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Gratitude for Invisible Systems

Debbie Chachra

Debbie Chachra

Debbie Chachra

This article was originally published in The Atlantic on May 18, 2017.

Before asking the question of how technology can affect democracy, I’m going to ask: What is democracy for?

In a developed, post-industrial country at the start of the twenty-first century, one of the main functions of a democratic political system is to help us collectively manage living in a complex, global society. Our daily lives take place in a network of technological, socio-technical, and social systems that we barely notice, except when things go wrong.

To start with, there are the infrastructural systems that fill out the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid of needs: clean water on tap, the ability to flush away disease-causing waste, natural gas for warmth and food preparation, and raw energy in the form of electricity, for heat and light, to replace physical labor, and to power cooling and electronics. Moving up Maslow’s pyramid, these systems underpin communication, community and self-actualization: connections to the rest of the world in the form of telecommunications and postal mail, physical links in the form of roads and a subway that link to rail, airports, and more.

While they’re far from perfect, these systems work well enough that mostly we don’t think about them. When they do fail, especially as a result of lack of care or maintenance (like interstate highway bridge collapses or the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan), we recognize it as the profound and shocking betrayal that it is.

Besides these physical networks, there are a host of other systems that exist primarily to contribute to the common good by taking on responsibility for safety, access and planning. I don’t have to know where my breakfast eggs came from to know they’re safe to eat, because of the United States Department of Agriculture. When I fill a prescription, the pills I’m given will be efficacious, thanks to the Food and Drug Administration. The Center for Disease Control tracks and responds to outbreaks before they become epidemics. I’ve been known to get on a plane and fall asleep before takeoff; my security is because the Federal Aviation Authority regulates air traffic. And these are just a handful of ways these systems affect my daily life.

When we think about caring for our neighbors, we think about local churches, and charities—systems embedded in our communities. But I see these technological systems as one of the main ways that we take care of each other at scale. It’s how Americans care for all three hundred million of our neighbors, rich or poor, spread over four million square miles, embedded in global supply chains.

What’s more, we can collectively fund systems that even the richest, most self-sufficient people couldn’t create for themselves, and we use them to serve the common good. When I look at my phone to decide if I need an umbrella, the little blue dot that says where I am is thanks to the network of Global Positioning System satellites operated by the United States Air Force, and the weather is the result of a $5.1 billion federal investment in forecasting, for an estimated $31.5 billion dollars of benefit in saving lives, properties, and crops (and letting me know I should wear a raincoat).

If I were to make a suggestion for how technology could be used to improve our democracy, I would want to make these systems more visible, understandable, and valued by the general public. Perhaps a place to start is with the system that is the ultimate commons—our shared planet. One way that we can interact with it is through citizen science projects: collecting data about our local environment to help build a larger understanding of of anthropogenic climate change. The late scientist and activist Ursula Franklin wrote “Central to any new order that can shape and direct technology and human destiny will be a renewed emphasis on the concept of justice.” If we want to use technology to make democracy better, we can start with the systems that we use to make it more just.

Debbie Chachra is a professor at Olin College of Engineering.

This article is part of The Democracy Project, a collaboration with The Atlantic.

Jun 6, 2017

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