“Never in the history of the world was society in so terrific flux as it is right now,” Jack London wrote in Iron Heel, his 1908 dystopian novel in which a corporate oligarchy comes to rule the United States. He wrote, “The swift changes in our industrial system are causing equally swift changes in our religious, political, and social structures. An unseen and fearful revolution is taking place in the fiber and structure of society. One can only dimly feel these things, but they are in the air, now, today.”
Progressivism was the reform movement that unfolded from the late 19th century through the first decades of the 20th century, during which leading intellectuals and social reformers in the United States and Europe sought to address the economic, political, and cultural questions that had arisen in the context of the rapid changes brought with the Industrial Revolution and the growth of modern capitalism in America.
Today we face a similar challenge brought about by technological achievements requiring a new order appropriate for our digital information age. As progressives, we typically recognize these technological achievements in the digital information age have the potential to improve our world and benefit us all. However, as progressives, we cannot mistake such scientific or technological achievement as societal improvements unless and until they are accompanied by a just distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of these new knowledges and capacities.
Unfortunately, current technological changes outpace rules and regulations governing their equitable distribution and use. And, in many instances, technology in our current day benefits only a small, wealthy segment of our population while placing disproportionate costs on other population segments. As progressives, it is our duty to act to assure a just distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of all publicly used, developed, or supported technologies.
As Teddy Roosevelt said in 1901, “The great corporations which we have grown to speak of rather loosely as trusts are the creatures of the State, and the State not only has the right to control them, but it is in duty bound to control them wherever the need of such control is shown.”