Technology Trumps Government Once Again

A couple years ago I wrote a post asserting that technology and markets are more powerful than government and politics. I  cited the government’s case against microsoft and the emergence of  the morning after pill and other remedies like it to give women the right to choose even if the government decides to take it away.

The whole stem cell debate is another example of this. For the past nine years, our country has been debating the morality of using embryonic stem cells to do research and develop new drugs and possibly save lives and dramatically improve quality of life for some. Our current administration has made it hard to do stem cell research on embryonic stem cells.

But this week comes the news that researchers have figured out how to make stem cells from  human skin cells. So the debate over doing stem cell research should die down once this new technique is understood and  disseminated to the various labs that are working in this field. And it will likely speed up the development of stem cell based therapies.

So once again, technology is the solution to a problem that government can’t seem to figure out how to solve. I am not particularly optimistic about our government in this country, or frankly in in our world. Politics is subject to corruption, short term thinking over long term planning, and the will of vocal and powerful minorities over the silent majorities.

But technology on the other hand is solving problems right and left. It’s creating problems too (like the stem cell debate). But the great thing about technology is it always tries to solve the problems it creates. And has a track record of doing so.

Next up – our reliance on carbon-based energy and the pollution, climate change, and wealth and power effects it creates.

#Politics#VC & Technology

Comments (Archived):

  1. Toby

    Next up – our reliance on carbon-based energy and the pollution, climate change, and wealth and power effects it creates.alright! looking forward to that.

  2. vincentvw

    I don’t think governments solve problems. But would scientiest have looked for stem-cells in human skin-cells, if it wasn’t for the barriers imposed by governments and all that represents? Just a thought…

    1. Farhan Lalji

      That’s a good point. Maybe Government should be seen as a facilitator of ethical technology. Or Technology a facilitator of good government.

    2. K T Cat

      Amen, Vincent!

    3. fredwilson

      right. i should have made that point. it was in my mind but i didn’t get it out.thanksfred

    4. Tyler

      I agree wholeheartedly. I think this may be one of the few areas in which the government trumped technology. It will become increasingly more important that we consider the ethical concerns of advances in science when our ability to do something will be almost unlimited and the question becomes not “Can we do this?”, but “Should we do this?” It is unlikely they would have pursued this line of research without the right incentive (no federal money) which Bush provided in 2001.I think the opposite is true of the global warming debate. The very reason we see so much interest in green technology is that the government has not done anything with regard to curbing carbon emissions. Now we see entrepreneurs and venture capitalists attempting to do an end around the government to achieve specific ends. As much as I’d like to believe VCs are a bunch of money-hungry fools, it seems to me that many VCs are investing in pet projects that will transition us from the fossil fuel era into the green fuel era as much for their desire to see a better environment as it is for the monetary benefits.Can you confirm this, Fred? Do you invest in “pet projects” because you like the direction a company is taking the world or is it all about the numbers?

  3. ST

    ‘man-made’ global warming (or ‘catastrophic climate change’) is the biggest crock of crap that the counter-culture has ever tried to get over on the consumer.less ice = more food

    1. fredwilson

      regardless of whether climate change is a catastrophic event or not, we should still be reducing our reliance on carbon based fuel for a ton of reasonsfred

      1. ST

        from IBDeditorials’ “I believe it appropriate to have an overstatement of factual presentations on how dangerous it is, as a predicate to opening up the audience to listen,” Gore told the environmentalist magazine Grist in 2006.In the early days of the warming scare, when Gore was just a Tennessee senator who had mere presidential, not world-saving, aspirations on his mind, Stanford University environmentalist Stephen Schneider told Discover magazine in 1989 that “we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination.””That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.”Guilty as well is James Hansen, the climate change godfather, who said in 2003 that “emphasis on extreme scenarios may have been appropriate at one time, when the public and decision makers were relatively unaware of the global warming issue.”We’re sure he no longer believes they are appropriate because he knows they aren’t needed. He and others have effectively bamboozled the world into believing that climate disaster is imminent. ‘…

        1. Steven Kane

          enough scientists and academics and government folks think climate change is a huge threat that we must take it seriously. i mean, come on: if not current circumstances, then under what scenario would we get energized and try to rally? do we really need to have a catastrophe before we react and respond?also, weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels is also an urgent national security issue. the western world’s basic way of life is threatened by dependance on an energy source that is controlled by hostile powers that, for the most part, consider us to be “infidels”, just because we believe in crazy stuff like freedom of religion and women’s rights.we need huge radical action. now. otherwise we are simply waiting for the catastrophe.

