Back in November, 2010, I wrote about the appointment of Prof. Ed Felten, of Princeton University, as the Federal Trade Commission’s Chief Technologist. This was a term appointment, and Dr. Felten is now back at Princeton as a professor of computer science and public affairs. He is also resuming his role as Director of the university’s Center for Information Technology Policy, and frequent contributor to the Freedom to Tinker blog.
Ars Technica has an interview with Prof. Felten, focused on his experience in Washington.
So what’s it like to be a geek in the land of lawyers? Ars Technica interviewed Felten by phone on Tuesday to find out.
The interview is short, but well worth reading for anyone interested in technology policy. As the article points out, many people in policy-making positions in Washington have little to no technical background; many are lawyers. And many of these people, regardless of their background, have some odd ideas about technology in general.
Computer scientists are a rare breed in lawyer-dominated Washington, DC, and Felten said it was sometimes a challenge helping policymakers understand the nature and limits of technology.
For example, he said a lot of people in Washington have a misconception that any problem “can obviously be solved if you try hard enough.”
In the absence of technical knowledge and understanding, many policy makers rely on getting advice from people they trust, on the basis of personal relationships. This, of course, is at the root of the enormous lobbying business, but it is not all bad. If the trusted people are actually competent, and not just pre-scripted automatons, it provides a means for technically qualified people to communicate their views.
… Felten said there are ways ordinary geeks can influence the policy process. The most important thing they can do, he said, is to develop relationships with people who do have direct connections to the policy process.
Although technology and science evolve quite rapidly, human nature has really not changed all that much. Technical people ignore or discount personal relationship building at their peril.