Ethical Imperatives of the Information Revolution

Michael Jensen

given at the Unitarian Church, Lincoln, NE June 1995

Five years ago, I wrote a sort of novel for the Ted Turner Tomorrow Award, which was to award a half-million-dollars for a winning entry outlining a benign future where social problems had been solved. My framework posited a president who, via popular support acquired from a five-day series of televised presentations, initiated a program of heavy investment in digital technologies to transform the country by enfranchising the disempowered, developed digital libraries and distance education, used the Online Freedom of Information Act to provide universal oversight of government agencies, initiated a community-based expertise-bartering system, and funded a programmer's consortium for the creation of socially beneficial software, among other things.

The novel is outdated now, and is far too long to summarize here. And needless to say, it didn't win. The premises underlying it, and the thinking I had to do to create it, however, have stayed with me ever since. I'm convinced that digital technologies could be used by an enlightened government to create a better society. And I'm convinced that digital technologies could be used by an enlightened society to create a better government.

The question is not "could they be used," but "will they." I want to spend the four minutes I have left to go on an idealistic rant.

The problems besetting our nation are diverse, and are embedded in a late-capitalist system which is unlikely to change. An increasingly violent society. A widening gap between the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the powerful and the powerless. A society where self-interest is encouraged because the benefits of altruism have evaporated with the loss of community. The oligarchy of multinational corporations. The apathy of a benumbed populace channel-surfing between visions of mad bombers, extreme sports, and "Married with Children." Corporate welfare kings shoving laws banning AFDC payments down the throats of a manipulable electorate of self-interested consumers. Newt Gingrich vying with JoJo the Wonder Dawg for market share.

How do we find hope in the face of this awfulness? Why should we look to technology for an answer, when power- and capital-concentrating systems have always depended on technology as its weapon?

Because digital communications technologies are our only hope. It can break the hegemony of the plutocrats. It can connect people without intermediation. It can allow new forms of community, new means of education, and new interpretations of what it means to be an American.

The digital revolution is one of our last chances to regain control of our government. If any voter can hook into a federal database which enumerates every PAC contribution and special-interest payment to a politician's reelection fund, don't you think that would change the patterns? If the EPA's toxic-effluent data was available to every citizen, and easy correlation software was available, wouldn't that force more responsible behavior? If archives of news were as easy to access as the current newspaper, with full text searching, wouldn't that put a crimp in the habit of waiting out a scandal until it fades from the radar screen of the disposable moment?

The current media are based on a broadcast framework: one newspaper is replicated thousands of times once a day; television is sent from one site to anyone who wants it; radio is broadcast from one site to everyone. It's trickle-down mediation. Our choices are between the heavily filtered news on ABC or the heavily filtered news on CNN, or PBS, or NPR. The Internet, that anarchic, nobody-in-control web of individual machines passing bits on to anybody else's--the Internet is where people talk with people, where cooperation is encouraged, and is even built into the protocols underlying it. See, nobody owns the Internet. It belongs to everybody who is participating.

The point that we have been seduced into forgetting is that our job as enlightened citizens--not consumers--is to envision a world of quality, and fairness, and humanitarianism, and then make it happen. The principles I hold true about society--where community is encouraged, where the desires of the few don't outweigh the needs of the many, where mechanisms are in place that foster communication, and active involvement, and personal development--these principles are easier for me to imagine manifest in a fully interconnected society than in a society controlled by the powerful. We have the technology, the infrastructure, and the means to achieve these ends. What we don't have is enough people aware of the potentials agitating, speaking out, insisting that we craft these new technologies to the service of the citizens.

The revolution is one of communication--communication between people, rather than from the mediators to us. The tools are cheap, the mechanisms are understandable, and the capabilities are as broad as our imagination can make them. If we let the media giants--the Rupert Murdochs, the Disney Bells, the Time Warners of the world--set the agenda, then the digital revolution will become another broadcast medium, where we use Netscape to choose between Married with Children, Newt Gingrich, or JoJo the Wonder Dog. We must not let that happen. Instead, people of conscience must get involved, must learn about the real potential, and must speak out. Then, perhaps, we can make a revolution that makes a difference.

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