Peggy and Tom Wheeler, visiting fellow, Brookings Institute, and book author, From Gutenberg to Google, The History of Our Future, explains that each new technology has had a serious economic and societal challenge—and why should we expect anything to be different today. He points to examples on the railroad and in coal mines. His recommendation? We have to have new expectations about what employment means to all of us.

Below is an excerpt from the interview. To hear the entire interview on The Peggy Smedley Show, log onto www.peggysmedleyshow.com, and select 02/19/19 from the archives.

Peggy Smedley:
Let’s start with the subtitle of your book, which I think is really important because you really go in here and talk about the history of our future. What does it actually mean? What’s your point to it?

Tom Wheeler:
Well, Peggy, you know there are two things. We today think that we live in this incredibly unique time. But the reality is that if you look back in history, there have been other great technology-driven network revolutions. And what we’re living through today has two threads running through it that go all the way back to the middle of the 15th century and Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.

One is the fact that technology is evolutionary. We always think that it’s two guys and a dog in a garage having a Eureka moment. But the fact of the matter is, and what I talk about in From Gutenberg to Google, is how every new technology builds on the preceding technologies. You know peel back the onion of the digital code we use today, and you’ll find Gutenberg’s ideas for how to express information in a typeset form. So that’s one thing that is defining our future in terms of our history.

The other is that each of these new technologies created for the people who are around at that point in time has serious economic and societal challenges. And why should we expect anything to be different today? And the important thing is that what they did is what we should do, and that is step up and deal with the challenges rather than running away from them and trying to think about good old days kind of a situation.

So those are the challenges that we have today. Recognizing the evolution of technology and then stepping up and dealing with its effects.

Smedley:
I love that you say that, but it’s interesting you quote John Gardner by saying, “History never looks like history when you’re living it.” Is that what we’re going through? I mean even from technological change … when we look at all this technological change, and things that are happening, because exponentially … change is not going to slow down from what we’re going through right now. Right?

Wheeler:
That’s for sure. But let me give you an example. So when the railroad came along, it enabled an entrepreneur by the name of Gustavus Swift to build, to invent, the refrigerated rail car, to slaughter beef in Chicago and ship it to eastern markets. And Swift did for the economic mainstay of the local community represented by the butcher—exactly what Google has done to newspapers today. Disintermediate them using this new network technology.

Smedley:
Are you saying that that’s just the beginning of what’s going to happen to many other businesses? We keep talking about we’re going to displace workers, and we can get to that. All of these things are displacing another. We’re constantly … technology is displacing technology in different ways. You know Google displaced media.

Wheeler:
Sure. But the challenge is how do we step up to it. So when AI, for instance, has an impact on knowledge workers, the infrastructure supporting it is going to have its own serious need for knowledge workers. But it’s probably going to require some serious continuing education efforts.

You know one of the things I talk about in the book is that Randall Stephenson, the CEO of AT&T, told his employees about a year ago that if they weren’t spending five to ten hours a week, in addition to their 40 hour workweek, in continuing their education about new technology then they aren’t going to be able to keep up.

I tell the story in From Gutenberg to Google, for instance, of being in a Kentucky coal town that was just devastated by the end of the coal industry. And there is coal miners who were learning to code, and they were writing code for Microsoft and Apple. And you know they have a twang down there, the way talk. They said, “We’re down here in Silicon Hollow.” Silicon Hollow. And we need to be doing that. They were enabled because of the fact that the new network, high speed fiber, was reaching them just the way the old network, the railroad, used to allow the coal to be shipped out.

Smedley:
But you just said something that I’m not even sure if you realize how you said it. Is that what Randall Stephenson said to his employees? That they have to be educating. Do companies realize it’s not only about retooling and reskilling their employees, but even the people that are in positions need to be reskilling themselves? So people get comfortable and think, I’m in a position I don’t have to worry about it. Maybe that’s where the dichotomy is coming in, because people don’t understand at all levels we need to be doing it.

Wheeler:
We have to have new expectations as to what employment means for all of us. I talk about the “horizontalization,” a word I invented, the “horizontalization” of work in From Gutenberg to Google.

Smedley:
Better coin that now.

Wheeler:
And how you used to have a hierarchy in industrial companies. And now because of the connectivity, suddenly it’s a quite level structure of economic activity. And that means that everybody has to be constantly working to educate themselves to be able to keep pace with the changes that are going on around them.

