Marshall Memorial Fellowship: Transatlantic Technology-Equity and Democracy
In the United States, urban technology ecosystems such as those found in Seattle, Boston, New York, and Silicon Valley, have in mere decades become primary drivers for the national economy and our everyday life experiences. Social media, smart phones and digital technologies have revolutionized the way many of us see and connect with the world, making it possible to build communities and share identities that transcend traditional geographic, cultural and even linguistic boundaries. Furthermore, what rests at the swipe of a thumb today will soon be augmented by virtual and mixed realities including Internet of Things (IoT) technologies that will create an always-on, on-demand matrix of personalized, digitally enriched, globalized experiences. As technology enthusiasts (self-included) revel in this collective progress toward a real Star Trek moment, it is important to explore with a critical lens the impact an increasingly connected and virtual world will have on democracies and their core values.
What does broader democratic leadership looks like in an age where virtually integrated worlds are emergent realities for the masses? Across the Atlantic, innovative European cities like Stockholm, Berlin, and Turin are making international waves in global technology through leadership in green energy, audio-visual communications, data security, and manufacturing technology. These cities can become case studies for critically understanding the challenges and opportunities newer technologies present for the democratic values of equality, liberty and justice by gauging their impact on historically impoverished communities and newly vulnerable communities such as refugees and war-stricken populations.
One thing is certain: there are no simple answers. While basic insights are surfacing around short-term technology shifts in specific markets - for example, Pew Research Center’s report on new media impacts on traditional media - there seems to be less critical public discussion on how new media and technologies might, more or less, equitably advanced democracies. There are increased concerns from progressive economists such as Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, and educators such as Mimi Ito, Professor of Anthropology at UC-Irvine, who warn that absent intervention technology appears to demonstrate a “Matthew Effect,” which exacerbates inequalities, making the rich, richer and the poor, poorer. They caution us against errant assumptions that more technology is necessarily, better, or that technology is an unbiased equalizer, or that greater technology education leads to greater equality. Such assumptions are indeed unfounded at best and perilous for democracies at worst.
It is thus critical that policymakers and industry leaders begin to collectively examine the relationships between technology and its assumed social benefits with a critical lens of social equity. To underscore the urgency, consider that the U.S. Census Bureau projects population growth of currently underrepresented communities (i.e., African American and Latino citizens in the U.S.) to reach over half of the U.S. population by 2050. Immigration and declining growth in historic populations could portend similar scenarios in Europe in the relatively near future. Far beyond just technology, innovation is needed at all levels, from all us—policymakers, industry leaders, civil society—to create ever elusive widespread economic stability, and bolster a sustainable more equitable REAL world in the near future.
Zithri Ahmed Saleem, Director of Program Strategy and Innovation at Technology Access Foundation in Seattle, is a Spring 2016 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.