A number of these experts said that when people try to predict the future it can be helpful to look at the past and assess today’s trends. They drew parallels from the present moment to past eras and extrapolated based on current trends. This section includes comments about how the past can inform the future. These comments were selected from among all responses, regardless of an expert’s answer to this canvassing’s main question about the impact of people’s uses of technology on civic and social innovation. Remarks are organized under two subthemes: The more things change, the more they stay the same; and the future will flow from current trends.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
Many respondents to this canvassing said the story playing out today is quite similar to those of previous eras of great technological change. They pointed out that throughout history as humans have been met with new challenges they have adapted.
Rich Ling, a professor at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, an expert on the social consequences of mobile communication, wrote, “Going back beyond the Industrial Revolution, it is also useful to look at the Printing Revolution. This development led to a wide variety of positive (e.g., the Enlightenment, scientific method, the Age of Exploration) and negative consequences (e.g., the intense bloodshed associated with the Reformation). These processes took several hundred years to work themselves out. The printing press facilitated diffusing the work of Newton and Lavoisier, but the divisions associated with Luther’s Theses were profound, contributing to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the Thirty Years’ War. Hopefully, we will avoid the bad and experience the good when it comes to the IT, and now the AI revolution.”
What we are seeing is that ‘digital’ acts as a magnifier, accelerator and exacerbator of historical conduits of power that may have not been as obvious to folks before.
Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, said, “The history of 150 years of regulation of electronic media show a consistent pattern of response to the disruption caused by dramatic changes in communications technology. This is often a tug of war between emerging individual freedom and innovation and emerging gatekeeper control. So far, the need to maintain flexibility even by gatekeepers, so as to maintain their networking power, weights this balance in favor of continued innovation. Change is inevitable. Human beings are communicating social creatures, and every new disruptive innovation in communication causes significant innovation and reorganization of commerce and civic engagement. With the exception of cable television, these have ultimately proven more positive and negative. I therefore remain optimistic as to widespread positive change, especially with the rise of a more politically active socially engaged generation.”
Alexander Cho, a digital media anthropologist and postdoctoral scholar expert in youth and social media at the University of California, Irvine, commented, “The problems of the ‘digital age’ aren’t new problems. What we are seeing is that ‘digital’ acts as a magnifier, accelerator and exacerbator of historical conduits of power that may have not been as obvious to folks before. And people are already using those same digital media to try to effect change. The wellspring of attention to anti-black state violence or to unpacking the gender binary or to calling attention to wealth inequality – all of these are social and civic conversations that are not new but that have been catalyzed through digital media.”
Giacomo Mazzone, head of institutional relations, European Broadcasting Union and Eurovision, wrote, “Both scenarios could apply. But let’s privilege the positive one. The technology could help to overcome social problems. But in order to do so, there will be … the need to deal with globalization issues. In the first Industrial Revolution, conflicts were happening within the same country: The workers that were losing jobs because of the innovation, first attacked the machines (Luddism), later negotiated the introduction of the machines against some social protection measures. Today’s mechanism could allow to produce the negative impact in one country and to move the positive ones in another (i.e., close a plant that is highly labor-intensive in country A and replace it with another one very automatized and AI-assisted in country B). In this case, the risk is that negotiations that occurred in the 19th century will not be possible in the 21st. So, the first point to fix is about globalization and tax payment. After that, it would be possible to discuss the rest.”
Mark Jamison, a professor at the University of Florida and visiting scholar at American Enterprise Institute, previously manager of regulatory policy at Sprint, responded, “I believe your premise that institutional change during the Industrial Revolution resulted from harm and abuse is false. For example, children worked in agricultural societies for centuries before the Industrial Revolution. So, the reaction of child labor laws wasn’t about children being abused by having to work. It appears to me that many of the institutional changes were motivated by fear of particular kinds of change and from biases for the well-known and for protection by authority figures. Certainly, any change creates opportunities for bad actors to take advantage of persons who find themselves in unfamiliar circumstances, but there are also many good actors that use the change to do more for others. I believe this pattern is at work today, just as it has in the past.”
