Former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler: How We Began to Move Fast and Break Things

"We didn’t reach today by accident."


The era of Facebook, Google, and Twitter is defined by its constant change. Letter writing, and to a lesser degree, talking on the phone, are vestiges of history. The way we think, speak, and act has been drastically changed in the previous decade of social media, but it is far from the first time people have encountered an upheaval of this sort.

Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler explains how the network revolutions of the past directly correlate to the disruption we see today in From Gutenberg to Google: The History of Our Future. Everything from the development of the world’s first high-speed network, the railroad, and the creation of the telegraph share connections to our present.

In his book, out February 26, Wheeler clearly and easily explains with clarity just how we can learn from the past. With that knowledge, we can not only deal with rapid changes, but to use them to bring about another revolution.

Below is an excerpt from From Gutenberg to Google, published by Brookings Institution Press.

Brookings Press

“Move Fast and Break Things.”

The message was ubiquitous as I walked through Facebook’s offices. Neatly printed signs proclaimed the admonition, as did freehand felt-pen scrawlings or cut-out letters. The gospel was everywhere: in hallways, stairwells, break areas and work spaces.

Indeed, Facebook and its internet cohorts have broken things at an amazing pace. Fifty-two percent of companies in the Fortune 500 at the turn of the 21st century don’t exist anymore.

The largest taxi company owns no vehicles.

The largest accommodations firm owns no hotels.

Associated Press stories on baseball games and corporate earnings are composed without human involvement as computer programs turn statistics into words to create journalism.

Teenager applications for driver’s licenses are down. Why bother? Online constant connectivity and on-demand transportation provide independence without the parallel parking test.

Google is better informed about health outbreaks than the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). As the infected go online to check their symptoms, Google’s algorithms identify and track health trends long before doctors report to the CDC.

Inanimate objects are talking to us. An umbrella sends a text message you are about to leave it behind. A dog bowl signals it is time for Fido’s walk by reporting his water consumption. A tampon signals it needs to be changed.

And autonomous cars driving down the highway symbolize the heretofore unimaginable new realities that result when tens of billions of microchips embedded into everything flood the world with never-before-seen amounts of data to be orchestrated by computer intelligence into completely new products and services.

Yes, we are moving fast and breaking things. We sit astride the most powerful and pervasive platform in the history of the planet: the combination of low-cost, ever-more-powerful computing power, and ubiquitous digital connectivity.

How did we get here? What does it mean?

We Have Been Here Before

Our new network technology may be the most powerful and pervasive in history, but it is not the first time new networks have confronted individuals and institutions with massive change. We should not delude ourselves into believing that somehow, we are experiencing the greatest technology-driven changes in history — at least not yet.

We have been here before. What we are presently experiencing is history’s third great network revolution.

"Yes, we are moving fast and breaking things."

The original information network was Johann Gutenberg’s 15th century discovery of movable type printing. The network of printers that sprung up across Europe ended the monopoly of information that priests and princes had exploited in pursuit of power. The free movement of ideas fired the Reformation, spread the Renaissance, and became the basis of all that followed.

Four centuries passed until the next great network-driven transformation. This time it was a pair of symbiotic networks: the railroad and the telegraph. Steam locomotives vanquished the geographic distances that had always defined the human experience. As if that weren’t revolution enough, the telegraph simultaneously eliminated time as a factor in the delivery of information. As one historian graphically described, the resulting upheaval imposed the paradox of people living their lives “with one foot in manure and the other in the telegraph office.”

Viewed in context, the changes of the 21st century do not yet measure up to the effects of printing, steam power, and messages by sparks. But they are a continuation of those discoveries.

The network technologies that are changing our today and defining our tomorrow are part of a Darwinian evolution. Technologically, each of the earlier network revolutions was a building block to the networked technologies of today. Sociologically, the angst and anger occasioned by today’s upheavals track with the sentiments of earlier eras.

Reverse engineer the TCP/IP language of the internet and you’ll find Gutenberg’s intellectual breakthrough for expressing information.

Track the history of the computer microchip and you’ll end up in the era of steam and the world’s first commercial railway. At a time when replacing muscle power with steam power was creating the Industrial Revolution, the idea of replacing brain power with machinery presaged the computer revolution.

Consider the off-on signals of the binary digital network and discover the dot-dash of the telegraph.

Amidst these technological changes there was always fear, resistance and pushback. The railroad, for instance, was “an unnatural impetus to society,” one journalist concluded, that would, “destroy all the relations that exist between man and man, overthrow all mercantile regulation, and create, at the peril of life, all sorts of confusion and distress.”

These are the stories this book explores. We didn’t reach today by accident, and that journey is important to appreciating what we’re doing and where we’re going.

Former FCC chairman and author Tom Wheeler. He led the regulatory body from November 2013 to January 2017.

Brookings Press Institution

The “Good Old Days” Weren’t

The involuntary imposition of technology-driven change severs today from many of the anchors that previously provided stability and security. In reaction, a desire for the “good old days” manifests itself in everything from the ballot box to the nostalgic marketing of products.

