Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Delivered the 2018 Annenberg Lecture

Wheeler discussed the connection between the wealthy industrial barons of the early 1900s and today's tech moguls.

Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson introduced him as one of the few polymaths she’s met in her life: “the contemporary Marshall McLuhan — without the jargon.”

As Chairman of the FCC from 2013-17, Tom Wheeler was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the adoption of Net Neutrality, privacy protections for consumers, and increased cybersecurity. On November 15, Wheeler delivered the Annenberg School for Communication’s 2018 Annenberg Lecture, one of the school’s signature events.

With a lecture entitled, “Who Makes the Rules in the New Gilded Age?” Wheeler made the connection between the wealthy industrial barons of the early 20th century and the tech moguls of today. In much the same way that the 19th and 20th-century captains of industry made their own rules for their newly-invented markets — until government stepped in — Wheeler sees the same thing happening with the dominant tech companies of today. In both cases, their corporate rise has brought great wealth and product value, but also steep rises in inequality and non-competitive markets.

“New technology and the internet create an economic and social instability and insecurity that plays into the hands of those at the extremes of both political thought and marketplace activity,” he said.

Technology, he explained, also gives disruptive forces the tools to exploit the resulting dissatisfaction they have stirred up. In part, he said, technology is playing a role in recent populism, nationalism, protectionism, Brexit, Trump, the rise of the alt-right, and increased calls for socialism.  

“Corporate digital autocrats collect personal information and exploit it to control markets,” Wheeler said. “Political digital autocrats use the internet to spy on their citizens and target attacks on the democratic process.”

At the end of the Gilded Age in the 20th century, lawmakers had to step up and create legal guardrails that favored the public good over the few wealthy.

In this new 21st century Gilded Age, says Wheeler, "whether or not we step up to that responsibility is the challenge of our era. We need the benefits of technology to work for the common good.”

The annual Annenberg Lecture brings to Penn leaders in academia, politics, public policy, or the media. It combines two previous lectures, the Walter and Leonore Distinguished Lecture in Communication, which started in 1992, and the Leonore Annenberg Lecture in Public Service and Global Understanding, which began in 2006. Both series, and the subsequent single lecture, honor Ambassador and Mrs. Annenberg, without whose vision and support the Annenberg School and Annenberg Public Policy Center would not exist.