Melanie DuPuis, chair and professor of environmental studies and science at Pace University, said, “I have been reading David Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass. During Reconstruction and Redemption, Douglass’s speeches alternated between celebration and jeremiad. Of course, it was technology that made Douglass’s words visible to a civic public: newspaper and, interestingly, train travel. It is interesting to read about a time when things were definitely getting worse and see how someone like Douglass made sense of that. I don’t think he would have guessed that the darkness would continue so long. I think American darkness will continue but that civil society will eventually reemerge, as it has in democratic countries over the last two centuries. But what emerges has to be something different from the Democratic Party form of neoliberalism, which honest and good people find problematic. There are sincere people who care about the country who have turned to America First as a reaction to neoliberalism. I don’t blame them for that. As a university professor, I see my students as capable of the kind of civic innovation you are asking about here. That’s where my hope lies.”
John Pike, director and founder of GlobalSecurity.org, wrote, “We are now in the Second Gilded Age, dominated by a small number of stupendous companies. In the First Gilded Age the railway trust oppressed farmers and robber barons oppressed all kinds of folks, but eventually – after a few decades – that economic model was overthrown and collapsed. In principle, the Second Gilded Age should also end within a few decades. But at least the farmers could name their problem and organize for a solution. Today, how many people realize that Google is slanting search results to maximize revenue, rather than return the ‘best’ results? In the 1990s, very few people understood the Microsoft operating system monopoly, and that was simple compared with the toxic algorithms of today. Bryan could campaign for Free Silver, but what is the comparable demand today?”
Raimundo Beca, a longtime ICANN participant based in Chile, commented, “In my opinion, as in the past decades, democratic institutions will be able to use successfully any new technology. However, I believe that in the next decades innovations will continue to be introduced in a smooth way.”
Jim Cashel, author of “The Great Connecting: The Emergence of Global Broadband and How That Changes Everything,” observed, “Over the last several centuries there has been remarkable human progress in health, education, food production, environment, safety and other metrics of well-being. Progress will continue, and in many parts of the world will accelerate, due to the extension of the internet and innovations in social programs.”
Steven Miller, vice provost and professor of information systems at Singapore Management University, wrote, “Now, how will things tilt? Will the ‘bad stuff’ dominate (like the Nazis in WWII, for a while at least)? Or will more enlightened forces prevail. I am not a historian and not so well read in history, but I suspect our human history is just full of examples of both and with some periods that are ‘darker,’ more regressive and harder on people and some periods that are more progressive and more positive, at least for the greater number of people.”
A futurist and researcher expert in data and privacy said, “I don’t believe technology will ‘cause’ the social and civic evolution, but various technologies will certainly be used, or will be the basis for social and legal actions to address perceived threats and harms. I do think we will see an arc similar to the Industrial Revolution of 100 years ago and I have made this parallel myself before. We ‘innovated’ without much restraint over several decades, but as abuses and harms became evident, countervailing values pushed back with both new social norming, civic organizations, legislative actions and even constitutional amendments. We will see (we are seeing) many of the same things now – consumers demanding more nuance, transparency and control of their privacy; demanding higher security practices and standards; and looking for state and federal legislation to set boundaries based on social values rather than technological capabilities. This will be particularly applicable in machine learning (pattern-recognition) systems that are potentially incorporated into the criminal justice system, but also in personal autonomy and individual rights and freedoms balanced against perceived security benefits. There will probably be separate (but parallel) actions regarding private (corporate) data collection and management and consumer rights as opposed to government data collection and activities with impact on civil rights (mass surveillance, facial recognition, border controls). It’s a case of deciding with intent what aspects of technological capability we’re comfortable with, benefit to risk.”