The good old days, however, were far from idyllic — yet they produced greatness.

Throughout the stories of the earlier network revolutions, opposition was rampant as tradition was upset by economic insurgency and social insecurity. While attention tends to focus on the new technology itself, history makes it clear that it is the secondary effects of the primary technology that are transformative. And the transformation is inherently difficult because, by definition, neither the technology nor its effects are sufficiently mature to effectively substitute for the institutions they are disrupting. The history of new technology is the often-painful process of reaching such maturity, including dealing with the opposition of those whose interests are threatened.

When Rupert Murdoch warned about the Internet’s threat to publishing, for instance, he sounded very much like the 16th century Vicar of Croyden warning, “We must root out printing or printing will root us out.” Similarly, when today we complain about how constant connectivity is dominating our lives, we echo Henry David Thoreau’s lament that “We do not ride on the railroad, it rides on us,” or the warnings of 19th century doctors who argued that by upsetting nature’s natural rhythm, the “whirl of the railways and the pelting of telegrams” would produce mental illness.

While the difficulties and struggles initiated by the earlier networks have been buffed smooth by the sands of time, we should not delude ourselves with idyllic images of golden bygone eras devoid of network-initiated pain, pathos and struggle.

Relying on gauzy images of the past and our limited calendar of personal experience to make judgments about our own circumstances obscures the essential fact that we aren’t alone in facing these challenges. Limiting our horizons by ignoring our history denies us an essential appreciation: that the greatness of a people comes not from a retreat into halcyon memory, but from the advances they make as they respond to newly-created challenges.

This book tells that history through the stories of the step-by-step creation of the technologies at the root of our new realities, as well as through the insight those stories provide about how earlier generations responded when confronted by destabilizing new technology. Inherent in this review is that it is now our turn to craft stability out of technological tumult. The last section of the book addresses a sample of such modern challenges.

Parallel Paths to Today

The route to today’s reality followed two parallel paths. Down one path progressed the almost 200-year stop-and-start development of computing power. In 1965 this history had a defining moment when Intel co-founder Gordon Moore forecast that the capabilities of a new product called a microprocessor would double every 18 to 24 months. “Moore’s Law” has defined the pace in the half century since.

As Moore’s Law forecast, the computer chip in your pocket or purse is 1,000 times more powerful than the chip of only 20 years ago. The computing power that once required a multimillion dollar super-computer now lives on your phone. While Moore’s Law has begun to slow, its trajectory is still up and to the right, with the result that the computer in your pocket tomorrow (or the chip in your toothbrush, shipping pallet or lightbulb) will be exponentially more powerful — and less expensive — than what we know today.

Over the same period, on a parallel communications path, the concept of electronic network connectivity progressed from sending messages by telegraph sparks, to Alexander Graham Bell’s replication of the human voice across a universal network, to the zeroes and ones of the digital network.

When modems made computer digital code into sound, the phone network became the pathway for computer connectivity. In 1969 four research universities connected their computers through phone lines as part of a project funded by the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA). Dubbed ARPANET, it was the Internet’s opening act.

Then computing and communicating had sex.

A result of the combination of the two paths was the seeming disappearance of the technologies. For a century and a half radio was separate from the wired phone network; then, as we will see, computers allowed a user to jump between low-power radio antennas. Bell’s network leapt off the wires to vanish into the wireless ether. In a similar manner, computing moved from devices parked in special rooms or on desktops into fingernail-sized microprocessors, and ultimately disappeared into the cloud. The result — ever more powerful computing interacting over ubiquitous communications networks — has created the essential commodity of the 21st century.

Our Moment, Our Challenges

With this new communicating commodity have come wonderful and expansive new capabilities — as well as an equally expansive collection of challenges.

We can no longer escape. Once, being out of the office or away from home was an opportunity to bail out. Now, you can be away but never apart. The new reality of never being out of touch has boosted productivity and convenience, but at the price of personal freedom.

Privacy expectations disappear. We leave digital tracks wherever we go and whatever we do. The new capital of the 21st century is such digital information. When so-called Big Data tracks diseases more quickly, or shares genomic data to advance science and industry, it moves society forward. The same technology, however, also invades our private space by sucking up personal information to be bought and sold for corporate profit.

Jobs disappear. Industrial companies that once employed thousands yield to Internet companies with only a handful of employees. In 2012 venerable photography company Kodak, which had once employed 165,000 people, went bankrupt. That same year, the Internet photo-sharing service Instagram with 15 employees sold for $1.2 billion.

Community is threatened. The Founding Fathers expressed their faith in a nation that is the sum of its parts with the national motto E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many One). The networks that connect us today are having a “de-Unum” effect by exploiting software algorithms to disassemble the shared information experiences that are necessary for a republic to succeed.

Challenges such as these make up our historical moment. Just as we judge previous generations by how they handled their period of change, so shall we be judged.

Reprinted with permission from From Gutenberg to Google: The History of Our Future by Tom Wheeler with permission from Brookings Press, © 2019 by Brookings Institution.

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