Tech policy development may help strange bedfellows get better acquainted. At Techonomy Policy 2015 in Washington last week, tech billionaire Sean Parker joined Nebraska Senator Deb Fischer, a Republican cattle rancher, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, a vegan Democrat, for a conversation with Techonomy CEO David Kirkpatrick about “Technology, Innovation, and American Progress.”
Parker, whose teen hacking escapades were sufficiently sophisticated that they were investigated by the FBI, joked that he was appearing as “Senator from the Internet.” The to-some-infamous cofounder of Napster, past president of Facebook, and investor in Spotify is fast becoming known as a bipartisan political contributor and policy wonk. His new venture, Brigade, aims to put the voter back at “the center of our democracy.” He also recently launched a Washington think tank devoted to bipartisan strategies for economic growth, called the Economic Innovation Group (EIG).
Senator Booker praised Parker for his party-blind political support, which in itself might seem surprising to those of us who see Washington as a gridlocked partisan miasma. But the session suggested the story is more nuanced. In reply, Parker said “I didn’t set out to be a bipartisan donor. I set out to try to figure out if there is a set of things that everyone sort of tacitly agrees on that don’t necessarily get discussed. … The more you look, you realize these things do exist. People want to work on them.”
Parker said he started EIG “to tackle the idea of how do we get capital to flow to distressed communities” and to find “an opening where we can help find and catalyze … legislative ideas around a few key bigger-picture ideas that are not being discussed.” As a result, he said, he “ended up collaborating with and becoming friends with people on both sides of the aisle.” Still, “It doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with every person I support on every issue,” he said.
“We’re a very diverse country,” said Senator Fischer, who also pronounced herself open to bipartisan efforts on issues of common concern, saying there were many. “Of course we’re not going to agree on all the issues. Within a state there’s a lot of diversity as well.” But Fischer said that she and Booker, who serve together on the Surface Transportation Subcommittee of the Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, are “always looking for ways to reach across the aisle.”
For instance, Booker said, “We’ve partnered on writing letters regarding autonomous cars, we’ve partnered on the Internet of things, both of us recognizing this is going to be a potentially transformative technological thrust that can raise the quality of life, deal with poverty issues, advance our economy, create jobs.”
Parker said his entry to the political sphere was driven by the feeling that “something had to be done about the dysfunction in Washington.” He aimed to tackle issues apart from “that high-profile, politically charged issue environment, where we could make progress with two parties working together,” he said.
How does he think about how technology relates to government-led opportunities for progress and economic growth? “Technology leads in terms of transforming society; government and politics usually have to play catch-up,” Parker said. “The industries that have done really well are industries like the Internet where there initially was no regulation.” Parker noted that the founders of Facebook and Napster didn’t start their companies with teams of lawyers worrying about how to comply. “They were in uncharted territory,” he said. “That is changing. Now the government is starting to play with ways of regulating the Internet. You want to make sure that the right set of tradeoffs get made … especially in life sciences and biotech.”
Booker, playing against Democratic Party stereotype, pointed to ways regulations could impede progress. “We used to see a huge influx of people coming [to the U.S.].” Now, he said, government has imposed a “constraining atmosphere” in which foreigners come for an education before being forced to take their brain power elsewhere.
Booker also said that the Federal Aviation Administration is “not even promulgating a regulatory framework that allows innovation in this space,” so innovators are going to other countries. “Right now in places like France they’re using drones to do mine surveys, saving time, saving money, fixing poles, saving lives, but our regulatory framework isn’t allowing innovation to thrive in this country.”
And Booker questioned whether innovations like the cures for cancer and Parkinson’s Disease, which scientists in the U.S. have been racing to find, will happen with American ingenuity, “or are we going to continue to be hampered and it’s going to happen in Europe and China?”
Even the Senate is technologically behind the times, he said. “We don’t even use cloud technology,” he said. “Government is not moving at the speed of innovation. We have the capacity to lead, but we don’t have a sense of national urgency to stay ahead.”
How could government fuel innovation? “We need a bipartisan technology agenda for America,” Booker said.
“Could we get one?” moderator Kirkpatrick asked.
Parker said, “Whether in life science, brain science, Internet deployment, broadband access—there’s a precedent for having a national technology agenda of one kind or another. … I don’t have a specific proposal for what that should look like. … We need to figure out how to build up [jobs], whether it’s manufacturing or life sciences and biotech related jobs, whether it’s research or lab technicians.”
Ultimately, he concluded, “A lot of it comes down to just not screwing it up. We are the leader, we need to just make sure the policies we put in place don’t screw that up.”