Welcome back to our regular Friday feature: The Future in Five Questions. Today we’ve got Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who sits on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation as well as its Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security subcommittee. Read on to hear his thoughts on the dangers of unchecked digital surveillance, innovations in clean energy and the dangers of social media.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What’s one underrated big idea?
Geothermal energy. America’s clean energy future requires us to harness the power that is the heat beneath our feet — just as it requires us to harness the powers of the sun, the wind, and the water’s current. We have so much potential for clean and abundant energy to be produced here at home.
What’s a technology you think is overhyped?
Internet-connected doorbell cameras are constantly recording audio and video of our neighborhoods — capturing huge amounts of data and recording what the public says and does. We should not have to pit privacy against safety.
What book most shaped your conception of the future?
“The Flickering Torch Mystery.” The Hardy Boys find a radioactive engine in an airplane junkyard and an atomic mystery unfolds. I remember reading the story as a child and thinking to myself: Man should not have the god-like power of the atom.
What could the government be doing regarding tech that it isn’t?
Congress ought to be taking more seriously the potential harm that social media has on our nation’s kids. The least we could do is fund research into this harm and ensure that parents, teachers, and doctors understand how platforms and their black-box algorithms might impact youth mental health.
What has surprised you most this year?
Well — to be honest — I think a lot about how much of our future looks like our past. Abortion access was first recognized as a fundamental and constitutional right nearly half a century ago. The far-right majority on the Supreme Court has taken that right away. Justice Thomas went as far as to suggest his majority should overturn decisions that have upheld the constitutional right to marry who you love, to use birth control and so much more. It’s ridiculous, and it’s setting us back decades.
There’s a neat conventional wisdom about how the nascent politics around crypto work: Aggressive, regulation-friendly Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) standing in opposition to a freedom-loving, God-guns-and-Bitcoin GOP.
It’s not that simple. Two major pieces of legislation, one proposed just this week from Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.) that would give the CFTC more power over regulating crypto, and the broader bill introduced increasing regulatory clarity around the industry from Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) earlier this year, have been solidly bipartisan.
This week’s bill coincided with a particularly notable dust-up that POLITICO’s Sam Sutton reported yesterday for Pro subscribers, about congressional Republicans’ growing ire for the crypto-skeptic SEC chair Gary Gensler. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) took particular umbrage with the lack of clarity that remains around which cryptocurrencies are, or should be, classified as securities, telling Sam that Gensler is “acting, but he’s doing it selectively.” Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) went even further in accusing the chair of “cracking down on well-intentioned companies,” and said if Republicans take control of Congress in November he hopes to “start to hold him under some intense scrutiny if he sticks around because I think he’s broken.”
Ouch. There are plenty of crypto-sympathetic Democrats on the Hill, but high-profile tiffs like this one can make even a very new tech policy issue seem like just another red-and-blue squabble.
Video games as a medium are now more than a half-century old at least, and a massively lucrative global industry to boot.
So it only makes sense that the powers of state would incorporate them into America’s global media footprint — including an official game development team within the State Department’s Technology Engagement Team, which is releasing a browser-based game called “Cat Park” aimed at inoculating users against online disinformation.
Patricia Watts, director of the Technology Engagement Team, described to me how the game’s principles are based on “inoculation theory” — the idea that by educating people about common disinformation techniques, they’ll be better equipped to spot and reject it in the wild.
Paul Fischer, the team’s senior tech advisor, explained the game’s premise: the player assumes the role of a “disinformation agent recruited into a shadowy social media pressure campaign” meant to stoke opposition to a public park for cats. (How evil, right?)
“There is a market for disinformation with both a supply-side and a demand-side,” Fischer said, saying his team “conceive[s] of games as tackling the demand-side.” The team’s previous game, the similarly-focused “Harmony Square,” has been played more than 150,000 times according to the State Dept., and bears a stamp of effectiveness from Harvard researchers. (“Cat Park” as of yet doesn’t have a release date.)
Fischer described how the team has its eye on the next frontier of gaming, as well: “VR will be another venue for disinformation, so it will be up to industry leaders to figure out what content moderation in the metaverse looks like,” he said.
Stay in touch with the whole team: Ben Schreckinger ([email protected]); Derek Robertson ([email protected]); Konstantin Kakaes ([email protected]); and Heidi Vogt ([email protected]). Follow us on Twitter @DigitalFuture.