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Those Who Remember History…

Tom Wheeler, the new Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, gave a speech today at Ohio State University. It was a good speech on his regulatory philosophy. But that’s not so interesting. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about a government official giving a speech. The unusual development was that the Chairman also released an ebook, called Net Effects. Even more unusual, it’s not a bland ghostwritten policy whitepaper; it’s a deeply researched work of history.

The speech and ebook focus on something Wheeler calls the “network compact.” He says it’s essential for the FCC to promote competition. However, he recognizes there are some problems competition may not solve. And there are some obligations that arise from the unique social importance of communications networks. “Let the market work” is a great starting point, but if “the market” means no one picks up when you dial 911 in an emergency, we’ve got a problem. I’ve made the same argument myself in a paper, No Dialtone, about the future of the telephone system.

What’s distinctive about Wheeler’s perspective is that it’s rooted in history. (For those aware of Wheeler’s two prior books, both about the Civil War, this isn’t so surprising.) Wheeler connects the current revolution of connected computing to the prior network revolutions of the printing press, the railroad, and the telegraph. He draws from this a series of principles. As important as the principles, though, is the insight Wheeler takes from the very act of doing history. As he states:

“It has been suggested that we are living through the greatest network revolution in history. On this the jury is still out. The reverse telescope of history makes prior experiences seem much smaller than they were.”

Ultimately, the point of history isn’t to understand the past; it’s to appreciate the present. By looking backwards, we can understand better how we got here, distill lessons from experience, and appreciate how similar situations looked to prior generations. That doesn’t work when we’re looking forward, because we have no perspective on the present. We can project into the future, but we’re apt to get it wrong by relying on our fresh and localized perceptions of the current state of affairs. Going back not just to the origins of the telephone and broadcasting, but to earlier networks that in their time were seen as equally revolutionary, helps to wash out the local details and throw the essential concepts into starker relief. In this regard, Net Effects is the kind of work we should want our leaders to be studying, and doing.

I’ve made no secret that I believe Wheeler will be an outstanding FCC Chairman, based on personal experience with him. When he was nominated, there was criticism because he spent much of his career leading two trade associations. It’s entirely appropriate and ultimately necessary to judge him by his actions in the job, but words matter too. This is the first time I’ve seen the leader of a major government agency start his term by publishing an ebook. I hope it won’t be the last.

By Kevin Werbach, Professor at the Wharton School and Organizer of the Supernova Conference

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