Liberal democracy has made our personhood and identity—the very structure of private life—the direct business of government, then is even truer that few human innovations have enabled liberalism to transform our conceptions and mobilizations of identity for political purposes more formidably than the technological advancements of the last half a century.
For the first time since the Second World War, the fundamental role of technology has pivoted, sometimes in positive response and sometimes in perverse reaction to our democratic hopes and instabilities. Where science was supposed to taper off disparities of race, caste, and wealth in the world’s most populous liberal democracies, it has instead reinforced those very differences and logics of segregation between communities and classes.
Yet, it is not simply STEM (or Higher Ed at large) that bears the mark of our contemporary regressions. The primary role of technology in liberal democracies itself has moved. Technology is now seen neither as an instrument to destroy life nor to prolong it—let alone save it—but as an instrument to morph, mobilize, and deploy the facts of human identity and faces of otherness as political weapons. It is not on factual news but on weaponized data that democracies today live, hanging by an increasingly precarious thread of trust between citizens.
We believe that no investigation of this new global politics can afford to take lightly such a pivotal moment in the history of technological advancement. At the Institute, our concern is not only with the politics of wealth and structural inequality, inequalities now aggravated by space flights of the ultra-rich and drone warfare of the ultra-powerful in the remotest corners of the planet. Nor is our concern only with stories of visceral reactions to vaccines and universal healthcare among those very populations that might benefit most from them. Our concern, from our location in Silicon Valley and universities across the country where culture wars around books and affirmative action play out, is with unpacking the role Big Tech has played—and will from here on play—in both bridging our existential conflicts and in aggravating our social antagonisms into civil wars.