A researcher for a futures research center based in Europe commented, “Humanity has always used the tools we have had at hand to produce social and civic innovations. Such positive innovations can be supported by targeting grant money and other resources to groups aiming to produce positive social and civic innovations with technology. Startups could also be included, as successful startups scale up and cross-national boundaries. This will need to be done in a ‘portfolio’ style, however. Rather than supporting a patchwork of actors to address some large issue such as foreign actors influencing public votes by distributing false story lines on social media, comprehensive bands of long-term investments must be applied to address whole situations (in this case, all free democracies need an umbrella set of efforts to fend off negative actors). This means that we now need significant resources applied to the key challenges we face socially and civically in our online habitats. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals could be used as source of thematic directions in which to apply such efforts.”
An anonymous respondent wrote, “Your analogy of the changes which occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution is apt. There is no reason to suppose that the digital revolution will be any different. The pace of change and innovation will increase. Of that I am sure. Social change will be concomitant to the role that information technology plays in the workplace, the production cycle and the dematerialisation process already in progress. Individuals will have to reevaluate their lives and their prospects. Whether the responses to change are successful or not depends on multiple factors, such as the current sophistication of societies, the perceived place of a shared morality and the level of education and awareness. The risk is the emergence of a disposed and disenchanted digital ‘proletariat’ whose response to change will be violent rather than reasoned.”
A professor of computer science said, “It took more than 100 years and the blood of many workers before a balance between capital and labor was struck in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Let’s revisit this question in 2100.”
The future – the good, the bad and the in-between – will flow from current trends
While some experts chose to point out parallels in the past, others looked to more recent events for clues about the future. Some said they see great promise on the horizon based on the evidence visible now and the social movements emerging today. Others feel disheartened and concerned about what the next decades holds, as they see growing challenges that seem to be unsurmountable by 2030.
Shel Israel, Forbes columnist and author of many business books on disruptive technologies, including “Resurrecting Trust: Technology, Transparency and the Bottom Line,” said, “There will be more disruptive innovations over the next 10 years than have occurred in the past 10. Driven by AI and immersive technologies such as AR, the lines between humans and their digital technologies will actually blur. Chatbots, for example, will transform from words appearing on screens to holograms sitting next to us that can use haptic technologies to hug us. While the primary interface between people and their machines will move from keyboards to voice interaction, brain-computer interfaces will be rapidly advancing.”
Jason Hong, a professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote, “Society is going through the early stages of massive change that will be at the same scale as the changes seen as a result of the Industrial Revolution. As such, there will be both significant winners and losers as society is slowly restructured to match the demands of the new social, political and economic landscape. For example, we’re starting to see glimpses of the future of work. We have people who are streaming what they do as they work, whether that is gaming, programming, creating art, cooking, eating (there’s even whole channels on Twitch.TV on this) and more. While I also have qualms with the whole gig economy, it has also created new kinds of short-term on-demand jobs, in the form of Uber and Lyft, Fiverr, Postmates, Mechanical Turk, UpWork, TaskRabbit and more. Technology can also dramatically lower coordination costs. As one example, in the future there might not be a need for stop signs, since autonomous vehicles would know to slow down in neighborhoods and could smoothly negotiate with other vehicles and pedestrians to go through intersections. While I confess that my crystal ball doesn’t have a clear answer, there are definitely many kinds of coordination costs that we face every day that technology could help with. Some examples include polling for what kinds of retail stores are needed in a neighborhood, routing food that would have been thrown away to people who need it, routing people who can help to people who need help (see Pittsburgh Snow Angels) and more.”
Technology designed without the end user in mind, that does not take policy into account from the start, and that is developed from a pure technology focus will only create new problems.
Kathleen M. Carley
Michael Pilos, chief marketing officer at FirePro, London, commented, “Technology has consistently improved communication and transparency across the globe. Nothing will change that now. People are just intimidated because they only see a small part of the human story.”
