The Pandemic-Driven Urgency to Improve Our Digital Lives
Former FCC chairman Michael Powell had a front-row seat for the birth and evolution of the internet. He says now is the time to rethink how we use it and who can access it.
Michael Powell had a starring role in the dawn of the internet age. An expert in telecommunications law, he was appointed to the Federal Communications Commission in 1997 by President Bill Clinton and four years later became chairman under President George W. Bush. He helped write the rules of the road for the internet, fueling the growth of what he calls “in some ways… the most breathtaking invention in the history of the world.” He is now the head of NCTA—The Internet & Television Association, a trade group that includes some of the biggest internet providers in the country.
Michael and I have known each other for years through the board of America’s Promise Alliance (APA), a non-profit founded by, among others, Colin Powell—Michael’s dad—in the mid 1990s. The organization was launched at the Presidents' Summit for America’s Future, attended by all of the living presidents, on April 27, 1997. I still remember the day. I was a White House Fellow then, and I flew to the event on Air Force One and met each of the presidents. It remains one of the best moments of my life.
In our years on the APA board, Michael and I have had countless conversations about how to give all young people a fair start in life, and the pandemic has intensified those concerns. We spoke in December about the evolution of digital life during the pandemic and how to ensure students can access reliable broadband—as well as the wisdom to use it well.
Michael Powell (left) speaking with Stefanie Sanford about digital issues impacting Americans and how to solve them.
You became a specialist in telecommunications law pretty early in your career. When the internet began getting public attention in the 1990s, did you sense what it would mean for the world?
Not at first, no. I’m going to sound like an old fogey, but it’s funny to sit here now and realize that this thing we use all the time, every day, and has completely transformed our lives didn’t exist when I was growing up. Even into the 1990s, it wasn’t something the average citizen had any experience with or even knew existed. And then, suddenly, I had a front-row seat at the revolution.
It’s really hard to describe how seismic that transformation was because this network was radically different from any communication system in the history of the world. The telephone is basically just tin cans and string in a very sophisticated version. It’s one person talking to another person. Television and radio allowed you to communicate one-to-many, to broadcast a single set of voices to an audience of millions. But you weren’t a participant; you just passively received the signal. Along comes the internet, and it’s this completely upside-down historical model. The end-users were the network, and everyone was a participant. You were going from a world where the innovators were a handful of experts at the center to a world where there are millions of innovators acting independently all over the network. It was a democratization of technology like the world had never seen.
So you were a tech optimist, like so many of us during that era?
I was a tech-ecstacist! This sense of euphoria about the power of technology was everywhere. It’s really hard to remember the sort of wild-eyed excitement at the dawn of the internet age, watching the early days of what are now some of the biggest, most powerful companies in the world. You saw the internet driving this inevitable flowering of democracy, along with a revolution in commerce, in news, in entertainment, in everything. Companies put the letter “e” in front of everything and got all excited about transforming the world.
All of that turned out to be both true and false. It did bring huge socioeconomic changes across the world, changes that are still playing out, but change on that scale always comes with both good and bad. People were so blinded by the internet’s potential for so long that I think they failed to see its dangers. Somehow we let those dangers go unexamined for the better part of a decade, and we’re really just waking up to it now.
In some ways, the internet really is the most breathtaking invention in the history of the world. And it’s also in some ways the greatest threat to the behavior and the future of humanity.
Has the experience of the pandemic, with millions of people relying on the internet for work, school, and social connection more deeply than ever before, changed the way you look at the technology?
This has been an experiment no one imagined when they built the network. What if everyone in the world decided to stay home and use the internet for everything all day? Nobody envisioned that! We’ve had a phenomenal stress test of the network, and I think it came through with flying colors. The level of resilience we’ve seen is really a vindication of the underlying technology, and that’s comforting at one level.
I also think we’ve seen the internet come unstuck in a way, to finally force some of the big changes that people have been talking about for a long time but never seemed to actually happen. The whole conversation around working from home has been accelerated by at least 10 years. People have talked about it since the beginning of the internet, but it wasn’t culturally taking hold in any meaningful way until this happened. The promise of teaching kids remotely has always been out there, but remote education has been really sub-optimal. I think this is going to force us to finally examine how to do this better, how to make it work for more students. Telehealth was stuck going nowhere until this pandemic, and now it’s becoming common.
There are so many transformational, end-of-the-Ice-Age things finally happening, and the internet will have to adapt. People will have to adapt, too. John Chambers, the former Cisco CEO, used to say that the real barrier isn’t the technology, it’s people and processes—the social and cultural and behavioral changes that have to happen to get the most out of some new innovation. We’re seeing that happen really rapidly now.
