Technology can be powerful, but it isn’t inherently good or bad. Just as a hammer isn’t inherently good or bad; what matters is how it’s used. Are we using the tool to build or to destroy?
Technology can be a weapon against democracy. Fake news, fabricated for virality, spreads harmful propaganda at the speed of a share. Governments use technology to violate the privacy of law-abiding citizens. Bad actors have influenced elections and broken into our Defense Department through our inboxes.
But if civic engagement fuels democracy, technology can be a savior, too. Technology helped us to register more voters in 2016 than ever before in American history. Technology has empowered outsider candidates to raise funds, compete, and win against elite party heavyweights. Open data policies and portals provide free, up-to-date access to valuable information about communities and government, and citizens are using it to build businesses and to hold government accountable. An unprecedented number of citizens are taking a stand through digital petitions and using smartphone apps to contact their elected officials. We may not like all the outcomes, but more people are getting involved in democracy through tech.
Technology also improves how well our democracy works for its citizens. Government services can and should be delivered as efficiently and effectively as the technology you use to get a ride or order dinner. In redesigning and reengineering digital services and improving infrastructure, governments are making strides toward this goal. Applying for citizenship, getting VA benefits and food stamps, and small-business permitting are just a few examples of transactions with federal, state, and local governments that are improved with the help of talented technologists who choose to work in public service. Improving digital services builds trust in government’s value and purpose through delivery on its promises.
Despite progress, our democracy struggles to keep pace with technological change. We face ever-evolving security concerns; inefficient and outdated software, processes, and equipment; and a lack of qualified professionals in government to fix it all. The technology industry must become more democratic too. A lack of representation means we solve certain problems with tech and ignore those we cannot see or understand. Poor access to technology resources and education compounds existing inequalities. Technologically illiterate citizens are more vulnerable to hacking and misleading digital propaganda, as well as exclusion from democratic processes that are becoming more tech-oriented.
We need citizens to push for solutions. We need elected officials at every level of government to invest in equitable access to technology and tech education; improved security; open data; and effective, efficient digital services.
Technological threats to democracy will always exist. Indeed, as the tools to destroy democracy become more powerful, these threats will proliferate and grow. But that same powerful technology used to empower an engaged citizenry remains our best tool to build democracy, too.
This article is part of a collaboration with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.