          1. fredwilson

            I agree with you on this one steve. And that’s unusual!fred

    2. charlie crystle

      Right, ST. We have absolutely no effect on the earth. None on the environment. And none of that has an effect on us and our kids. Really. less ice=less life. I’m guessing you don’t believe in peak oil, and think nuclear meltdowns are a thing of the past and unharmful anyway? Nice.It’s you who is in the counter-culture minority; the vast majority of scientists and educated people believe in global warming and human contribution to it.Fred,come back from global warming and think about more specific, local effects of technology and the use and abuse of it. Monsanto makes the “Terminator” corn seed, which resists the highly toxic Roundup pesticide and does not reproduce so farmers have to pay an annual annuity for this “intellectual property”, as they put it. The heavily applied pesticide makes its way into the water tables and streams. The corn has cross-bred uncontrolled (Monsanto can’t control animals eating and shitting the corn)> Monsanto then sues the farmers that have evidence of the Terminator in their crops and no license. Monsanto is the Microsoft of GMO foods.Recently, Pennsylvania has banned dairies from labeling milk containers as free from bovine growth hormone and antibiotics. So consumers now can’t tell if their milk has Monsanto’s crap in it or not, unless they buy organic (which they should anyway). And the ruling puts the USDA and the PA Dept. of Ag at odds, as the USDA clearly prohibits the use of drugs and hormones in cows producing organic milk.Science meets government, meets profitabile corporate activity: The Dept of Ag is a vocal proponent of genetic engineering of animals and food, and Governor Rendell and Hillary Clinton are closely tied to Monsanto through fundraising and lobbyists (google Hillary Clinton Monsanto). Monsanto stands to lose billions if clean milk and synthetic-hormone produced milk are properly distinquished and labeled for consumers. So it has been working states over one by one, pushing to get labels free from useful, valid information.But Maine and Vermont have refused, a testament to the nature of their poilitcal systems, as opposed to PAs, which is highly porous and corrupt.So back to technology: at what point is fucking with our food system for the sake of greater profits unethical? I submit that it’s exactly at the point where it harms the public, and anything beyond that is morally wrong: an injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.

      1. ST

        CC–how do you say ‘peak oil’ in Brazilian Portuguese?

        1. charlie crystle

          I don’t.

          1. ST

            neither do the Brazilians, who just discovered a huge offshore oil field. Some reports indicate that in 5yrs the field may be able to pump about 80% of what Saudi Arabia pumps today.’peak oil’ is funny to me b/c about a year ago the Saudi Oil Minister said that we’ve only tapped about 18% of the world’s KNOWN proven oil reserves. Of course, that was before the big find in the Gulf of Mexico this spring; & before this HUGE SCORE by Brazil.

          2. fredwilson

            So I assume you are short oil?

          3. charlie crystle

            clever, ST… so oil is infinite? You’re suggesting it’s not a limited resource?

          4. ST

            The Brazilian score is just the epitome of Fred’s “Technology Trumping Government”.……& this from Business Week’ the oil lies some 4.5 miles beneath the ocean’s surface. To reach it, Petrobras will have to run lines through 7,000 feet of water and then drill up to 17,000 feet through sand, rock, and a massive salt layer. A decade ago, geologists lacked the tools to glimpse beneath these salt layers, which can be more than a mile thick offshore Brazil. Today, with the help of data-crunching supercomputers, 3D imaging of ultradeep subsalt layers is illuminating billions of barrels of new oil. Geologists say the discoveries challenge one of the notions of the peak oil theory, which claims oil companies already have found nearly all of the world’s usable oil. ‘So, you can’t say “peak oil” if we now have new technology that allows us to drill deeper then ever.(Fred — No. Why would anyone want to be short any dollar-denominated commodity?)