High school junior Cassandra, 16, does homework from a remote learning class on October 07, 2020, in Phoenix, Arizona. Her family had narrowly escaped eviction from their RV park earlier in the day.
How do we make sure that everyone has the opportunity to participate in these changes? We’ve seen over the last several months how widespread the challenges are with getting students and families online for school. What’s the role of government in making sure everyone has access to the internet?
I think government is at its best when it’s taking care of those most in need. I’m a big believer in capitalism and private markets, but I’m also a big believer that government owes its citizens a basic safety net.
For broadband, the government’s role is to focus on that last portion of America that can’t go forward without some kind of subsidy, without some kind of investment from the rest of society. We don’t need government to build the infrastructure, but we do need them to fund the portions of the infrastructure that just aren’t economically viable. We’re a very rural country, and network economics are all about density. If I have to run a wire between two homes that are hundreds of miles apart, that’s a hellaciously expensive wire to pick up two new customers. The private sector can’t do that without some kind of public investment. And if we want our citizens to be part of the future, that’s a role government has to play.
Why haven’t we been able to fix that last-mile problem already, to get broadband to the parts of the country where it’s not economical?
Part of the problem is that the political system often wants quick wins, and you’re not going to fix this in a year or even five years. You need to be thinking on a long, 10-plus-year timeline. And you need to be thinking about long-term maintenance. This isn’t like a sewer pipe, where you lay it down and it works for the next 50 years. Broadband is a dynamic infrastructure that requires constant maintenance and updating. It needs an ongoing commitment, not just a one-time infusion. Politically, no one has been able to effectively engineer that. You can’t just dole out a little bit of money and take a victory lap.
What do you do for people who have broadband available but don’t think it’s affordable? So much of the digital divide exists in cities and suburban areas where there are providers but not enough people purchasing the service.
That’s right, and the adoption problem is the real issue with school kids. Some of it is about affordability and some of it is about families not seeing the value. We do these surveys of people who don’t have broadband internet, and they’ll say that they have cell phones and that’s enough to post on Facebook or keep up with family, and they don’t see the need for fixed broadband and another set of devices.
We need to think about whether broadband deserves a social safety net program, almost like food stamps. We don’t have that kind of program today, but I think the pandemic has been a game-changer in terms of thinking about something on that scale. It sharpened the sense of urgency, and I think we need to act while we’re still very focused on the problem.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell (right) listens as President George W. Bush speaks during a signing ceremony for national "Do Not Call" legislation on September 29, 2003.
How should we be educating the next generation to prepare for all of these major shifts in technology? Once we have broadband in every home, how do we make sure students are getting the most out of it?
I don’t think any child in America can succeed long-term any more without the ABCs of digital skills. We still have a lot of education to do with families on why this matters, why their children absolutely need these tools if they’re going to be successful. But it’s also bigger than just knowing the technology. We need a better appreciation of human nature, a better appreciation of how the mind works and what kind of behaviors we’re all susceptible to. You need to be able to assert some level of digital control, to preserve your agency in a world that’s trying to take it away from you.
If you’re a big tech company, and your profits are derived from advertising, you get paid by manipulating behavior and making people do things that advertisers want them to do. These companies have no incentive to disconnect you, to tell you it’s time to go do something more productive. They employ some of the best cognitive scientists in the world to literally hack our brains and our behaviors. We’re being at best nudged and at worst actively manipulated to behave in ways that someone else wants us to. What’s at stake is our free will!
That sounds quite a bit deeper than just better digital literacy.
I think you have to go back to philosophy, back to Aristotle. If you want to be ready for the kind of all-encompassing technology we have now, you better start studying the human species, you better understand the dynamics of tribalism and polarization. This is one of my favorite topics right now, this question of wisdom. Do we even understand what wisdom is anymore? Because it’s not knowledge, it’s not data. It includes this infusion of moral sensibility, this deeper understanding that your very nature is susceptible to certain ways of thinking. We’ve lost touch with these things. I really think the answers to a lot of our very modern problems lie in ancient wisdom about how people think.
Was there a particular teacher in your life who made you wiser?
I don’t know about deep wisdom, but I have a very strong recollection of my fifth-grade teacher. She taught me what curiosity means, what sincere, heart-held curiosity is about. I think it was the first time where someone instilled a belief that knowledge and academic mastery held promise for me. To realize that promise, you have to have a love of new ideas. I’m a better student at 57 than I was at 10, but fifth grade was the beginning of that awakening. And it continues to this day.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.