Can Technology Make Democracy Better?

By Jeffrey Goldberg

One of the sessions I moderated at the Aspen Ideas Festival (I know, I know) featured Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, who told me all sorts of Pollyannish things about the power of technology to make our democracy -- and democracies around the world -- better. Alexis Madrigal has done America, and the planet, a service by concisely summarizing and analyzing Schmidt's comments: Here's a sample of Alexis's conclusions:

Google's current executive chairman and former CEO spoke today with The Atlantic's Jeff Goldberg at the Aspen Ideas Festival about the role his company and his company's ideology has played around the world. What emerged is one of the clearest statements yet about how Schmidt's mind works. The man believes in progress and the eventual triumph of reason over the inanities and insanities of living, breathing humans. Time and again, without offering specifics, Schmidt said in one way or another, "It'll get solved," always in the passive voice. Even absent good actors he can point to, he's sure that they exist.

Eric Schmidt has a very high opinion of mankind.

Alexis notes that Schmidt's high opinion about the transformative power of technology has even survived his company's tumultuous entry -- and quasi-exit -- from the world's largest totalitarian nation, China:

"Our theory was that if we put up with the censorship, which we did not like, we would empower the citizens and the citizens would revolt if this stuff was taken away from them," he told Goldberg. Obviously no such thing ended up happening and it was Google that ended up leaving mainland China and moving its servers to Hong Kong. Or as Schmidt described the fate of their theory, "Our experience was [that] we were wrong."

By the way, J.J. Gould has an interesting take on Schmidt's China comments, which you can read here.

It was, all in all, a very strange encounter I had with Schmidt. I couldn't tell if his sunniness was merely a reflection of corporate public relations policy (and why wouldn't it be?), or a deeper set of beliefs about humankind's ability to assimilate new technology. Here's what I wrote about the interview in my Bloomberg View column:

Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival -- See full coverage
I asked Schmidt if he could cite any evidence that American democracy is better off for having the Internet. After all, there seems to be something of a correlation between the rise of the Web and the polarization of U.S. politics, along with the mainstreaming of irrationality.

"I don't think when we built the Internet, we thought that was the problem we were solving," he said. "I think most people would agree that more speech is better. The clear outcome of the current situation is that more speech means constant polling, etc. There is a lack of deliberative time in our political process. And our political leaders will eventually figure out that they're going to make better decisions if they actually take a break and spend a week thinking about them."

This last statement seemed incredible -- or, as the laconic Schmidt himself might put it, unsupported by existing data. The idea that politicians will become more thoughtful as the velocity of information, good and bad, increases seems fanciful. So what mechanism will help politicians become more contemplative?

"Well, they actually are elected, and they can actually talk to each other," Schmidt said.
And you have that much faith? I asked. "Yes. Things will get bad enough that eventually reason will prevail." I pushed a bit more, and he said, "Well, you know, these problems will get themselves resolved."

All I can say is, I hope they get resolved before Skynet becomes self-aware.

Oh, and by the way, here's one understanding of Aspen I thought you might appreciate:



More from the Aspen Ideas Festival

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/07/can-technology-make-democracy-better/259495/