          5. charlie crystle

            That’s fine, but 1 million barrels a day of production means that reserve is gone in 14 to 20 years. And in that time, the next generation of Chinese and Indian kids will be driving cheap cars, churning through that oil and other reserves, not to mention the megatons of new carbon they’ll spew into the atmosphere.My point is that it’s not sustainable. So back to Fred’s point, which is that tech finds a way. In this case, it’s likely to be the productization of a lot of promising solar research, not the continued discovery of patches of oil here and there. Non-renewable energy sources will be irrelevant in 50 years (will have to be), and used for something a lot more productive like plastics. Burning oil (gas) is about the least useful thing you can do with it.

          6. Eric

            The Tupi field recently discovered contains as much as 8B barrels. The world consumes 25B barrels / year. This find, while significant for Petrobras (who has every incentive to play up the find, btw), means about 4 more months of global oil consumption.

  4. jeremyvaught

    Well, tis true that government creates roadblocks that technology works around. (also true that companies create roadblocks that technology finds a workaround, think DRM, copying DVDs, etc.) In the case of stem cells, I think the government took the correct moral position of not using murdered babies to field science. Very slippery slope. And yes, a fetus/baby at any stage of development is a human being. You may not think so, but a lot of people do. So the fact that science came up with a workaround is fantastic, not just morally, but scientifically.

    1. fredwilson

      I didn’t say I didn’t think a fetus/baby is a human being.I said I believe it’s a woman’s right to choose and that we shouldn’t betelling women what to believe just because we believe something else.And I agree that its a great thing that technology makes this a moot point.Fred

      1. jeremyvaught

        I could say a lot more, but the point of your post is not an argument for a woman’s choice to kill her kids or not.

        1. fredwilson

          this discussion doesn’t have much to do with the point of my post.but your comment about “a woman’s choice to kill her kids or not” shows exactly what i was talking about.that’s your view. that abortion is “a woman’s choice to kill her kids”i don’t think of it that way and a lot of other people don’t either.we shouldn’t allow you or anyone else to tell others what to believe.we should each live our lives in the way that we believe is right.fred

  5. michael

    Fred,It’s an interesting post, but on a broad level as Charlie’s meandering comment somewhat alludes to, it’s a false dichotomy. I take particular issue with your broad (re)assertion as you worded it in your opening sentence:”A couple years ago I wrote a post asserting that technology and markets are more powerful than government and politics.”At a surface level, it’s just dead wrong to reach such a sweeping and unsubstantiated conclusion. Under the surface, asserting this dichotomy exists at all ignores the overwhelmingly dominant role of government in exploiting and driving the rapid advancement of technology and the “markets” in the first place. Our beloved Web is but the scraps off the table of government (and it’s corporate and university R&D partners).Forgive me if I appear to be nitpicking, but I don’t see “faith” in technology, government or for that matter religion, as a reasonable way to navigate complex issues like stem cells, cloning or an approaching energy or climate crisis. To illustrate, isn’t it naive to assume that significantly reducing dependence/use of fossil fuels can become technologically feasible while the government is still able to concentrate several trillion dollars of wealth and squander it chasing scraps of the very carbon based natural resources you argue technology will help get us off of? With your last statement are you indicating you think the comparable trickle that is the “green economy” is poised to dislodge governments entrenched willful dismissal (in numerical terms) of this necessary (as you point out for many reasons) shift?Your point is overstated and could be toned down to say ‘technology occasionally leaps past the cesspool of politics and government to provide and elegant solution to a problem.’ When it comes to technology and markets being more powerful than government and politics I reiterate that they’d first have to be independent power bases, not interchangeable ones.

    1. charlie crystle

      I meander on weekends and holidays, and saunter the rest of the week.

  6. Don Jones

    Representative governments are ultimately a reflection of the people that elect them. If there is strong disagreement in society over the merits of a particular course of action, there will likely be inaction in government, whether local, state or federal. In those cases, it takes time to work through the issues – time that technology innovators can use to completely change the nature of the original debate.