Garland McCoy, president, Technology Education Institute, responded, “This is a no-brainer! Postindustrial, information-age countries all have consumer-driven economies. What consumers want the market or government or both provides, and so it will be in this important area.”
Kenneth Cukier, senior editor at The Economist and coauthor of “Big Data,” predicted, “What the open-source software movement did for business it will do for politics. Already, groups of pioneering software coders are getting together and developing tools that enable the public to weigh on in politics – it even has a name: ‘civic tech.’ A new generation of citizen simply expects politics to be as efficient as Uber and Netflix – and if it isn’t, they’re working to change that.”
Kathleen M. Carley, director of the Center for Computational Analysis of Social and Organizational Systems at Carnegie Mellon University, said, “Technology use will both contribute to and prevent innovation and successful civic response to the problems emerging in digital media. Technology designed without the end user in mind, that does not take policy into account from the start, and that is developed from a pure technology focus will only create new problems. Computational social science and computational policy need to be brought to the fore as leaders in developing new social cybersecurity technology and the associated policies. While there is much goodwill to do things for good, there is still an overriding economic force to build technologies and engage in innovation just for profit.”
David J. Wierz, senior principal at The OCI Group, commented, “Technology should provide a common platform facilitating the development and evolution of organizations, legislation and regulation to mitigate disruption as well as displacement. What appears is more an increasing situation of entrenchment or using institutional means to insulate technology platforms and providers from normative engagement that fosters alleviation of the concerns often created by the platforms and providers.”
Andrea Romaoli Garcia, an international tax lawyer actively involved with multi-stakeholder activities of the International Telecommunication Union and Internet Society, wrote, “The changes are positive despite the political, social and economic challenges that policymakers, rulers, governments, scientists, engineers and everyone that is working in a technological industry is facing. Countries with healthy economies invest in trade and foreign relations. Kindly note that the countries with high technological and economic level where citizens experience a full social life are countries with high level of respect for human rights. They are countries that have incorporated in the internal laws the norms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An example: the humanitarian crisis that Venezuela is experiencing. The country suffers from food shortages, economic crisis and a collapsed health system. More than 3 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015. The government there has no support from the citizens. On the other hand, we have technologies like artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, big data and blockchain – combined, these are bringing breakthroughs and solutions. The maximization of tax application as well as state cash flow can be increased through the elimination of criminal financial activities such as money laundering and corruption – too much public money is flowing that way. Artificial intelligence is bringing effects like cures for physical disabilities – it is wonderful. And what do I see ahead? Hyperglobalization has international trade at the point that links human survival and government decisions to a very high level of dependency. A larger participation by citizens in political discussions will be improved by technologies and responsible international cooperation.”
Scott MacLeod, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Colorado, Denver, said, “I think success in social and civic innovation is likely. It may come to pass with groups responding to problems created by information technologies via new information technologies. I think MIT’s and in particular [former] MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito’s focus on issues of racism in artificial intelligence and facial recognition is a good of example of this.”
Peter B. Reiner, professor of neuroethics at the University of British Columbia, commented, “I am confident that technology will contribute to social and civic innovation. As I peruse the landscape, I see many earnest and smart people working hard to improve the somewhat dispiriting situation that we currently find ourselves in. One encouraging example: Only a few years ago, there was little interest in technology ethics. Today, interest is keen, and not just from technology developers but also from the world at large. These are the exact conditions that foster innovation in this realm.”
Flynn Ross, a member of the Maine Humanities Council, wrote, “As the mother of two teenagers (screenagers), I see what quick access they have to events and information. My younger daughter is on feeds that are more pop culture while my older daughter is on more feeds that are critical social movements. We talk about what information they are getting and where it is coming from. As an education professor who is in schools often, I see that the CNN and CBS news that is piped into schools tends to have an industrialized military orientation. This is a powerful tool with a captive audience. In Maine, the 1:1 laptop initiatives and teacher access to the internet for curriculum materials offer the potential power for teachers to create curriculum to help students become critical consumers of information and active citizens. This is tremendous.”
