From Britain’s railway mania of the 1840s to the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s, innovative new technologies have routinely touched off periods of near hysteria as marketers and commentators promise world-changing disruption; excitement builds to a fever pitch and the marketplace wildly over-allocates resources to the latest shiny new thing until people regain their senses and calmly integrate it into their daily lives. The consultancy Gartner calls this recurring phenomenon the “hype cycle” for new technologies.
A lesser-known corollary to this phenomenon is the “panic cycle” that occurs when innovative new technologies strike irrational fear into people’s hearts. In the 19th century, for example, Britons feared that a noxious “miasma” of bad air would seep into their homes when indoor plumbing was connected to new public sewers. Today, people worry that companies in possession of their personal data will take control of their entire lives, or that the latest advances in data-driven machine intelligence will spell doom, not only for their jobs, but potentially for the entire human race.
Legislators who respond to these sorts of fears by restricting the ways businesses and consumers use and share data undercut some of the important economic and social benefits of data-driven innovation. Europe will be far better off if its approach to regulating technology focuses more on hope and avoids this pessimistic trap.
The history of new technologies triggering anxiety may go back as far as Gutenberg’s moveable-type printing in the 15th century. But to understand today’s panic cycles, we need only go as far back as the introduction of the first portable camera in the 1880s, when a series of scare stories appeared in U.S. media raising alarms about “Kodak fiends” taking pictures of women without their permission.
Lawmakers should not succumb to the usual wave of fear and panic surrounding new technologies.
The panic was not limited to the United States. One newspaper reported that a “Vigilance Association” had been established in Britain with the mission of “thrashing the cads with cameras who go about at seaside places taking snapshots of ladies emerging from the deep.” Around this time, local governments and businesses started to ban Kodak cameras at beaches and other outdoor spaces.
This sort of anxious response is still with us today, and it explains why some EU policymakers, when confronted with advances in the use of data, often overreact to privacy concerns and other anxieties by proposing policies that may create a fleeting sense of relief but curtail the long-term economic and social benefits of data. The latest proposal to expand EU regulation of the data economy is built around the same 19th century fears about a changing status quo that led to bans on cameras.
The truth is that, while fears about data generate the most headlines, the biggest impact for consumers from data-driven innovation will come from its array of benefits, such as the rapid development of new medical interventions, an increase in personalized services and more efficient government operations.
Europe has a great opportunity to use data-driven innovation to enhance the effectiveness of its public sector and the competitiveness of its private sector. Lawmakers should not succumb to the usual wave of fear and panic surrounding new technologies. Rather, they should recognize that service providers, the public sector and consumers will usually work out how they would like to adopt innovation and intervene only to prevent something that is obviously harmful.