On October 21st, 2015 the future disappointed us. Fans of the Back to the Future trilogy were counting down to that day when Marty Mcfly and Doc Brown would take their time travel-enabled Delorean all the way from their 1985 present into the science fictional future. Just as the two protagonists were about to head to the future, Marty suggested they back up their time-travelling car, to have a bit more road to land on at their destination. Doc, having just come back from the future, responds with the classic line, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
Looking out the window in 2015, there are no banana peel-operated flying cars, hoverboards, or auto-drying jackets anywhere in sight. Our most innovative cars are still struggling with road-bound fixed-gear bikes (1). Comparing our near future to its cinematic counterpart, some commentators can’t help feeling underwhelmed by the technology that surrounds us. This sense of a lost trajectory of technological innovation can be called the “tech lag narrative.”
Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder and leading Silicon Valley venture capitalist, expressed this sentiment in his Science and Democracy Lecture at Harvard in March 2015. Referencing the cinematic trilogy, Thiel’s talk was titled “Back to the Future: Will we create enough new technology to sustain our society?” Thiel argued that our technological visions are no longer ambitious enough. He sought to distinguish “true technological innovation,” which is transformative, from what the tech industry is currently doing, namely, “more of the same.” Elsewhere, he has said, “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters” (2). Through a book, lectures across university campuses, and his venture capital company’s manifesto, Thiel’s tech lag narrative seems to be winning over hearts and minds and wallets. Over the past few years, new product launches and high-priced startups have met with criticism of their overvaluation, the specter of another impending Silicon Valley bubble, and the beginning of a backlash (3). In late 2012, influential tech journalist Michael Arrington published a piece titled, “I’m Bored. What’s Next?” (4). Together, these tech lag voices are converging around one message—the future isn’t what it used to be.
These views of the state of technological innovation both echo and contrast with another common characterization of the relationship between technology and society—the law lag. This is the notion that technoscientifc inventiveness is an “agenda-setting force to which the law responds only by reaction” (5). Über offers a recent example of this narrative’s popularity. Commentators say that attempts to regulate Über’s operations illustrate the law lagging behind new fast-paced technologies (6). So which is right? Are we not producing enough transformative technology? Or is the rate of technological innovation too rapid for our outdated social institutions?
Rather than looking at the law lag and tech lag narratives as mutually opposed, STS invites us to explore what vision of society and emerging technology they represent, and what is at stake when they get mobilized. Reexamining the narratives in this light, we see how the tech lag and the law lag are in fact complementary.
Examining the debates surrounding the governance of emerging biotechnology, Benjamin Hurlbut observes that the law lag narrative casts the law’s role as reactive while science and technology follow their own proactive trajectory (7). Echoing Jasanoff (8), Hurlbut notes that through the law lag narrative, science and technology become the only sites from which innovation emerges, whether material or normative. Scientists and technologists thereby assume the authority (and responsibility) to characterize how society should progress (9). Law then is reduced to the task of preventing harm to society, harm as defined by the expert community. The law lag, Hurlbut concludes, is a “mechanism for delegating power” to scientists and technologists (10).
The tech lag narrative also assumes that novelty derives from technology. For example, in his recent book, Zero to One, Thiel defines the word technology as a form of “vertical or intensive progress” which results from doing new things (11). When mobilizing the tech lag narrative, its advocates still insist that innovation is primarily technological and made by scientists and technologists, while bemoaning the fact that it is not as visionary as it should be. As in the law lag narrative, experts in the form of technology entrepreneurs play the role of discerning real innovation. The startup is the privileged site where futures are constructed. Thiel’s definition of an ideal startup is “the largest group of people you can convince of a plan to build a different future” (12).
Comparing the law lag and the tech lag narratives in this way makes their repeated and concurrent invocation less puzzling. Both narratives suggest a strikingly similar trajectory to the future. Both are mechanisms for delegating power and responsibility for the construction of such futures to experts. The lag narratives obfuscate the fact that claims about how science and technology generate innovation are simultaneously also claims about who should prescribe how society ought to progress. Much like a Marty McFly stuck in 1955, Thiel seems to want to get back to a specific future: back when we were “on track” towards his vision of a future of novelty defined by tech entrepreneurs. Perhaps it is not our limited imagination that frustrates flying-car enthusiasts, but rather our insistence not to cede to Thiel’s entrepreneurs the tarmacked ground on which collective formulation of such visions should occur.
Keywords: law lag, tech lag, innovation, entrepreneurship
- Matt McFarland, “How Fixed-Gear Bikes Can Confuse Google’s Self-Driving Cars,” The Washington Post, August 26, 2015.
- Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, “Facebook Investor Wants Flying Cars, Not 140 Characters,” Business Insider, July 30, 2011.
- See: Farhad Manjoo, “Is Slack Really Worth $2.8 Billion? A Conversation With Stewart Butterfield,” Bits Blog, April 16, 2015; Francisco Dao, “Why Silicon Valley Innovation Has Stalled,” Pando, January 3, 2013. Ross Andersen, “Tim Cook Sounds Desperate Talking About the Apple Watch,” The Atlantic, September 9, 2015; Leo Mirani, “Are We Starting to Fall out of Love with Silicon Valley?” Quartz, April 18, 2015.
- Michael Arrington, “I’m Bored. What’s Next?” TechCrunch, December 30, 2012, Accessed October 18, 2015.
- Sheila Jasanoff, “Making Order: Law and Science in Action,” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, edited by Edward J. Hackett, 3rd ed., 761–86. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press ; Published in cooperation with the Society for the Social Studies of Science, 2008.
- Noah Lang, “Employee or Contractor? Online Businesses Like Uber Need a New Category,” Newsweek, June 21, 2015.
- J. Benjamin Hurlbut, “Remembering the Future: Science, Law, and the Legacy of Asilomar,” In Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power, edited by Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim. Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.
- Sheila Jasanoff, Science at the Bar : Law, Science, and Technology in America (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995).
- Hurlbut, “Remembering the Future: Science, Law, and the Legacy of Asilomar,” 128.
- Ibid., 147.
- Peter Thiel and Blake Masters, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, Crown Publishing Group, 2014, 5.
- Ibid., 8.
Bijker, Wiebe E. “Why and How Technology Matters,” in Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis, ed. Robert E. Goodin and Charles Tilly, 2006, 681–706.
Hurlbut, J. Benjamin. “Remembering the Future: Science, Law, and the Legacy of Asilomar.” In Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power, edited by Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim. Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Jasanoff, Sheila. “Making Order: Law and Science in Action.” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, edited by Edward J. Hackett, 3rd ed., 761–86. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press ; Published in cooperation with the Society for the Social Studies of Science, 2008.