Internet entrepreneur Peter Thiel told the crowd at the Cato Institute's annual Conference on Technology and Society that being there "was like being at a really good rock concert"—high praise indeed for a policy conference.
Many of the speakers at the Silicon Valley conference, held November 4–5, explored how technology is challenging the policy status quo. Thiel, who heads Confinity Inc., which is developing electronic payments systems, discussed the potential of the thriving international market in tradable commodities to replace unstable fiat currencies. Charles Bronfman described how his company, Cybersettle, could help attorneys settle legal claims quickly using Internet technology. Higher education entrepreneur John Sperling argued that for-profit colleges are more feasible than for-profit elementary schools.
William Schrader, chair-man and CEO of PSINet, described the radical changes that the Internet will bring for government and the economy. Tom Siebel, chairman and CEO of Siebel Systems, addressed how electronic commerce and the World Wide Web will bring radical changes in the business structures that distribute goods throughout the market. Traditional "middlemen" will continue to have a role, but direct consumer-supplier distribution and interaction will become more important. Tom Mandel, founder of Caucus Systems and Mighty Acorn, Inc., spoke of how community and conversation will change as more and more social interaction takes place through computers.
Some speakers considered how new technologies challenge free-market policy-makers as well as government. Spread spectrum is a wireless communications service that can be used for telephony, Internet access, and other purposes. Spread spectrum devices do not need to have a particular channel assigned to them by the Federal Communications Commission—they automatically search for a path free of interference.
Wireless pioneer Dave Hughes defended the feasibility of using spread spectrum broadly around the world, and Bill Frezza of Adams Capital Man-agement emphasized its limits. Economist Tom Hazlett of the American Enterprise Institute stressed that the FCC has never been consistent with the U.S. Consti-tution—and that certainly the FCC should not be in charge of resolving the technical debate about how spectrum, spread or otherwise, can be used. Property rights in spectrum would give technologists and entrepreneurs more flexibility than would top-down decisions from the federal government. But how do property rights mesh with a technology that does not recognize boundaries?
Michael Gough of Cato, Scott Uknes of Paradigm Genetics, and Nina Fedoroff of Pennsylvania State University discussed genetically modified plants and argued that the burden of proof remains squarely with those who would restrict the progress of science.
Stan Williams, principal laboratory scientist at Hewlett Packard, and James Von Her, CEO of Zyvex, described nanotech-nology, the science of the very small. Nanotechnology uses chemistry to position molecules to perform tasks such as computer switching or forming super-strong bonds. Smaller computer switches brought us the PC, which in turn empowered thousands of people around the world with a new tool to participate in markets and speak their mind on political issues. What kind of world will we live in when computer switches and many other devices take another evolutionary step? So far, the new technology holds the most promise for medicine and manufacturing.
Mike Malone of Forbes ASAP, cosponsor of the conference, closed the conference with a resounding call to beware of fear of technology and change and to defend freedom. His talk is available on the December issue of CatoAudio.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2000 edition of Cato Policy Report.