The new digital age (part 2 of 2)

March 6, 2014, 12:40 p.m.

See part one of our coverage here

The new problem of the digital age — though some would call it a blessing — is that ordinary citizens now have the power to create major disruptions to democracies on a scale previously impossible, and previously mediated by institutions. Never before have democracies stood so precariously on the edge of chaos.

What Cohen calls the “empowering bias” of technology raises expectations of what ordinary citizens can do, but the success of a revolution depends on far more that technology alone. “No revolution is successful on the day of, or the day after,” Rice argued. “The Internet leaves little time for present-day leaders to operate.”

The balkanization of online information has created echo chambers that lead to the extreme polarization of political views we see in America today. The most pressing problems require time and political leadership, and both Schmidt and Rice fear that the digital age has compromised the opportunity for public deliberation.

And then there is, unavoidably, the question of privacy. Less was said of NSA’s incursions, and more questions were asked about the accountability of private corporations. After all, the real threat to privacy may come not from governments, but from private corporations.

“Target knows more about you than the government does,” Rice quipped, “And whereas NSA doesn’t care about what you said to your grandmother, Amazon cares.”

When corporations have control over so much data of ordinary citizens, what keeps them accountable? Should we, as a member of the audience suggested, hold elections for Google, who controls data of much of our online existence?

Schmidt believes that the competitive market does the job: users’ vote of confidence is their continued use of Google’s services, which feeds on people’s trust. One could always switch to Bing — the difference that sets private corporations apart from government is that they have competitors that constituents can switch to at any time. They also don’t have a monopoly over the use of force, and are subject to the laws of the land.

It is refreshing that the chief architects of our new digital age are forthright about the limitations of technology, and have largely abandoned unqualified paeans to technology. But they are also, clearly, the chief optimists of this digital age.

“We have the right architecture,” Cohen said, “but we don’t know who the players will be.” Schmidt is a self-proclaimed “optimist about people” who believes the empowerment of technology is such a great story that he “never want(s) society to stop it or slow it down.”

Ultimately, the use of technology for good or ill depends on the guiding human hand in the new digital age. Forget all the talk about machines taking over. What happens in the future is up to us.

This post was originally published on before it was acquired by The Stanford Daily in summer 2014.

Chi Ling, Chan ('15) is a junior majoring in Political Science and Symbolic Systems. On campus, she presently runs The Stanford Roundtable where she facilitates conversations on science, technology, society and more broadly, the human condition. In her free time, she writes. Chi Ling can be contacted at [email protected].

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