Will Technology Destroy Our Democracy–or Save It? A Series of Papers at The Atlantic

The decade-old book The Victorian Internet recaps the rise and fall of the telegraph. The telegraph was supposed to connect people together, but instead it played a crucial role facilitating ever-more-destructive wars. The author wrote: “That the telegraph was so widely seen as a panacea is perhaps understandable. The fact that we are still making the same mistake today is less so.”

Back in the 1990s, I completely embraced Internet utopianism. For anyone who thought that bad speech could be cured by more speech, the Internet offered the ultimate elixir: the (theoretical) democratization of publishing, the inclusion of more voices, and a true marketplace of ideas.

My romanticization of the Internet has faded over the years, but no single development spoiled my utopianism as much as the election of Trump. How did we as a country make such a terrible mistake? It’s easy to blame the technology that was supposed to save us. Democracy is surely unraveling due to filter bubbles, “fake news,” data breaches and publication of secrets, and the ability to game viral content.

Still, I’m not prepared to abandon my utopianism. (I’m from the Silicon Valley, after all!) If technology is part of the problem, why can’t it be part of the solution? This is a Big Question–bigger than I (or any single expert for that matter) can definitively answer. But it’s a question we need to answer, and quickly. The stakes are too high not to get this right.

Spurred by the Big Question, my colleague Irina Raicu from SCU’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Adrienne LaFrance of The Atlantic, and I collectively solicited a couple dozen really smart “thinkers” to each provide a short essay outlining one idea about how technology might help improve or repair our democracy. We got a phenomenal response from people I really want to hear from. As a result, The Atlantic is publishing this collection of essays under the heading “Can Technology Rescue Democracy?”, one a day, over the next few weeks. See the project’s main page. I hope you’ll follow along, join in the debate about the merits and wisdom of each easy, and take affirmative steps to embrace and implement the ideas you like best.

The first three entries in the series:

* The Next Great Experiment: the introductory essay by Adrienne, Irina and me: “Despite the unanimous sense of urgency, the authors of these essays are cautiously optimistic, too. Everyone who participated in this series believes there is hope yet—for democracy, and for the institutions that support it.”
* Lessons From Isaac Asimov’s Multivac, by my colleague Shannon Vallor from SCU’s Philosophy Department: “Technology’s threat to democracy is not, at its root, that of poorly designed systems (though certainly design improvements can be made). The real threat is when technical progress is relied upon as a substitute for moral progress in cultivating the civic virtues, norms, and values that sustain functional democracies.”
* American Discourse, Version 1.2, by Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain: “Facebook and Twitter should version-up the crude levers of user interaction that have created a parched, flattening, even infantilizing discourse. For example, why not have, in addition to “like,” a “Voltaire,” a button to indicate respect for a point—while disagreeing with it? Or one to indicate a desire to know if a shared item is in fact true, an invitation to librarians and others to offer more context as it becomes available, flagged later for the curious user?”