We are witnessing, on a massive scale, diminishing faith in institutions of all kinds. People don’t trust the government. They don’t trust banks and other corporations. They certainly don’t trust the news media.
At the same time, we are living through a period of profound technological change. Along with the rise of bioengineering, networked devices, autonomous robots, space exploration, and machine learning, the mobile internet is recontextualizing how we relate to one another, dramatically changing the way people seek and share information, and reconfiguring how we express our will as citizens in a democratic society.
But trust is a requisite for democratic governance. And now, many are growing disillusioned with democracy itself.
Disentangling the complex forces that are driving these changes can help us better understand what ails democracies today, and potentially guide us toward compelling solutions. That’s why we asked more than two dozen people who think deeply about the intersection of technology and civics to reflect on two straightforward questions:
Is technology hurting democracy? And can technology help save democracy?
We received an overwhelming response. Our contributors widely view 2017 as a moment of reckoning. They are concerned with many aspects of democratic life and put a spotlight in particular on correcting institutional failures that have contributed most to inequality of access—to education, information, and voting—as well as to ideological divisiveness and the spread of misinformation. They also offer concrete solutions for how citizens, corporations, and governmental bodies can improve the free flow of reliable information, pull one another out of ever-deepening partisan echo chambers, rebuild spaces for robust and civil discourse, and shore up the integrity of the voting process itself.
Despite the unanimous sense of urgency, the authors of these essays are cautiously optimistic, too. Everyone who participated in this series believes there is hope yet—for democracy, and for the institutions that support it. They also believe that technology can help, though it will take time and money to make it so. Democracy can still thrive in this uncertain age, they argue, but not without deliberate and immediate action from the people who believe it is worth protecting.
We hope you’ll join the conversation by writing your own responses—Is technology hurting democracy? And can technology help save democracy?—to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is part of a collaboration with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.