Only a few years ago, there was little interest in technology ethics. Today, interest is keen, and not just from technology developers but also from the world at large.
Peter B. Reiner
Torben Riise, CEO at ExecuTeam Inc., responded, “It is a matter of opinion if changes are significant, but technology has the potential to make significant changes in civic areas. Most likely, however, the changes will come either in small groups of society or in small countries, like what we currently see in Finland and Lithuania. These units will increasingly experiment with everything from UBI [universal basic income], blockchain elections, swarm intelligence decision-making, and youth parliaments. The driving force will be the success of these experiments in ‘small’ civics groups. Corporations, unions and other organizations will follow up and, eventually – very likely by 2030 – societies around the world will follow through. Exploiting this potential requires significant investment in making societies ‘tech mature,’ starting in K-12 school systems, and it requires technology systems that are safe and unbreakable.”
Camille Crittenden, deputy director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society at the University of California, Berkeley, commented, “Digital tools and platforms will undoubtedly contribute to social and civic innovation in the future. Social media has contributed to movements for labor organizing, issue-driven campaigns and political parties already. These trends will continue as new platforms are developed and participants become more familiar with their interfaces and affordances.”
Miguel Moreno, a professor of philosophy at the University of Granada, Spain, an expert in ethics, epistemology and technology, said, “Attempts to control information flows and limit freedom of expression and political organisation have contributed to the development of new communication, protection and encryption tools for communications. While these tools have enhanced the capacity for civic mobilization and articulation of social response, the level of technical literacy and the culture of privacy required for their implementation are not evolving as rapidly as desirable for a significant part of the population. Nevertheless, there has been progress in the adoption of new models of intellectual property (open access licenses, Creative Commons), in access to culture (music and video streaming platforms) and in the dissemination of knowledge (open science initiatives and open books), which show the social capacity to face large monopolies in the digital content industry.”
Richard Culatta, CEO of ISTE and a futurist and consultant, wrote “We are already seeing many examples of tech being used to address tough social problems (tools that allow you to take pictures of hotel rooms to stop human trafficking, apps that help identify public infrastructure that needs be fixed, etc.). However, to have widespread social and civic innovation we must be much more intentional about teaching our children to view tech as a problem-solving tool. There are several initiatives that are helping here. First, there is a broad movement to teach computational thinking to all students across the country (helping them view tech as a tool they can design and control, not just use). Second, the DigCitCommit movement provides a concrete set of competencies for students to learn and practice using technology specifically to reinforce our democracy and strengthen our virtual communities.”
Susan Price, founder and CEO of Firecat Studio, a user-centered design and communication technologies expert, said, “We’re already seeing substantial efforts toward civic innovation. In San Antonio, Texas, and in our neighboring community, Austin. Several groups sponsor and promote civic innovation, and they’re working together to achieve synergy, inviting the public to engage at various points, investing in expert facilitation, surveys, making public data more easily findable and usable and issuing calls to citizens and stakeholders to use the data to solve problems. I’m personally involved in several public/private partnerships, as a vendor/consultant and as a citizen. The problems of public emotional, mental and physical health as we adapt to a lifestyle that is less active, more focused on electronics, will be slower to solve.”
Devin Fidler, futures strategist and founder of Rethinkery Labs, responded, “It depends if these questions primarily refer to the U.S. or to the world as a whole. … The Ukraine’s Prozorro anti-corruption platform, for example, is an interesting deployment of civic technology that is already ahead of anything the U.S. has developed at a national level and is already being adopted by other EU countries. Similarly, Estonia is experimenting with organizational technologies around e-citizenship and a rethinking of what it means to be a citizen of a particular society. Even China’s social credit system is an attempt to harness public-sector organizational technologies in new ways, albeit ways that are not in alignment with traditional democratic values. From the U.S. there is mostly silence. It may be that technology development and innovation here is so wedded to the venture capitalist and Crossing the Chasm models that civic innovation is actually an uphill battle relative to other regions.”
