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Bringing the humanities into the tech conversation
Let's build a tech future that retains its humanity and saves the humanities
For more than a year, I’ve lamented how tech events I attend never have any public historians on the panels.
That changed in New York last week when the public historian on the panel was, well, me.
The event was the Tech & Democracy Summit hosted by the Consulate General of Canada and the nonprofit All Tech is Human. Among the speakers were representatives from Microsoft, Accenture, the Knight First Amendment Institute, Tech Policy Press, Bloomberg, Harvard and me representing the History Communication Institute.
I admit that I was slightly nervous before I went on stage. I’d lobbied for the voices of humanists and historians to be part of the conversation, but would the audience be receptive?
Much to my delight, they were. The audience agreed that a better tech future includes historical perspectives and insights from humanities scholars and students—so much that I received a round of applause!
So, for this week’s newsletter, allow me to share with you some of what I said during the event, as well as some of the reactions.
My panel was about preserving democracy in the face of rising digital repression. If you’re interested in this subject, I’d recommend reading my friend Steven Feldstein’s book The Rise of Digital Repression: How Technology is Reshaping Power, Politics, and Resistance. The book, which recently won the Grawemeyer Award, examines how governments around the world use surveillance tactics and disinformation campaigns—enabled by technology—to monitor their citizens and suppress dissent.
My first observation was to link Steve’s work with a visit I made to the Stasi Museum in Berlin, Germany, last summer. At the Stasi Museum—which is an amazing institution worth a visit—one can see the instruments of repression employed by the Ministry of State Security of East Germany during the Cold War: cameras on street corners, listening devices in people’s homes, recording devices hidden inside everyday objects, and large files of data on individuals. The surveillance was undergirded by a system of loyalty and rewards. Walk the party line, and you were rewarded with money, an apartment, and a comfortable lifestyle; speak against it, and your reputation and life were at risk.
As I emerged from the museum last summer, it dawned on me that the surveillance system that democracies had fought so vigorously against had, a generation later, become omnipresent in all of our lives. Our cities have cameras on every street corner. We have listening and tracking devices in each of our pockets. Large dossiers of data exist about all of us. How did this happen?
This is a historical question, one that historians and humanities scholars are well-positioned to answer. My point was not to equate our governments with the Stasi (though if you read Steve’s book, there are governments that bear an eerie resemblance). Rather, it was to recognize that when we look into the past, it changes how we view our present. Instead of seeing surveillance and disinformation as post-2016 phenomena, a historical perspective reveals them as much longer, troubling trends. What if democracies learned the wrong lessons from the Cold War, embracing the very forms of repression they once fought against?
The second point I raised on the panel was in response to a question about threats to democracy. One of the biggest threats to democracy, I argued, is corruption. Democracies are intended to hold people in power accountable, but corruption undermines that ability. The World Bank has an index where it tracks elements of democracy in different countries and assigns them a score; it is no surprise that in autocratic countries, control-of-corruption scores are low. In the United States, our scores have been declining. Whereas the U.S. once consistently scored in the 90s for control of corruption, for the past five years we have been in the 80s, and the past two years in the low 80s. More corruption breeds more cynicism, distrust and unrest—and if anyone has followed American politics for the past few years, one has seen plenty of each. I challenged the tech workers at the summit to use their brilliance to develop “anti-corruption tech.” The trouble with corruption, though, is that people often secretly aspire to benefit from it, hence they are loathe to restrict it.
Another threat to democracy, I suggested, is media consolidation. Media critics have been warning about the consolidation of newspapers (called “roll-up”) for more than a decade (see this 2011 article by Nieman Lab). Media consolidation is happening worldwide, and in the United States newspapers have been purchased by hedge funds such as Alden Global Capital, which has proceeded to slash journalists, editors, categories of coverage and entire publications. Just this week, Nieman Lab reported on America’s largest newspaper chain, Gannett, which in the past four years has eliminated half of its jobs. The control of more publications by fewer corporate entities reduces the diversity of viewpoints we hear and news we receive. Historically, I argued, some of our most valuable archival records are independent and alternative newspapers from prior eras (think about the abolitionist press of the 19th century, for example, and how valuable that has been to our understandings of American history). Democracy requires a diverse and independent media landscape, and today independent media lives on platforms such as Substack, YouTube, and thousands of podcasts and blogs. Those media need our financial support more than the New York Times ($2.3 billion in annual revenue) or The Washington Post (owned by a billionaire).
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The third point I raised was in response to a prompt about what governments can do to aid democracy in the face of digital repression. My answer was simple: allow us to vote on it. In an American context, so many of the decisions made by the federal government about data collection and surveillance are made without the input of voters. Often times decisions are made behind the veil of national security, or within Executive Branch agencies where civil servants are not accountable to the electoral process. When we have elections, our candidates and media coverage too often focus on palace intrigue or interpersonal issues. Journalists and voters should demand transparency from elected officials and government agencies about the numerous ways we are surveilled. For example, in 2021 a U.S. Senate investigation revealed that the Department of Commerce had been illegally surveilling its Asian American workforce for 15 years. These government agencies work for the American people and are funded by our tax dollars; we have a right to know what they are doing.
My final point was the one that generated the applause. The question was what responsibility corporations have to a better tech future, to which I answered:
“All tech should involved the humanities. The humanities in the U.S. and around the world are in crisis… departments are closing, faculty are being laid off… and part of it is because corporations have made a push from K all the way through 12 for students to go into S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering and math)… What responsibilities do corporations have? I think they have a responsibility to bring humanists into the conversation, to bring the humanities into the conversation, and to invest in the humanities… I want to be sure we have a tech future that not only retains its humanity but doesn’t destroy the humanities.”
To receive an applause after delivering such remarks was quite heartwarming. Following the panel, several people approached me to say they appreciated my words. One woman told me that after she took social science classes in graduate school, she never looked at her job in tech the same way again. It turns out that a lot of people believe strongly that the humanities and social sciences have a critical role to play in a better tech future, if only we invited them into the conversation. That is what we are working on at the History Communication Institute, building bridges and partnerships between history, the humanities and tech.
It should be noted that All Tech is Human and the Canadian Consulate did offer me a role at this event. For that, they are to be commended. I hope this is just the beginning, and indeed, at the summit I met representatives from the Integrity Institute, who invited me to join them for a podcast episode where we debated these issues in greater depth. The person who interviewed me, it turned out, was a former Twitter employee who loves philosophy!
The more I speak about History, Disrupted and the History Communication Institute, and the more people I meet worldwide, the more I believe that we have created a false dichotomy between S.T.E.M. and the humanities. I don’t believe it is the case that tech wants little to do with humanistic ways of thinking, or that the humanities have no interest in engaging with tech. In fact, I have found the opposite; both are interested in engaging with each other. All disciplines have a role to play in formulating a vision for our tech and democratic future, and government, corporations and taxpayers have a responsibility to ensure those interdisciplinary conversations occur. Through coalitions and collaborations we can design tech platforms that safeguard human rights and hold those in power accountable. There is a real appetite for it; we just have to be intentional about making it happen. This event was a terrific start.
Have a good week,
P.S. - Also this week, I sat down with VICE journalist Claire Woodcock to talk about History, Disrupted in an event hosted by the Internet Archive and the Authors Alliance. More than 200 people attended, and it was a fun conversation. You can watch it here.
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