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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

On the democracy and technology project

How technology might serve, rather than hinder, democracy

Irina Raicu

Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.  Views are her own.

Our center’s Internet Ethics program has benefited, almost from its inception, from the input of a fantastic informal advisory group (whose composition is fairly fluid, welcoming of new perspectives). One of the members who have been there from the beginning is Eric Goldman, the director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University’s School of Law. And it was during one of our recent advisory group meetings that Eric came up with a suggestion: that we ask a number of experts whether they think technology has hurt democracy, and, if so, whether it can help save it. The plan, of course, was to then post their responses on the internet (one of those technological tools that has itself proven to have both positive and negative impacts on democracy.)

We hope that the resulting series will count on the “positive impact” side. Because what happened after Eric’s suggestion is that he and I partnered with The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance, who joined us, enthusiastically, in the search for expert analysis and concrete, actionable suggestions for ways in which technology could help improve our democratic processes. And, as Eric details on his own blog (which is a must-read for folks interested in the law’s efforts to grapple with new technologies and the novel questions that they generate), “We got a phenomenal response from people [we] really want to hear from. “

The Atlantic will be publishing their contributions over the next several weeks, in a series called “Can Technology Rescue Democracy?”

While that question might strike some as suggestive of Silicon Valley “solutionism,” the responses are anything but that. As my colleague Shannon Vallor puts it in one of the first essays published in the series, “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.” The articles in the series engage with technology in the hope that it, too, has a role to play—if not in rescuing, then in sustaining democracy.

The project’s main page includes five articles right now; an introductory one—by Adrienne, Eric, and me—and essays by Shannon Vallor, Jonathan Zittrain, An Xiao Mina, and Alvaro Bedoya. Each day, over the next three or four weeks, at least one new piece will bring additional perspectives and new suggestions.  We hope that you will read them all and engage in the conversation(s) as well, adding more perspectives, more suggestions. 

As Vallor puts it at the end of her piece, “The threads of technical and civic progress can and must be rewoven.” The metaphor echoes the struggle of the much-maligned Luddites, and their looms... May our collective efforts be more successful than theirs.


Photo by Jason Samfield, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

May 5, 2017

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