    1. fredwilson

      This is my point. You’ve made it better than I didThanksFred

      1. Don Jones

        This stem cell advance also makes the argument that society should think twice about recklessly pursuing ethically/morally debatable science in the short term, especially when there is a chance that future or different technologies can achieve the same ends without sliding down the slippery slope…

  7. RK

    Others have already pointed out the unintended irony of the embryonic stem cell debate. The fact that the federal government’s unwillingness to fund embryonic stem cell research in the past few years may have driven the scientist/technologist towards the non-controversial adult stem cell research. We Californians have funded a $3 billion stem cell research. Was this wise in retrospect? I think not.I tend to avoid viewing our government as separate from us. It is still the very embodiment of the whole country. The reason the government cannot decide on something is that the country as a whole cannot decide on something. Social security, health care funding, global warming, etc. We are frustrated with the government because its policy or its pace is not to our liking. But this is part of the process. With enough frustration, change will happen. This very blog and the millions of blogs out there will help change the policy of our government.

  8. james alonso

    i agree with your idea that technology is more powerful than government, but i disagree that stem cell advances are the right example. the government acted in response to a moral dilemma about embryonic stem cells that a lot of people were facing. it’s not like the government was just trying to stop technology for no reason and scientists found a way around it. technology, in response to the government’s moral concerns, developed a less troubling way to get stem cells. it seems to me that the government effectively directed technological development in a positive way, and that is a great outcome.

  9. vruz

    did you inadvertedly/subconciously mispell Microsoft in lowercase or was that totally intentional ?:-)

  10. Brian Hayashi @connectme

    I disagree – strongly – with your comment “technology…always tries to solve the problem it creates.”I’m under the impression that 40% of the real estate value in the US is concentrated in less than 2% of the actual landmass. I’m guessing you live in that 2%. Your community may be somehow exempt from the tax issues that plague neighborhoods around the country. These problems don’t stem from high profile issues like global warming or stem cell research, they stem from issues like sales tax, or more precisely, the question of how do we pay for the infrastructure in the communities we live in.Two years I blogged about this issue (… ) — wondering if the dot-com industry truly understood the role of sales tax, and how the avoidance of sales tax could lead to its own hockey stick growth curve: assuming we continue to go online to avoid paying sales tax, what happens when Chinese or other foreign manufacturers start offering quality merchandise, at the same time Americans become truly comfortable with buying online? The answer: when the Chinese stop shipping us shoddy, sometimes toxic goods, we Americans are already waiting, collectively, to vote with our pocketbooks. When that happens, there will be cataclysm.Technology not provided a solution for the sales tax shortfall created by the rapid growth of the online merchant industry. We will experience this in many ways, some not so obvious, and some obvious places like as police, schools, and bridges.Once we believed Y2K was a world where our entire systems ended swiftly, suddenly. Our collective disrespect for government suggests a world that slowly, inexorably winds down with the whimper of our infrastructure gradually, invisibly rotting from the inside.

  11. Evan S

    Great post. The idea of Government facilitating further advancement certainly applies here, but its role as a facilitator has come about for all the wrong reasons. Its intention was simply to stop and/or greatly limit the advancement of a potentially life altering medical discovery.ST, you are absolutely wrong. Simply put. There are no valid reasons why we should continue to rely on foreign oil (read: any oil), particularly when it’s supplied by those who have outright western opposition. But as Fred said, there are many reasons beyond that.Consider the possibility that you’re stance toward global warming and our reliance on oil is wrong? The downside and repercussions are enormous. Fortunately, there are rational people and capital in the free market to drive further advancements in alternative energy who aren’t wiling to take the risk.

  12. cortland

    “Next up – our reliance on carbon-based energy and the pollution, climate change, and wealth and power effects it creates.”No question about it.However, it’s not going to happen without massive government investment into R&D. Look around the world at the leading alt energy/fuels countries. Their governments have all spent huge sums of money on research, and in some cases, subsidies. Chat with the CEO of any domestic power company – conventional or alternative/renewable – and they’ll tell you that investment by the federal government is the one key ingredient that is sorely lacking in the U.S.Unfortunately, with the current administration and the spineless Dems in Congress, the status quo will prevail for a bit longer.Yes, technology will trump government in clean tech/renewable energy, but not without government investment in the industry.

  13. Michael

    A video from TED 2004, released in Apr 2007 – Juan Enriquez: Decoding the future with genomics (…Interestingly, his research is now focused on energy production within the framework of biology.