News | Prof argues technology can stifle democracy

Technological change may wreak greater consequences than we imagine, according to Professor Darin Barney, who presented the CKUT-Radio Training Days keynote address Friday night, entitled “One Nation Under Google.”

While digital information technology may bring increased efficiency and coordination of social activity, Barney cautioned that the effects often restrict free and open democracy.

“What also comes with that technology are things like the possibility of widespread surveillance, the deepening of control over media space by large private and commercial entities, potential invasions of privacy, and restrictions on the circulation of intellectual property and creative goods,” he said.

He argued for a more proactive approach to protecting freedom and civic engagement in the framework of technological innovation.

“We need to approach science and technology politically – and specifically democratically – so that we can maximize the chances that technological and scientific developments are going to contribute to good things like equality, justice and human flourishing rather than to their opposites,” Berney said.

He focused on McGill’s unilateral decision to put opt-outable student fees on Minerva last August – as opposed to allowing autonomous groups like CKUT-Radio and Quebec Public Interest Research Group to conduct their own online opt-out systems.

Barney, who sits on the CKUT Board of Directors, cited this as a clear case of technology being used in an anti-democratic manner.

“What we’re seeing with the deployment of that technology is an argument that says convenience and a certain kind of efficiency is equal to democracy,” Barney said, adding that McGill’s system is biased towards encouraging people to opt out of the fees.

“Who is going to stand up and say, ‘Convenience isn’t a good thing, efficiency isn’t a good thing, online technology isn’t a good thing?’ The cultural conditions are not such that they support these kinds of arguments,” Barney said.

CKUT Spoken Word Coordinator Charlotte Scott agreed with Barney, arguing that online opt-outs don’t provide necessary context about the independent student organizations they effect.

“[Barney] wants people to realize how these technological shortcuts are strangling democratic principles, simply to save people a couple of bucks,” Scott said.

A SSMU referendum question asking undergraduates whether they support autonomous student groups’ right to operate their own online opt-out systems passed by a two-thirds margin last week.

Rather than uniting people, Barney said that technological progress can actually work to undermine our sense of diversity and political difference. Social movements, intellectuals, and artists must challenge the West’s celebration of technological progress as the unambiguous source of prosperity and freedom.

Scott added that technology should be more scrutinized than it is at present.

“New technologies are being sold to people at such a fast pace, and people get so wrapped up in the use of technology that they don’t pay attention to the greater social or political effect,” she said.


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