technology and democracy reaction paper

My guess is you’ve never considered a relationship between technology and democracy except maybe to think about electronic voting (and more recently, its hacking vulnerabilities.)

Your readings include two classic articles by Richard Sclove and by Langdon Winner and a more recent article from Issues in Science and Technology. Winner and Sclove introduce the relationship between technologies and organizational structures. Each structure has its own corresponding democratic implications. The more current article by Jones and Reinecke will look at the history of democratizing efforts.

Before I go on, I want to share the definition that I like for political process. I think it’s relevant. According to political scientist Harold Laswell, the political process is “the process by which it is decided who gets what, when they get it and how they get it.” The opposite is also true. Since there are hardly ever enough resources to go around, the decision of who gets what will most likely, by default, decide who doesn’t get what. (When? Last or never.) And notice this definition doesn’t say anything about government. Workplaces have politics, as do families and friend groups. Keep that in mind as you consider these articles.

In the Winner article it’s the story of urban planner, Robert Moses, and his bridges that gets me cranked up. Robert Moses had a vision for the Greater New York City area that was very car-centered. He also wanted beautiful public beaches on Long Island. But didn’t want ALL of the public there. To get from NYC to these beaches, the road (parkway) he built detoured around the estates of the wealthy but cut the property of many farmers in half, often ruining them. (He called his roads parkways to avoid a public approval process.) The technology he used to discriminate was bridges. He used low-clearance bridges (one is pictured in the banner for this module) to keep out busses, that is, public transportation. The ironic thing is he never learned to drive. He always had a driver.

In the Sclove article, I’m struck by the story of running water coming to Ibieca. I like running water but I never thought about its isolating effect until reading this article. I don’t want to go back to the village washbasin to do my laundry but I am concerned about our diminished civic life. Likewise with air-conditioning, small porches and neighborhoods without sidewalks…

Let’s also think about the Rudi Volti definition of technology: “Technology is a system based on the application of knowledge, manifested in physical objects and organizational forms, for the attainment of specific goals.”

To me the most important take-away from these three pieces is that technologies, once created and adopted establish systems for use. Any system likely benefits some people more than others. What do we need to consider as we adopt new technologies or create new systems for existing technologies to encourage democratic access? That’s the key question. Here are the specifics to which you are to respond in your paper.

DIRECTIONS: FOR EACH OF THE THREE ARTICLES, BEFORE RESPONDING TO THE PROMPT, BRIEFLY SUMMARIZE AND IDENTIFY THE MAIN THEME OF THE ARTICLE. Title each section with the authors’ last name(s). Don’t forget to substantively reference the articles when responding to the prompts.

Winner Prompt: Apply Winners ideas about democratic (flexible) technologies to the system that has developed around our car-driven (no pun intended) society. Go back to Module 3. In a lecture for that module, the class and I talked about the pros and cons of cars. Some of those pros and cons had to do with the system that has been established in which our automobile society operates. Before cars, cities were “walking cities.” That means that people had to live close to where they worked, worshiped and shopped. Often that was close to family, also. Your “world” was smaller when you lived in a “walking city” but you also had more face-to-face interaction on the way. Today most cities are organized around cars. It is difficult, unless you live in someplace like NYC where more than half the residents don’t have cars, to be truly independent without a car. 1) Talk about the system established by automobile drivership. 2) Who has benefitted? Who has been harmed? 3) What would the challenges be to changing to a system based more on public transportation and trains like they have in Europe? (This is not a question about Robert Moses and his bridges, but you can take some cues from that story.)

Sclove Prompt: 1) How are “things” that are isolating less democratic? (The underlying question is, why is isolation bad for democracy?) 2) What’s the role of technology in both isolating us and bringing us together? Use examples from the Sclove essay to show a more democratic use and a less democratic use of the same technology and its system.

Jones and Reinecke Prompt: 1) How should we define success for infrastructure? Explain why by discussing an example from the article. 2) What is our role as citizens in making sure that everyone in our country has access to quality infrastructure?