Robin Hood and the Digital Revolution
The lovable legend of Robin Hood with his band of Merry Men making life difficult for the Sheriff of Nottingham offers a great way to understand the politics of 21st-century America.
As with any such story, casting is key. The modern version would place tech entrepreneurs in the role of Robin Hood and his gang. They’re committed to making life better for the masses and more than a little disdainful of the governing authorities.
The contemporary Sheriffs of Nottingham would be played by government regulators. They have all kinds of formal authority but can’t compete in the realm of moral authority. While Robin Hood and the techies are committed to making life better for everyone, the regulators are interested more in rules and power rather than people.
Some might object to this casting by claiming that the tech entrepreneurs are in it for the money. To some extent, that’s true. But you can’t hang around the tech industry without also recognizing that just about everyone involved has a passion that comes from seeing the world as it is while also striving for a way to make it better.
Besides, the original Robin Hood had mixed motives, too. He risked life and limb partly so that he could give to the poor. However, a big part of his incentive plan was to win the girl of his dreams and marry into the royal family.
The sparring between tech entrepreneurs and regulators is currently most visible surrounding Uber, a ride-sharing company that provides its customers with better service than the heavily regulated taxi industry. With a flair that Robin Hood himself could appreciate, Uber is flouting the established order by setting up shop and winning the hearts of customers without first seeking the blessing of regulators. In response, infuriated regulators around the world have declared team Uber to be outlaws. But they are outlaws with public support.
The same dynamic is shaping up on countless other fronts.
The health care industry is about to be rattled by an amazing array of self-monitoring devices. But the FDA is already working to protect the status quo and slow down change. It “is actively watching app stores” to prevent new apps from being deployed until the agency signs off. Only 40 such apps were approved in 2012 and 2013, a pitiful number when you think of how many apps are created every day. It’s only a matter of time before some developers take the Uber approach and begin offering apps that ignore the regulators but serve consumers.
Self-driving cars are coming, too, promising improved safety and more productivity during travel time. Education is another field filled with tech-inspired entrepreneurial opportunity.
In all of these areas and many more, technology-driven change will come faster than the regulators can write new rules. That will lead to many more Uber-like conflicts with governments ordering innovative companies to stop providing a better service without permission.
Just like the Sheriff of Nottingham long ago, the regulators have the full force of government to back them up. There’s little doubt they will use it to protect their power.
Robin Hood had the public with him, and today’s tech entrepreneurs can count on more than 100 million Americans with smart phones. As long as they keep their focus on serving the public, the Sheriff doesn’t stand a chance.