Until the mid-1960s, the automobile industry cared little for safety regulation. That changed in 1966 when the United States passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicles Safety Act, which then House Speaker John McCormack credited to the “crusading spirit of one individual who believed he could do something… Ralph Nader.” Today, we are faced with a digital technology industry that appears to care little for regulation, worrying that any constraints will dampen innovation. Yet, despite mounting concerns about technology’s role in destroying privacy, eroding mental health, increasing inequality, and even threatening democracy itself, regulation is slow and lagging. Where is our generation’s Ralph Nader? In this talk, I argue that for a variety of reasons, we cannot expect a single person to wield that kind of political influence over the tech industry. Instead, I propose that a coalition of university departments is the best suited to sustaining meaningful pressure against the Silicon Valley excesses.
Kentaro Toyama is W. K. Kellogg Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan School of Information and a fellow of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT. He is the author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. From 2005-2009, Toyama was co-founder and assistant managing director of Microsoft Research India.