Smedley:
Do people realize that change is happening so fast now that they just don’t realize the pace of change? Because years ago, it didn’t quite happen. So when we talk about exponentially, I think people don’t understand it’s happening. And it’s happening quick. And, as I just said, it’s not going change. And it might even get faster. We think it’s not, but we don’t even know that. We just don’t know what’s going to happen going forward.

Wheeler:
I think that’s a great point, Peggy. And I do think that people are aware of how change seems to be coming at us faster. The effect of that is that we’ve lost our time buffer. You used to have time to be able to assimilate the changes, and to figure out how to deal with them. Now, we have lost that buffer, and that then relies on us even more to say, okay, I’m going to deal with this now rather than put it off.

Smedley:
That’s a great point. So I think this goes back now, and I’m going to leap a little bit on this to what you were fighting for and you were the champion of net neutrality.

Wheeler:
Yes, ma’am.

Smedley:
Because the speed of change and privacy regulations, and those have been repealed. And the reason I say that is because of how we look at the speed of things, and we look at digital transformation and what that means with digital technology, because we’re now talking about speeds of things changing. And I think of the average consumer and how they want to be able to see things quickly. So I think there’s a lot of discussion with that. Talk about that because you really are very passionate about that.

Wheeler:
Well I am, Peggy. And I’m proud of what we did on both net neutrality and privacy. And it’s a tragedy the way the Republican Congress and the Trump FCC repealed them, but I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to keep plugging and get them back.

But here’s the interesting point. That even though technology and change is speeding at us at an unprecedented pace, there are still some basic principles that ought to be applied. That just because you’re doing things in zeroes and ones does not mean that old analog concepts don’t apply. Let me give you an example.

Smedley:
That’s right. That is very true. That’s right.

Wheeler:
Yeah. So, for instance, back to net neutrality. The Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860, that authorized the building of the telegraph line to the West Coast, stipulated that telegraph lines in the United States would be on a first come, first serve, non-discriminatory basis. That’s net neutrality. And that was 1860. So the issue is you go to a new network, and you should not shed the concepts, not the technology, the concepts that made previous networks work unless there’s a proven reason to do that. And when we moved from analog networks to digital networks, somehow the networks were successful in selling the fiction that because it was zeroes and ones, it was different. It is not.

It is the same thing as the telegraph in 1860. And, for that matter, it goes all the way to English common law, when we were trying to get out of the feudal states. And they had what was called the duty to deal so that the guy who was running the ferry across the river couldn’t discriminate about who he would take on. And the guy who was running the inn along the road had to take in all travelers. That’s the same concept that stands today in a digital world. And that’s why we need to have net neutrality to see that it continues on.

Smedley:
Are people understanding how palpable all of this is? I mean who really is getting punished here when we understand what happened when we had net neutrality to now we don’t? In the sense of what’s actually happening, of saying things have been repealed and there’s a lot of emotion with that.

Wheeler:
And there’s a lot of … Well, I can still get my service. But the problem is you still don’t have a competitive choice for about three quarters of the households in America. And I think right now what we’re seeing is because there’s a lawsuit challenging what the Trump FCC did, that the networks are kind of on good behavior.

But one of the last issues that we dealt with when I was Chairman of the FCC was the concept of zero rating, which is an offshoot of net neutrality. And what that means is that some wireless networks for instance say, “Well, if you used our video product we won’t charge you data rates. But if you use the other guys video product, we will charge data rates.”

There’s a new study out that shows that it actually increases the data rate costs for everybody, because of course there’s nothing that’s free. And that the other folks who aren’t using the service end up paying a significantly higher fee, and that had it been open across the board, everybody would be paying a lower fee for their data.

And so we need to be asking ourselves the basic question of, “Is this essential network being exploited for somebody else’s advantage rather than the advantage of the people who use it?”

Smedley:
So let’s talk about something else, because we right now, we’re kind of stuck in the muck right now. We already know what’s happened and we can’t do a whole lot right now. When we look at the Internet of Things, and we look at AI, when we look at blockchain, and maybe even quantum computing, deep learning, machine learning … the future is extremely powerful and really bright for a lot of people. How does it really help, not only domestically but globally what we can do, and how we can contribute to where we want to be as a country, as a leader? And how we can innovate with technology in way we haven’t even imagined?

