If you were to compile a list of the Americans with the most
influence on technology in the last 40 years, Ralph Nader might not be on
it. But he should be. Nader, of course, is running for president and he
still has a lot to say about technology in contemporary America.
Nader actually began his career writing about technology, when he
burst upon the national scene with his 1965 book "Unsafe at Any Speed," a
withering critique of the auto industry and General Motors in particular.
He followed that with campaigns against nuclear power, pesticides,
dangerous drugs, workplace hazards and, most recently, Microsoft's
monopoly. Nader hosted the first national conference on Microsoft as a
monopoly; the Justice Department filed its case a few weeks later.
In his presidential campaign this year as the Green Party candidate,
he is aiming his formidable rhetoric at massive corporate power and the
rampant commercialization of American culture, including the political
process. "Most Americans don't realize how badly they're being harmed by
the unchecked commercialization of what belongs to the commonwealth,"
Nader told Harper's magazine this month.
"Technology follows corporate power," Nader told me last week. "The
vast bulk of our federal R&D [research and development] spending is to
serve civilian corporate interests or military institutions. We need a
much broader public debate about the purposes of technology and the harm
"Only when you have a small democratic context do you have the right
context for discussing these issues. In a corporate or government
environment, you always get a distorted discussion," he said.
Nader noted that whenever the "technological faithful" get together,
which is often, their discussions about technology are "always a plus,
never considering a subtraction. It's like the GDP [gross domestic
product]. Everything is a plus in the GDP, never a minus--pollution,
crime, workplace injuries, these are all missing."
Nader said, "Even within the computer [and] Silicon Valley framework,
there's this obsession [that] first you have computer hardware. Then you
get computer software. Then you get software upgrades that you don't need
but have to have because your equipment won't communicate without the
upgrade. Then you get viruses. Then programs to combat viruses. Then you
get magazines about viruses, and computer conventions about viruses, and
"We keep backing up and backing up, instead of focusing on, 'What is
all this for?'
"There are certain technologies that are very important to human
beings and the planet that are subordinated in every way to the glamorous
and lucrative technologies," he said. He contrasted solar power with the
mania over the Internet and telecommunications. "It would be far better
for the world if solar technology were promoted more than
telecommunications technology. Which is the most important technology?
Solar tech doesn't get any press, any public support, Clinton and Gore
don't fly to 'Solar Alley,' and so on," he said. Federal support for
renewable energy research is lower now, even in the face of global
warming and crushing oil prices, than it was in 1981, when President
Carter left office.
"Our culture fosters a technology because it happens to be a moment in
time when it makes a lot of money," Nader said. "This spawns a lot of
stories about mega-millionaires and their lifestyles, lots of glitzy
conferences. Are we advancing technology for its corporate power sake or
for people's sake?"
Nader is at his most controversial when he says there's no significant
difference between the Democratic and Republican parties these days. He
has called his opponents, provocatively, "Gush and Bore." He told
Harper's magazine, "When people tell me that I'm wrecking the Democratic
Party, I ask them, 'What's left to wreck?' "
In the technology policy area, he's right. There's been a subtle but
profound transformation of what we call "technology policy" in this
country today. Now, when journalists ask either the Gore or Bush
campaigns about their positions on technology, they're pointed to
billionaire advisors from industry. "Technology policy" has become
synonymous with what industry wants: tax relief, more foreign workers, no
regulation and support for research that industry doesn't want to fund
itself. The reason both parties have abandoned any idea of technology in
the public interest is clear: They can't afford to lose access to the
money the industry wields.
On the tech industry, Nader again pulls no punches. He says the
industry is dominated by what he calls " 'techno-twits': people who just
push technology for profits or their own personal gain, or people who
just talk tech because they're fascinated and obsessed with it. They're
far removed from the question of 'Quo vadis?' [where are you going?]."
One organization Nader set up, and which he continues to support, is
the Consumer Project on Technology in Washington. CPT has helped press
for more public accountability of the Internet's management, such as
forcing the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, to
hold elections for better representation on its board of directors. Those
elections are scheduled for next month.
CPT and Nader have also fought for more government transparency, for
citizens' right to know about what the government is doing.
"Every member of Congress has a Web page now," said Nader, "but no
member of Congress posts his or her voting record. Can you believe that?"
Nader said he wrote both Al Gore and George W. Bush to ask them to
endorse his proposal to require members of Congress to post their voting
records. "They didn't answer me," he said. "I've been doing that--writing
them letters with ideas--because I think a presidential election should
produce more for the people than just a winner and a loser."
In his nomination acceptance speech at the Green Party convention in
July, Nader quoted the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: "We can
have a democratic society or we can have the concentration of great
wealth in the hands of a few. We cannot have both."
Nader is the only candidate who has the verve and the spine to put
that choice on the table this year.