Ending Our Alternative-Reality Politics Demands a New Way of Educating Citizens
Instead of studying government and technology as separate subjects, today's students should learn about how each influences the other.
The framers of America’s Constitution and the architects of our modern technology firms have something in common. They were all informed by a deep understanding of human nature—classic texts for the Founders; cognitive science for the technologists—and keenly aware that our passions often get the better of us.
The Constitution is a brilliant exercise in restraining those innate forces; social media is an ingenious tool for exploiting them. If there’s any hope of preventing our digital divisions from overwhelming our democracy, we must relearn the deep wisdom that shapes our system of government for the better and distorts our online world for the worse.
That will mean a new approach to curriculum in both civics and technology. It’s not enough to know how a bill becomes a law, or how a search engine generates results. Students need to connect the age-old wisdom that underpins both systems so that they can do the urgent work of reform.
If that seems like a lot to ask of young people, remember that democracy’s founders and our modern tech moguls share another trait: They made world-changing decisions at very young ages.
James Madison was in his 30s when he warned with unsettling prescience about the tendency to invent causes for conflict, ginning up tribal hatreds on the thinnest of pretexts. “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man,” he wrote in Federalist 10. “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”
The engineers who turned Facebook and Twitter into engines of unfriendly passion and mutual animosity were even younger. They may quote Cicero a little less often, but today’s tech leaders employ an army of cognitive scientists with a granular understanding of human frailties and temptations.
“Silicon Valley is reckoning with having had a bad philosophical operating system,” argues Tristan Harris, a former Google designer who left to found the Center for Humane Technology. “How is this affecting us on a deeper level?”
Building a better operating system, an approach to technology that doesn’t overwhelm democracy, is a generational challenge. If there were ever any doubt, it was put to rest when thousands of Americans who were organized and radicalized online stormed the U.S. Capitol to halt a democratic process that they falsely believed to be an elaborate fraud.
Combating alternate-reality politics will take far more than just tweaks to tech regulation. It demands a new way of educating citizens. In our school curriculum and college majors, knowledge of government and knowledge of technology are largely separate. Some students take government and civics classes, while far fewer take coding or information science courses, and vanishingly few master both disciplines. That must change. The powerful interplay of technology, government, and human nature is lashing against our democracy, and we need a coordinated curriculum that prepares students for the hard questions Harris is raising.
No government regulation can change human nature or replace human agency. Regardless of the tech reforms that might eventually emerge from Congress, the tendencies that social media exploits—tribalism, confirmation bias, the obsessive need for new information—will remain. Lasting change will come from the choices we all make about how to use the powerful new technologies that have come to mediate our civic lives. We must recover the wisdom to regulate ourselves.
The things we’ve always taught students about government—how it works, how they can shape and influence it, how it guards against our own weaknesses—need to find their parallels in technology education. A sophisticated understanding of behavioral science and technology is vital for this generation to forge a new and better form of digital citizenship. It’s no longer enough to be a passive consumer of digital platforms and algorithmic recommendations.
This goes deeper than online media literacy. It’s about getting an under-the-hood understanding of how technology platforms function, and how they might be engineered to work with democracy instead of against it. In Rhode Island, education officials have started a pilot program where government and politics teachers are working alongside their colleagues in computer science to plan joint projects for their students. Young people will have the experience of tackling a civic or social problem using digital tools, helping them understand the uses and limitations of the tech platforms that already dominate their lives. Additionally, students should be exposed to cognitive psychology and the insights into biased thinking, such as one finds in the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. This will help them guard against tools and demagogues who employ techniques to manipulate and divide them. That kind of learning should become standard in classrooms across the county.
It’s not too late to realize some of the optimistic predictions we made at the dawn of the internet age. Many civic thinkers and tech enthusiasts predicted that digital tools would help people organize and solve local problems. They thought the social capital forged in Rotary Clubs and neighborhood associations could be scaled and accelerated online, and that digital connections would transfer into the real world in productive ways.
They were right that the internet would be a phenomenal tool for political organizing, but we all failed to see the way sophisticated platforms would feed negative polarization and build alternate realities.
Madison and his contemporaries probably would have known better. In one of the most famous passages in all of the Federalist Papers, he wrote, “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” And if men were angels, no algorithms could so easily divide us and outrage us. No glowing screen could so easily capture our time and our minds.
Because men aren’t angels, we have a system of government defined by checks and balances, built with the wisdom of the ages to protect us from our own worst impulses. Our tech sector uses that same insight to sustain a very successful and ultimately very destructive business model.
It will be up to the next generation of civic and tech leaders to apply some Madisonian wisdom in building a better, more balanced digital world. “Social media and other digital platforms touch almost every aspect of our public and private lives, and they have enormous ramifications for the practice of democratic citizenship,” wrote the authors of Our Common Purpose, a comprehensive report on the state of American public life released last year. “There is no reason we cannot redesign them to support, rather than erode, constitutional democracy and common purpose.”
That project will begin in our classrooms, where tomorrow’s voters, viewers, and innovators learn what it means to be self-governing citizens. Technology isn’t something that happens to us; it’s something we build, something we get to shape and influence. Just like democracy itself. We made this mess, and we can learn how to unmake it.
Michael Powell is the president and CEO of NCTA—the Internet and Television Association, and he was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 2001 to 2005. Stefanie Sanford is the chief of global policy for the College Board. They are vice chairs of the America’s Promise Alliance.