Can Big Tech Serve Democracy?

Henry Farrell and Glen Weyl in Boston Review:

Two new books about technology and the fate of democracy begin by describing the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. They are right to see that fateful day as a turning point and a benchmark for debates about the course of U.S. society, and hint at important questions: Can democracy survive in its current form? What role did information technology play in encouraging a violent mob to tear through Congress? And what do we do now?

Both books see January 6 as the product of systematic misinformation and fraud, and argue that the solution is more participatory democracy. Though we agree for the most part, neither book offers a comprehensive theory of change or a particularly persuasive vision of an aspirational digital democracy. Solving Public Problems, by Beth Simone Noveck—director of Northeastern University’s Governance Lab and New Jersey’s inaugural Chief Innovation Officer—suggests that better government will produce a better public. System Error—by political theorist Rob Reich, computer scientist Mehran Sahami, and political scientist Jeremy M. Weinstein —explains how government might come to understand and perhaps constrain big tech more effectively. Each makes important contributions. System Error breaks new ground in explaining why Silicon Valley (SV) is wreaking havoc on U.S. politics and offers uniformly thoughtful reforms. Solving Public Problems, on the other hand, offers possibly the most detailed and serious treatment of how digital tools help enhance democratic governance around the world. Neither, however, answers the question implicitly posed by opening their books with a description of U.S. democracy’s failure: What happens now, after January 6?

More here.