State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Technology and the Public Interest

The emergence of the global, brain-based economy and the demise of the local and national brawn-based economy are facts of economic life. The growth of automation has proven unstoppable and has changed the nature of both work and leisure. These forces are irresistible and will continue. Advances in communication, information, shipping and transportation technology have reduced the importance of place in production. An auto can be assembled in one location of parts made in a hundred others. A century ago you would cluster the manufacturing and parts plants nearby to assure that the assembly line could function. You tied up massive amounts of capital in components you bought months in advance and stored in nearby warehouses. But satellite and cellular communication, inexpensive computing, containerized shipping, bar codes and countless other technological innovations led to just-in-time manufacturing coupled with global supply chains and ever-increasing degrees of specialization.

New technologies of communication, advances in applications for our smartphones along with new drugs, new medical treatments, advances in agricultural technology and a myriad of other new inventions are constantly transforming how we live, what we do, and even how we feel. None of this is guided by any conscious goal or strategy but by the market and sovereign nation-states stand helpless in attempting to influence and control these technologies. Part of the difficulty in democracies is that the complexity of the technological issues makes it difficult for the public to understand the issues sufficiently to provide meaningful input to decision-makers. In some cases, the impact of technology is simply difficult to predict. Who knew at the turn of the 21st century that each of us would need to carry a small networked computer everywhere we went?

Another part of the problem is that many of our decision-makers are scientific and technological illiterates. Their MBAs, MPAs and law degrees did not include any science, and the technologically trained in our society would rather invent and build things than figure out if whatever they construct is in the public interest. The recent speech given at Georgetown University by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg provides a graphic example of the governance dilemmas of our new technology. Facebook is under attack for all of the fiction posted as fact on its site. But as Cecilia Kang and Mark Issac reported in the New York Times recently:

Under fire on all sides, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, went on the offense on Thursday against his critics. In a winding, 35-minute speech at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall — where presidents and foreign heads of state have delivered addresses — Mr. Zuckerberg fought back against the idea that the social network needed to be an arbiter of speech. He said that Facebook had been founded to give people a voice and bring them together, and that critics who had assailed the company for doing so were setting a dangerous example.

The problem is that even if a country tries to regulate the content on the web, something China works hard to do, it is relatively easy to evade government control of this technology. It’s not hard to find a teenager in China who knows how to reach a foreign website that can bring them Google and the New York Times. While Zuckerberg is trying to duck responsibility for the impact of Facebook, the fact is there is little he can do to control its content. He’d do better if he simply confessed that he’s created something that can’t be controlled. The production and use of technology are very difficult to regulate, and so the governance of technology requires innovative means of influence and control.

On the issue of web-based disinformation, we must build an element of the media that the public can rely on for fact-checked, verifiable content. Perhaps Zuckerberg could endow an independent nonprofit with the mission of verifying fact and calling out disinformation. Any content that does not receive that “seal of approval” must be understood to be less reliable. As a scholar, I rely on peer-reviewed journals, books and the non-opinion sections of fact-checked newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. I also rely on government documents and hope I will be able to continue that practice. I teach my students to rely on high quality, verified content when conducting research. Rather than taking on the impossible task of controlling the production of disinformation I would focus on discrediting rather than preventing disinformation. It’s often said that the retraction never catches up with the lie, but we somehow need to change that. At the moment this task is impossible since we have a president of the United States who habitually retweets false information. Even worse is the Trump 2020 political operation that spreads false information via Facebook. As Mathew Rosenberg and Kevin Roose reported in the New York Times yesterday:

The company, since the 2016 election, has invested heavily to prevent Russian-style interference campaigns. It has built up its security and fact-checking teams, staffed a “war room” during key elections and changed its rules to crack down on misinformation and false news. But it has left a critical loophole: Facebook’s fact-checking rules do not apply to political ads, letting candidates spread false or misleading claims. That has allowed Mr. Trump’s campaign to show ads that traditional TV networks have declined to air.

Perhaps in the future, we will select leaders who play a more positive role in separating fact from fiction. While the methods of political persuasion have changed, this is not the first time in American history that disinformation has been used in a political campaign. In the final analysis, it is up to the American voter to separate political fact from fiction. The onslaught of online information makes it difficult, but my hope is that those who are raised in this web-based world will learn how to filter these messages.

It has proven to be impossible to impose the precautionary principle on the introduction of any new technology other than drugs. Instead, we focus our regulation on adverse impacts. However, government can also promote technology that is in the public interest through its purchasing power, and by funding scientific research in areas of technology that promotes civic values and the public interest. When government funds a highway it is promoting one technology, when it funds a subway, it is promoting another.  We don’t often consider the impact of public policy on the development of particular technologies, but there is little question that government actions influence the development and diffusion of particular technologies.

The constant evolution of the world of work results from a steady stream of technological change. Automation and new technology are constantly ending old jobs and starting new ones. Think about a typical office setting a half-century ago. Word processors had not been invented and clerical staff took management’s words and turned them into typed memos. Today those clerical workers are long gone since most professionals type their own memos, emails and texts. In their place, we have added highly trained IT technicians, web designers, and events managers.

Was it in the public interest to vastly reduce the size of our clerical workforce? The new jobs seem more interesting, but what if the clerical folks lacked the technical expertise to perform the new jobs? Like the blue-collar workers who lost their well-paying jobs as America de-industrialized, technological displacement requires government action to ensure that people are not left behind. It is long past overdue for America to frankly admit that technological change is largely unstoppable and ungovernable, and we must develop policies and programs to mitigate the human impact of these changes. Government needs to retrain workers and provide transfer payments during economic transitions. We need to accept the facts of life about technological change and the growth of the global economy and develop public policies that reduce the impact of these changes on people and the planet. The free market cannot and will not address the negative impacts of technology. That is the job of government. From automation to disinformation to global supply chains: It is time that we learn to expect and mitigate the negative results of technology. It is time to pay attention to the impact of technology on the public interest.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments