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Democracy and Emergent Technology

IN AN EFFORT TO MAKE SENSE OF THE CIVIC CONSEQUENCES of the ongoing technological revolutions in our midst, the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, in partnership with Perry World House, will devote a yearlong series in 2022-23 to exploring various intersections of technology and politics. Topics will include such issues as the role of race in shaping the often disparate impacts of technology, and what this means for democracy; the potential benefits and drawbacks of smart cities for sustainability and civic engagement; the relationship of Big Tech to democratic institutions and values; recent, technologically driven trends in the democratization of finance; examination of current and anticipated technological developments surrounding warfare; the relationship of technology to the question for economic democracy; and the technological features of the security state in China, and other similar regimes, and their impact on civic life.

Digital Democracy: The Estonian Experiment

View the video of the event here.

SINCE THE RESTORATION OF ITS INDEPENDENCE in 1991, Estonia has become a global leader in e-governance. It is the first country to let people from anywhere in the world become one of its 100,000 e-residents, among them Trevor Noah and Angela Merkel. This focus on digital can bring real benefits. All Estonian citizens must register for an electronic ID, and can use it to vote online, register a company in a matter of hours, or declare their taxes in just three minutes. However, it also comes with significant vulnerabilities. In 2007, just seven years after the e-Estonia project began, the country was hit by one of the world’s largest ever cyberattacks. It took down not just government websites but banks, communications systems, and the media. As technology continues to develop, how will Estonia find new ways to bring e-governance to its people? How can it manage fresh challenges? And how can Estonia’s experience as a digital democracy inform other countries’ policies?

Join Perry World House and the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy for the final installment of this year-long series on Democracy and Emergent Technology, examining the intersection of emergent technologies, politics, and democracy. Hear from Estonia’s Ambassador to the United States KRISTJAN PRIKK about his country’s history pioneering the concept of e-governance and the challenges ahead. Moderated by MAIA OTARASHVILI.

Reimagining Work and Consumption in a Connected World

View the video of the event here.

Read an essay by TREBOR SCHOLZ here.
Read an essay by JULIET SCHOR here.

A panel discussion with TREBOR SCHOLZ (New School) and JULIET SCHOR (Boston College), moderated by BENJAMIN SHESTAKOFSKY (University of Pennsylvania).

WHEN SPEAKING OF COMPANIES SUCH AS UBER AND LYFT, commentators often use the terms “sharing economy” and “gig economy” interchangeably, even though they point to diametrically opposed visions of economic life. It raises the question of exactly when, and how, the idea of using the internet to share resources outside of market channels became the practice of employing – and often exploiting – informal workers as a way to sidestep regulated markets. Our panelists address the realities of today, but also the very real possibilities of transforming labor and consumption in the future.

A panel discussion with MELISSA FLAGG (Perry World House Fellow) and REBECCA SLAYTON (Cornell), moderated by SUSAN LINDEE (University of Pennsylvania).

FOR CENTURIES, WARFARE HAS BEEN A SPUR TO TECHNOLOGICAL innovations that have spilled over into civilian use, often with great benefits to society at large. The breakthrough technologies of World War II, and the continued high level of funding for military research that followed, accelerated this process, profoundly shaping our current lives. But the effects run in the other direction as well: as technologies are disseminated and transformed through commercial use, it creates new threats and opportunities for military operations. Our panelists explore both how the military can more effectively incubate new technologies and the implications, in arenas such as cyber, of losing its monopoly on their use.

Democratizing Finance for Real in the Age of Blockchain

View the video of the event here.

A panel discussion with JANE KHODARKOVSKY (Celo General Counsel) and MICHAEL MCCARTHY (Marquette University), moderated by RISHIN SHARMA (Stevens Center for Innovation in Finance, U. Penn).

GIVEN THAT WEALTH INEQUALITY IS DRIVEN IN LARGE PART by the difference in the rewards that go to wage workers vs. investors, democratizing finance so that more of the public can reap those rewards – and, even more importantly, have a meaningful say in investment decisions – can arguably help create a more just society. Emerging technologies, from blockchain and cryptocurrency to meme stocks and NFTs, seem to offer paths to this wider participation in finance. Our panelists lay out the promise of such technologies, but also grapple with the risk, in the absence of other reforms, that they may merely increase the number of bad bets for the masses, while allowing existing inequalities to reproduce themselves.

