Can Tech Strengthen Civil Society Now?
Why aren’t there more Wikipedia-scale successes online?
On Monday night, I participated in a class session of Technology, Media & Democracy, a partnership of five academic institutions in New York City, co-taught by Justin Hendrix, combining two classes he runs at NYU and Cornell Tech, David Carroll at The New School, Douglas Rushkoff at CUNY Queens College, and Emily Bell at Columbia Journalism. Alongside me as speakers were Rebecca MacKinnon of the Wikimedia Foundation and Eli Pariser of New_ Public.
Rushkoff sent us some questions in advance, which got me thinking. In essence, he asked us to consider the challenges facing democracy today, to weigh how much tech has contributed to those challenges (as opposed to simply reflecting the complexities and crises already present in society), and to offer thoughts on how to strengthen the public sphere and knowledge-building institutions going forward. In particular, since the students taking this course are all considering careers in civic tech, he asked, “We had 10+ years of designing better ‘public tech’ and public spheres, from Planetary to gobo.social to Diaspora to consider.it. Yet, we have not seen anything break through apart from Wikipedia — is that the case, what might be the key challenge, and are you still optimistic? What promising emerging platforms are you seeing? So much of our discussions are trimming around the edges, but how can we drill down to a core animating issue? Do we have to design for inequality and anti-grift? Do we need to design the internet for the real world, not the techno-utopian vision?”
In other words, can tech help strengthen civil society now? Here’s what I jotted down in response.
For starters, I think we need to recognize what moment in the technological cycle we are living in. In The Master Switch, Tim Wu describes how each major innovation in the technology of communication has first disrupted the previous information empire, and then a new empire has consolidated itself. From the invention of the telegraph, radio, television, and now the internet, there’s a recurrent pattern: A newer, more powerful, and cheaper means of communicating gets invented; the means of communication temporarily spread into many more hands; and then capital consolidates and…