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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Protecting the Public Commons

Alexander Howard

Alexander Howard

Alexander B. Howard

This article was originally published in The Atlantic on May 16, 2017.

The debate about the role technology plays in society is as old as humankind’s ability to use tools and techniques to change our world. The technologies we have in our hands today would be magic to our forefathers, from gene editing to spacecraft to the smartphone you’re likely using to read this article.

The impact of information technology on democracies is a comparatively younger concern, driven by the quicksilver pace of innovation and invention in the minds, labs, and garages of people around the globe, as well as the disruption of the institutions that held monopolies on the production and distribution of information.

For the billions of humans who are now connected to the broader world by mobile devices, our experience is increasingly mediated by screens animated by endless rivers of news, livestreams, and entertainment. Our feeds are personalized not only by our individual choices about media outlets but the algorithmic determinations of technology companies that may placed commercial interests before public goals. Our public squares are hosted on private platforms that weren't designed with civic good in mind.

Disintermediation, dystopia, and dismay are the words of the day, eroding the last of the romantic dreams of a better world, built anew in virtual spaces and places. “Digital dualism” is finally on life support, replaced by a dawning recognition that the distinction between offline and online has collapsed. Instead, we face pervasive surveillance enabled by the growth of cameras, sensors, connected devices, and data collection in our communities.

Despite systemic issues in education, criminal justice, and elections, the United States remains an inherently open society, where freedom of speech, information, association, and assembly are baked into Americans’ understanding of their culture and enshrined in statute.

As we move into the next century, however, we are faced with renewed challenges around our politics, as partisan polarization expresses itself not only in party affiliation but through media consumption and the accountability journalism that we rely upon to make markets and governments transparent.

One of the biggest risks to our democracy today is the crisis in local news, as newspaper publishers have lost half of their employment since 2001. Digital outlets have hired some of those journalists, but the platform press of Silicon Valley now controls the means of production, distribution, and the vast majority of the advertising revenue associated with publishing online.

Open questions about what will replace local outlets are coupled with historic lows in American trust in government and media institutions. There will be no singular solution to the complex phenomena posed by these changes. What the public-education system, technology companies and publishers can do is to invest in civics education and digital infrastructure, from broadband Internet to public data feeds. Facebook’s addition of civic features that prompt people to register to vote and participate in state and local government is an important step forward. Every member of civil society and institution has a role in informing communities about how government works. A core component of a high school education should include teaching people how to judge risk, statistical literacy, and how to exercise our rights to access public information.

These aren’t new ideas, but making progress is more urgent in an era where our ability to make public policy based upon evidence is in question. At a time when the biggest risks to open government data are political, we must not only protect the integrity of the vast public commons of knowledge that have been built up over the years but the continued relevance of shared facts based upon high-quality statistical data, from our Census to our scientific agencies.

Cities, states, and the federal government must continue to invest not only in opening public information to the public online but partnering with communities to apply it in the public interest, using 21st-century tools to reform 20th-century institutions by honoring the 18th-century philosophies that inspired our nation’s founding. By doing so, we will embrace what has always made America great: our ability to not only adapt in the face of technological change but to adopt the tools of the present to rebuild our communities in preparation for an uncertain future.

Alexander B. Howard is the deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, where he leads policy initiatives, civic engagement, strategic advocacy, watchdog journalism, and government reform efforts.

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

Jun 2, 2017