Technology and Democracy Overview
A primary duty of government, as defined in the U.S. Constitution, is to promote the General Welfare. General Welfare includes clean water, clear air, safe food, safe medicines, safe products, free public education, pay equity, universal health care, and a host of other conditions. Many publicly used, developed, or supported technological advances have played an important role in promoting and expanding the general welfare of our country, often serving a profoundly empowering function: consider technology as widely varied as the polio vaccine or radar controls for commercial airline flights. However, some publicly used, developed, or supported technological advances have been used by a minority to advance their well-being at the expense of a majority: consider high volume trading in which super speed communication lines permitted some traders to react to the same condition at higher speeds, giving this minority a trading advantage. Thus, technology, by itself, may be used for good or for ill, to promote the general welfare or to benefit only a minority at the expense of others.
For publicly used, developed, or supported technological power to promote our general welfare, democratic processes that assure costs and benefits are equitably distributed are critical to combat misuse. When technology’s benefits and costs are unequally shared and distributed in a manner that promotes more benefits to a small sector of our population, it undermines physical, social, and political equality and thus harms our democracy and our country’s general welfare. Consequently, a progressive’s core commitment to technological progress must be attentive to the connection between technology and democracy: If, and only if, publicly used, developed, or supported technology is regulated by legitimate democratic and accountable authorities to ensure that benefits, risks, and costs are fairly shared by all, can technology fulfill the ongoing emancipation of humanity promised in our constitution.