Encoding Race: New Tech, Old Inequalities

View the video of the event here.

A panel discussion with CHAZ ARNETT (University of Maryland) and CHARLTON MCILWAIN (NYU), moderated by ANITA ALLEN (Penn Law).

TECHNO-UTOPIANS HAVE LONG ARGUED THAT GOVERNANCE by machine would be free of the prejudices that blinker human decision-making. But since it is humans who create and program the machines, there is also the risk that discriminatory biases will get hard wired, and endlessly reproduced, in the technological systems that increasingly mediate our social lives. Our panelists track this process in real time as it has unfolded in the realms of law enforcement and media, demonstrating that the racism embedded in social institutions and that encoded into algorithms reinforce each other and must be addressed simultaneously.

Urban Tech after COVID: Data and Power in City Life

View the video of the event here.
Read an essay co-authored by SHEILA FOSTER here.
Read an interview with SHANNON MATTERN here.

A panel discussion with SHEILA FOSTER (Georgetown Law), SHANNON MATTERN (New School), and RYAN JUDGE (SEPTA Director of Strategic Planning and Analysis), moderated by ELLEN GOODMAN (Rutgers Law School, on detail to NTIA, Department of Commerce as Senior Advisor on Algorithmic Justice).

THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC BOTH ACCELERATED PREEXISTING TRENDS and raised a host of new issues surrounding urban life. Remote work and a greater reliance on ecommerce, together with hesitation to gather in indoor spaces, has arguably undermined the rationale for dense cities. Yet the isolation of the pandemic, and the social inequalities it exacerbated, have underscored how vital physical togetherness remains. Our panelists all sustain a vision of a more just, participatory, and vibrant city life that makes use of “smart technology” to revitalize land use policies, environmental regulation, public transportation, and collective spaces – but all in the service of that most ancient of human technologies: direct social interaction.

Rethinking Big Tech: Toward a More Democratic Internet

View the video of the event here.
Read an essay by TARLETON GILLESPIE here.
Read an essay by RACHEL KUO here.

A panel discussion with TARLETON GILLESPIE (Microsoft Research) and RACHEL KUO (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), moderated by JESSA LINGEL (Annenberg School).

THE CURRENT ARCHITECTURE OF THE INTERNET reflects a tension between, on the one hand, an unprecedented level of content creation and amplification by decentralized users and, on the other, overall governance by a small number of profit-making platforms via algorithms and content moderators operating largely out of public view. Our panelists grapple with this problematic architecture from both ends – from the hidden levers of social media platforms, to the possibilities (and perils) of harnessing the chaotic energies of user communities – in order to envision what a more transparent, equal, and democratic internet might look like.

Authoritarian Disinformation: Global Impacts of the New Propaganda Playbook

View the video of the event here.

JOIN US FOR THE INAUGURAL EVENT OF "DEMOCRACY AND EMERGENT TECHNOLOGY," a year-long series of talks and panels sponsored by the Andrea Mitchell Center and Perry World House. Authoritarian regimes, particularly Russia and China, have been quick to take advantage of new technologies as they emerge in their efforts to divide world opinion, worsen polarization and conflict within liberal democracies, and undermine the trust that citizens have in their own systems of government. Whether it is to change public perceptions of the war in Ukraine or of military drills around Taiwan, Moscow and Beijing have expanded their disinformation playbook by doctoring videos and images, presenting half-truths to depict themselves as victims, and utilizing global networks on social media to push false narratives. In her talk, JESSICA BRANDT assesses the current and emerging threats and proposes means of countering them.


The members of the “Democracy and Emergent Technology” planning committee are Anita Allen (Penn Law), Ellen Goodman (Rutgers Law), Jeffrey Green (Penn Political Science; Director, Andrea Mitchell Center), Michael Horowitz (Penn Political Science; currently U.S. Defense Department, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Development and Emerging Capabilities), LaShawn Jefferson (Perry World House), Vijay Kumar (Penn Engineering), M. Susan Lindee (History and Sociology of Science), Jessa Lingel (Annenberg School), Matthew Roth (Andrea Mitchell Center), Thomas Shattuck (Perry World House), Benjamin Shestakofsky (Penn Sociology), and Christopher Yoo (Penn Law).