believes to be the biggest obstacles that kill this sense of entrepreneurship and the innovation process:
1. Government Favoritism and Corruption
Modern day government favoritism calls for heavy subsidies and lofty tax breaks to specific corporations that are actually hindering further growth in competing or alternative companies and sectors. By doing so, government inevitably picks winners, and thus also creates losers in our high-stakes competitive economy.
Providing a more pertinent example to an already indisputable point, Wu referred back to the history of the Internet to demonstrate the neutral stance at which the technology grew from. The internet wasn’t born and raised freely out of a Silicone Valley garage, but originated from a joint industry-government communication solutions project. Wu reiterated this important piece of history not to praise the foresight of the government’s investment portfolio, but to prove how true innovations that enhance our everyday lives can only be breed from neutral grounds. It was precisely because the government didn’t know what would be the wild success of the World Wide Web that it was able to naturally mature into the free market as society’s newest tool.
2. “The Big Guys Always Win”
In any frontier market, the inevitable occurs— startups become corporate, corporations merge, monopolies occur. This arena is unique in that there seems to be never-ending room for new channels, platforms, and services to arise, defying what would be a monopolized Internet experience. This is the same reason why the internet is still seen as our generation’s frontier market, and continues to be the source of young, hopeful startups, undeterred by big tech players.
However, Wu warns about the end of such an era where startups are fearless against tech giants, and questioned weather we are still at a time where iOS developers even reap their own rewards. Government here then isn’t the problem but, in this instance, the solution— it is perhaps the only entity with the most might to constrain and discipline powerful corporations to “keep the channels of innovation clear”.
3. Underinvestment in Education and Restriction on Immigration
And what candidacy platform would be complete without the cliché education-immigration policy discussion? Wu expressed the need for both increased investments in higher education and more lax immigration policies. Such policy considerations are on point for New York and California, both being largely democratic, and representing United States’ largest cities and centers of business.
However, unique to typical democratic party discourse, Wu takes a very strong stance in promoting more state intervention in these specific policy areas, arguing that new progressivism in our generation means state and local governments becoming proactive about their immigration and education policies through independent action. For example, he shared ideas of developing “state citizenship”, as opposed to arduous US federal citizenship, as a means of directly welcoming diversity in our business centers and increasing immigration, international desirability, and thus innovation.
Central to Tim Wu’s platform: localism is the heart of innovation, and it is our job to make sure our government is keeping it that way. And no uncomfortable, awkward “Uhmms”, or pauses on this position. Wu, an old-time silicon valley techie himself, firmly left this new-wave audience awestruck and equally invigorated.
I left the club (Brigade office), wondering how might Tim Wu and Zephyr Teachout’s incumbent battle would play out, but also more intriguingly, how these striking ideas on progressive policies would be translated here in the Bay Area.