David J. Krieger, director of the Institute for Communication and Leadership, based in Switzerland, wrote, “The socio-technical ensemble of the digital age promotes connectivity, the flow of information, communication, participation, transparency and authenticity. These new ‘network norms’ represent in themselves a social and civic innovation challenging the foundations of Western industrial society. History shows that the wider distribution and increased accessibility of information transforms traditional practices and institutions ushering in new forms of business, improved health care, better education and more democratic politics. An economy of scarcity in information is being replaced by an economy of abundance dismantling hierarchies, delegitimating command and control communication and shifting regulatory measures from centralized government to cooperative forms of governance. The digital age is characterized by innovation and change and not by stability and tradition.”
A futurist and technology advocate commented, “We’re on the brink of a change of pathways. However, I see that as several years away. The reign of Trump and other nay-sayers will lead to a countermovement that will bring about sweeping changes in the digital world. We will see a privacy set of laws similar to Europe. We’ll see the breakup of monopolies like Google that will generate new innovations.”
A technologist for a top-five global technology company said, “The EU is the biggest social experiment in the world, where sovereign nations agree to pool some sovereignty to benefit the larger group collectively. Despite the negative impact of Brexit, some expansion of the EU is again being discussed. There are some worrying signs of bad behavior by some existing members including Poland and Hungary, but I still believe in the potential for the emergence of a stable, democratically based EU that remains strong in the world. Technology can help in many ways and has already done so. Estonia is an example of a single innovative EU country that can now be used by entrepreneurs as an EU base, with all services exercised securely electronically.”
A distinguished professor of electrical engineering and computer science at a U.S. university who is an expert in the future of communications networks, wrote, “It is certainly possible to harness information technology in a way that would foster social and civic innovation. However, current trends are in the opposite direction due to a number of factors such as: the emergence of for-profit monopoly platforms that are primarily designed to generate revenue rather than creating or improving civic institutions, an emerging consensus that values profit over privacy in most Western societies, the inability of existing legal and political systems to deal with fundamental changes being driven by information technology, etc. Of course, analogous to the changes that followed the Industrial Revolution, it is possible that post-information revolution societies will operate in a chaotic way for a few decades, followed by a reform movement aiming to mitigate the damage caused by unregulated use of information technology. Some of the solutions that need to be considered include new legal frameworks for IT, strong privacy protections, limits to the use of social media for political and business purposes, and so on. Ultimately, this may require a fundamental redesign of some of the dominant technology platforms to make them more socially responsible and citizen-friendly.”
A longtime participant in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) commented, “Society has been getting more divided into ideological camps over the last decade, and each of the camps has been using technology to try to disrupt the others. I do not see that changing, and such divisions will tend to stifle social progress.”
A director of entrepreneurship and innovation at a major technological university wrote, “We see these changes happening already. Groups can form more naturally around affinities and proclivities. Communication and constancy of presence through digital means will prevail. Brown University broke through every singly previous alumni participation record the university had seen – almost by 5X – when it allowed alums to engage digitally. Every single new technology application has been adopted faster and deeper. There are dystopian visions, sure (see ‘Years and Years’ on HBO), but on the whole people are more civically engaged. There’s no way the Women’s March on D.C. could’ve happened absent Facebook and Twitter. Or the democratic demonstrations in Hong Kong. And these changes are irreversible. There is a nascent movement in – of all places – Cuba because of the spread of smartphones.”
An IETF participant said, “I already see a yearning for civic engagement of greater depth and nuance and a growing fatigue with the atmosphere of contempt that permeates social media. I suspect the extremism growing over the past two decades is within a decade of prompting a backlash among the silent majority of conservatives, liberals and moderates who just want institutions and policies that work, along with measured, gradual experimentation at the margins rather than vain attempts at revolutionary progress.”