Networks, Information, Engagement & Truth

One was an 18th century leader of the Enlightenment, champion of democracy and individual rights, American founding father and president. The other was a 20th century psychologist, computer scientist and visionary of the powerful promise of computer networks. And for me, like bookends, they provide the supporting beliefs that have formed the basis of my thinking about the promise of the potential impact of the Internet on politics. The metaphorical shelf of books that their thinking supports has grown very large over the last 20 years, during which time the Internet has exploded into widespread use, and in doing so has developed and demonstrated tremendous impacts. Exploring the breadth of that shelf is more than can be tackled in a single blog post. Instead, I want to write just a bit about the thinking of these two visionary Americans, and their specific words that have meant so much to me.

Among his many diverse interests and areas of expertise, Thomas Jefferson was well known as a champion of education. In 1779, as governor of Virginia, he introduced A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge—his plan for a system of public education. He viewed his efforts to establish the University of Virginia as among his most important accomplishments. Jefferson believed not only in the ability for any individual to better themselves through education, but also that a well-informed and educated citizenry was necessary to prevent the tyranny of those in power and ensure the overall success of any democracy.

For many years, the above bit of ASCII art (an original piece of my own creation), along with a favorite quote from my favorite founding father, served as the signature that was appended to every email that I sent. The image of the Capitol captured my pride for my work in the U.S. Senate, and the Jefferson quote was both a reminder and a warning that our nation, and civilization itself, depends on people being informed.

Sometime around 1998, I read a wonderful history of the Internet by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon called Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. And through that history, I was introduced to the work and writings of the other bookend of my thinking about technology and politics: J.C.R. Licklider.

In 1962, Licklider was the Director of the Information Processing Techniques Office at the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPANET was the predecessor of the Internet) and is considered among computer science’s most important figures. His prescient writings about computers, networks and their impacts, well, sort of blew my mind. The below excerpt from Where Wizards Stay Up Late captures the key Licklider (Just ‘Lick’ to many) prediction that I’ve never forgotten:

The idea on which Lick’s worldview pivoted was that technological progress would save humanity. The political process was a favorite example of his. In a McLuhanesque view of the power of electronic media, Lick saw a future in which, thanks in large part to the reach of computers, most citizens would be “informed about, and interested in, and involved in, the process of government.” He imagined what he called “home computer consoles” and television sets linked together in a massive network. “The political process,” he wrote, “would essentially be a giant teleconference, and a campaign would be a months-long series of communications among candidates, propagandists, commentators, political action groups, and voters. The key is the self-motivating exhilaration that accompanies truly effective interaction with information through a good console and a good network to a good computer.

Wait, what?? Did he really foretell and describe online advocacy as we know it today 50 years ago? Blogging, websites, broadcast emails, meetups, online petitions, social media and everything else…providing the self-motivating exhilaration to move people to participate in our political process.

But where Jefferson flagged the danger of an ignorant citizenry to democracy, and Licklider noted technology’s role in connecting voters to truly effective interaction with information, I can’t help but think of another cautionary quote from a great American President:

At a recent conference, during a discussion about climate change, I uncharitably expressed my frustration with my fellow Americans who would elect a Congressional majority that overwhelmingly denies climate change is real and caused by our actions. To which a colleague replied, “They are just buried in the same lies repeated again and again, leaving them unable to tell what the truth is.”

Information itself can be good or bad, and technology cares little about which sort it disseminates and propagates. Avoiding ignorance, as Jefferson’s hopes for civilization require, presume an ability to recognize and reject bad information to avoid being ill-informed. Licklider describes a ‘good console’ and a ‘good network’ as needed for facilitating an ‘effective interaction with information,’ but not specifically ‘good information.’ An effective interaction with bad information is equally likely. Ignorance born of bad, but effectively delivered information can and does do damage to our political process.

Ultimately, individuals must not avoid the real work of reasoning, discriminating and validating the information they choose to consume online. Licklider’s vision for public engagement through the effective dissemination of information is no antidote for the potential of the ignorance that may still result.

Tonight, while working on this blog post, I learned that my long-beloved Jefferson quote is only partially accurate (a common dilemma among Jefferson quotes). Better informed as I am now, thanks to Licklider’s network and my effective interaction with good information, I still believe that their two bookends provide hope for the ongoing positive development of a well-informed and politically engaged public.

Blog post written by Chris Casey.

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