Why ThinkProgress needs a Technology channel

ThinkProgress.org is losing one if its major voices – blogger Matt Yglesias – to Slate, which is as good a reason as any for me to lay out an idea I pitched on Twitter a few weeks ago. As ThinkProgress (TP from here on) considers how to make up for the traffic Yglesias will inevitably take with him, it should consider adding a channel dedicated specifically to Technology.

This may end up being a fairly long post, but ultimately what I hope to argue is simple:

1. Technology and technological change are seldom, if ever, politically neutral.
2. Covering technology through the various lenses of the economy, the environment, etc. is necessary but inadequate; technology is its own useful lens for thinking about the world.

So… why does TP need a technology channel?

Technology is changing the nature of jobs and work

Technology is always transforming the way we work. New technologies are constantly displacing workers, but – so the story goes – by enhancing productivity, technology also creates wealth (and jobs) that more than make up for the initial displacement. Assuming that’s the case, it is imperative that society help prepare workers for new jobs, assuage their fears of new technology, and ensure that an adequate safety net does exist. In my view, much of the fear of technology comes from public misunderstanding of the relationship between technology, productivity, and prosperity. That we are currently facing a jobs crisis makes this imperative all the more pressing.

There is, however, another view that has garnered attention as of late. This view holds that technological change is accelerating so quickly that human labor cannot keep up. You can read about it here and here. If this view is right, it’s even more obvious that we need to closely consider our relationship with technology.

Technology is reshaping the public sphere

This is perhaps the most obvious sense in which technology is political, as anyone who cares about what TP names its content channels well knows. Has the internet revolution made the public sphere any more democratic? Here there are competing views. Yochai Benkler presents evidence that it has in The Wealth of Networks. Matthew Hindman makes a compelling case that it has not in The Myth of Digital Democracy. This question matters tremendously, and the way that we build and use technology can have major ramifications for our politics.

There is also the digital divide to consider. As political speech and activism continues to migrate online, it is important to consider who does and does not have access to the digital public sphere. The availability of technology – along with the requisite skills to effectively use it – poses a major justice consideration.

A challenge to the free market paradigm

I’ve written previously that our experience with the internet thus far “invites us to question some of the most basic premises that have led us to organize our society around the market.” Most of us liberals accept the efficacy of markets, provided they are properly regulated and supplemented by a safety net. But this isn’t out of any deep love for capitalism.

What we see when we look at Wikipedia or Linux leads us to directly question the assumption that humans are basically self-interested. Similarly, new models for aggregating information online are relevant to Hayekian justifications built around the difficulties of aggregating preferences.

To be less theoretical: open source and similar models of collaboration offer a production model that in many ways fits better with liberals’ preference for justice and equality. Liberals need to be paying more attention to open source software and similar experiments, and thinking deeply about how such models might be adopted in as of yet unexplored domains.

Privacy, corporations and user control

Technology now allows both corporations and the government to gain unbelievably detailed knowledge about consumers. Many if not most users have no idea the information they are making available when they surf, communicate and shop online. To make matters more complicated, giving sites access to personal information can in many cases be quite useful. There is an argument for highly targeted ads, for restaurant recommendations based on your social network and current location, etc. That makes the challenge of protecting privacy in this day and age all the more challenging.

What rights do we have when we go online? Will the onus to protect privacy fall solely on the user? Or will websites and the corporations behind them bear some of the burden? These questions are fraught with difficulty, but they cannot go unanswered.

Technology is not a black box

My aim so far was to demonstrate that technology is political in nature. Technology, broadly defined, is the practical application of knowledge, and in that sense it overlaps with nearly everything TP writes about. So why is it necessary to have a separate Technology channel? Why not just cover technology as it relates to the economy, to the environment, to justice, etc.?

I want to give two reasons. The first is a simple case of focus and bandwidth. Everyone is inundated with information and stretched thin these days, and I’m sure the TP writers are no exception. With so much to write about in any of the TP channels, technology issues will necessarily be a mere piece of each one’s focus. But, as we’ve seen, technology is an essential piece to any number of challenges that the world faces.

Perhaps more importantly, a direct focus on technology would help move beyond the notion of technology as a black box, or as a given. Too often, all of us tend to consider technologies only as they exist, rather than as they might exist. Technology is, by definition, created by humans. As such, it is a mistake to ignore the process by which technology comes to exist.

And yet that is what we frequently do. Even the discipline of economics treated technological change as “exogenous” until recently; it was a separate process that just happened. Now, more attention is paid to the circumstances under which technological progress happens, and some of this – like advocating for R&D – fits nicely under discussion of the economy. But a TP Technology channel could spend considerable effort considering not just the use of and access to technology, but debating, informing, and influencing the very process by which technology is created.

Are open software systems better for the public than closed systems? When is the use of digital rights management (DRM) technologies justified? Should the government be using only open source software? Do incentives exist for mobile payment technologies that actually aim to help consumers improve purchasing habits? How can we make it easier for users to recognize and control the extent to which they are tracked online?

To think about these questions from the perspective of technology is ask both: how can we design systems that further liberal goals; and what barriers exist to the creation of such systems that we might mitigate through policy or other means. A TP Technology channel would consider technological development as a process to be optimized, rather than just something that happens and then gets put to work.

Why ThinkProgress?

The arguments I’ve made apply broadly to organizations and publications covering politics. I’d like to see Technology called out as a focus at The American Prospect and The Nation too (props to TPM for having a Tech channel). But the rare combination of its youth and prominence makes TP an ideal target. TP functions as both a rapid-response network helping liberals fight back against the right, as well as a home for up-and-coming liberal writers. It should set an example by making Technology a focus.

The center and right tend to assume technological change will work out for the best, ignoring issues of distribution, access, cost, etc. But considerable portions of the left view technology primarily as a risk or disturbance, rather than an opportunity. In reality, technology is a driver of economic growth, of welfare enhancements, and of sustainability. But it is also a process. Liberals need to engage that process to ensure that it meets our goals. I’d love to see TP give it a shot.