Wheeler:
Well, let’s just think for a second. Let’s think outside of the country. Let’s think worldwide. You know in the year 2000, the United Nations came out with what they called their Millennium Development Goals. And they said that by the year 2015, they wanted to reduce world poverty by 50%. They beat that goal by several years, and actually ended up reducing it by 60%. And the key driver that all of the studies showed was the wireless phone. The fact that there were billions of people on the earth who for the first time had the ability to communicate with each other to do commerce, to call for safety services or protection, meant that billions were able to come out of poverty because of this technology.

Smedley:
Martin Cooper would have never thought his impact with a cell phone, creating the cell phone.

Wheeler:
Marty, yes. He was … but fortunately that’s the impact. And you know now we’re dealing with the real

ity that we’re about to see another three billion people connected. And that will have challenges as well as great opportunities. And you know that brings me back to something I heard you say before you went to the break, before you brought me on. And you said, “With great technology comes great responsibility.” And there’s the challenge that we have seen before in history, and what I talk about in From Gutenberg to Google. And that is in earlier technology revolutions there were struggles as to how to make sure that the technology ended up being put to the broadest and best possible uses. We’re in that exact same situation today.

In the industrial age, the key was that government stepped in and said, “We’re going to have anti-trust laws. We’re going to have consumer protection laws. We’re going to have worker protection laws.” And created guardrails within which the new technology capitalists could work. And that meant that the new technology succeeded, and that the capitalists succeeded, and that the economy grew.

We now are at a similar point, when we look back and say the rules that were developed for an industrial era are no longer sufficient in the internet era. And how do we make sure that the enduring principles I was talking about, like non-discrimination on key networks, are continued to be manifest in the digital era.

Smedley:
So, Tom, do you think we’re learning from history? Because I always feel we have to learn from history to move forward. And your book does an amazing job of sharing all this history-based knowledge. In some cases I feel like we still never learn from our history. Do you believe we have?

Wheeler:
So I think the answer is we have no choice, okay? It just take a while to-

Smedley:
I’m not sure you answered my question.

Wheeler:
It takes a while to get there.

Smedley:
But I’m not sure you’re answering it. Did we? Have we up to this point? Have we learned or we have to?

Wheeler:
I think we’re in the process of learning. That is a key component of what I say in From Gutenberg to Google. But I say we are not yet in the greatest network-driven technology revolution ever, but we’re on the cusp of it. And how that evolves is in large part going to be determined by new technology, such as blockchains, such as AI, new cyber, and old lessons.

Smedley:
So, Tom, with that being said if I hear you, and I’m listening between the lines here, so to speak, it sounds like you’re saying we need to train this next generation, whether young, old, whoever, to think about or how we look at it, to look at technology and history differently than we ever have before to be able to take network communication to the next level, to make us a better global leader than we’ve ever been before.

Wheeler:
Yes. We need to understand what the stories of history are. You know, Peggy, one of the sad things is that when we were all growing up what was history class? Oh my God, you’d go in and you’d memorize dates and dead people. History is not dates and dead people. History is exciting stories. And we have to learn those stories, and understand those stories. And that’s one of the reasons why I wrote From Gutenberg to Google, to tell the stories of how we dealt with previous technology driven revolutions. And to say that, if we understand this then we can do a better job dealing with our circumstances today.

Smedley:
What do you think the lessons for today’s business leaders are in these stories that you’re telling us here? Because I think you are saying something that’s really good, and I think it’s accurate.

Wheeler:
Peggy, I think for business leaders there are two clear answers. One is that you don’t get ahead by running away.

Smedley:
Good point.

Wheeler:
From Gutenberg to Google is full of stories of folks … merchants who thought they could tear up the railroad tracks at night and keep them from coming into town and therefore not threaten their business. That didn’t work very well. And the other lesson for business leaders is you’ve got to have rules. You know even Adam Smith, the ultimate laissez faire, free market economist, said you’ve got to have basic rules for a free market to operate.

And what we’re missing today are the basic four corners of the rules that are going to govern how we operate in a digital economy. Just like we made rules for how we would operate in an industrial economy. And business leaders, I think are beginning to wake up to the fact that they need that. That the absence of rules is often anarchy and that rules help people operate and grow.