How to Fix Our Tech-Illiterate Congress

March 15th 2015

Thor Benson

Technology moves quickly, and legislation typically does not. Congress is constantly trying to keep up with what technologies need to be regulated—from drones to 3D printers to basic concerns about the Internet—and most of them know very little about technology. One needs to look no further than comments like former Sen. Ted Stevens calling the Internet a “series of tubes” or others calling net neutrality a “government takeover” to see what is lacking. The recent wave of members of Congress bragging about not ever sending emails is a symptom of this growing problem. Someone leading our government, including how it handles technology, should not be using their lack of technology use as some kind of humorous quip.

So why doesn't Congress understand technology? Besides the fact most of them are old men who didn't grow up with it, we also have the fact that Newt Gingrich, while Speaker of the House, eliminated the Office of Technology Assessment in 1995. Gingrich  said he didn't trust the experts, and his peers called it an “unnecessary agency.”

The Office of Technology Assessment was a group of technology and science experts chosen to educate government officials about developing technologies and the most recent findings in the realm of science. It existed from 1972 to 1995. Not only did it inform Congress of new developments in science and technology, it also created frameworks for the implementation of new technologies and scientific experimentation. The office published around 750 studies before it was killed by defunding.

Having experts, instead of members of Congress saying they're “not a scientist,” could be a huge help today. Imagine a government where people in Congress don't think climate change is a hoax. Imagine a government where Congressional members know what a drone does and how it works before they express opinions on them. Imagine a government that legislates based on informed opinions instead of knee-jerk reactions based on hearsay. That is the kind of government we need, and that's why a group like the Office of Technology Assessment needs to come back into the government.

The OTA helped guide politicians through the Cold War. It informed Ronald Reagan that his “Star Wars” program was never going to work. It was an unbiased group, and it eventually died at the hands of the same ignorance it fought to destroy.

The OTA was destroyed because some politicians wanted scientists who make decisive declarations. "We constantly found scientists who thought what they were saying was not correct," Gingrich said of it in 2001. What he didn't understand is much of science and technology exists in uncertainty. Scientists will not tell you they're 100 percent positive we can get humans to Mars or that drones will never become self-aware because they base their work on a hypothesis that undergoes extensive testing. Every scientists knows nothing is certain, but they try to get as close as they can to being sure about their findings, and they express their viewpoints in this way. A politician looking for a scientist to behave like the Marlboro man politician who never questioned himself and never changed his opinion is shortsighted. 

The problem is that many politicians don't necessarily want the truth if that truth undermines their political ambition. A congressman whose district, for instance, relies heavily on the oil or coal industry might not want to hear the environmental impact of increasing drilling or mining. Or at least see it enter the congressional record.  This is the simple logic behind much of their ignorance, but we could at least stand a chance in fighting it if we had more experts on our side.