Technological Citizenship

In this post, I will advance an explanation of the differences between law and technology, and how ordinary people can reclaim control over their lives through what I refer to as “technological citizenship.”

The modern liberal state is defined by the rule of law, a fair and evenhanded treatment of all people according to clear rules. The most basic laws are constitutional, those that define the relationship between the parts of government, and government and the citizens. In democracies, and particularly in America, the Constitution has been carefully designed to allow for citizenship and participation in the law-making process. The Federalist papers debated and discovered how abstract principles like liberty and justice could be translated into the concrete institutions of policy, and despite occasional hiccups, and one major war, their framework endures today.

But laws are only half the story. The world is also full of technologies, and as Langdon Winner points out in The Whale and the Reactor, our technological constitution, the core systems for providing food, shelter, power, mobility, etc are not nearly as well-designed as the law. While the Constitution and the law grew through a process of considered debate and democratic input, technologies have accreted over time into centralized bureaucratic systems, operating according to a depersonalizing logic of efficient markets. For Langdon Winner, the power and omnipresence of these technological systems is a grave threat to democracy and liberty, as society become dependent on entities which are essentially autonomous from public control.

The democratic person is a political citizen, taking an active role in the process of governance by becoming informed on the issues, voting, communicating with their representatives and their neighbors. Our ideal of democracy remains ancient Athens (albiet with an updated version of who counts as a citizen), where every citizen participated equally in government, and positions were rotated regularly. The technological person is a consumer, and the end goal of technology is the 'utilitization' of everything, technologies becoming absolutely reliable, simple, and omnipresent. The more advanced a technology is, the fewer buttons, access panels, and failure modes it has; compare an early computer like ENIAC to an iPad. The best realized vision of this phenomenon is E.M. Forester's “The Machine Stops”, where planetary civilization is controlled by an immense computer system that is beyond the understanding of its inhabitants.

Now, reverse these roles. A political consumer is an unthinking, uncritical clod who unquestioningly obeys the dictates of The Party, whatever The Party might be. Political consumers are poison to democracy. But what is the technological citizen? By analogy, the technological citizen is somebody who takes an active stance towards technology, who is informed about the features and full scope of a given device or system, is prepared to think critically about the implications of that technology, and is not afraid to transform, adopt, or abandon technologies as alternatives become available. My friends at HeatSync Labs are great examples of technological citizens, actively experimenting with and adapting emerging technologies, and their lives have certainly been made richer through their close understanding of technology.

The challenge is therefore encouraging this new mode of technological citizenship. This will not be easy, citizenship demands deep, continuous engagement, (and political citizenship is on the decline in this country as well). And more and more technologies are becoming utilities, slick services that non-specialists can't even view, let alone think critically about. But conversely, with the internet, the cost of gaining expert technical knowledge is falling. As devices become smarter, making it easier to communicate with and analyze them should become a priority, such as a SmartGrid technology that tracks home energy usage room by room, device by device. Finally, education is a vital part of citizenship, and technological toys that are just visible enough should be developed to teach relevant skills, like computer programming, design and architecture, and ecosystems thinking. Personally, I've always been disappointed that Lego Mindstorms came out just after I lost interest in Lego; it would have made me a much better engineer. While developing technological citizenship is not easy, technological citizens will find it far easier to adapt and live in the future, and as partisan politics becomes increasing rancorous and alienating, technological citizenship may provide a new space for civic action and social development.

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