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At Silicon Flatirons on Monday, Panelists Differ on the Real Value of the Internet

David Jelke



Photo of Professor Gabriella Coleman in May 2011 by  Colby Hoke used with permission

Panelists at the Silicon Flatirons conference on Monday clashed over the extent to which the internet deserves the veneration that it currently enjoys in society.

The theme of the conference, at the University of Colorado Law School, was “Technology Optimism and Pessimism.”

The panelists agreed that the internet has produced enormous benefits, and each listed examples of improvements. TechFreedom Founder Berin Szoka insisted that Americans need to fight cognitive negativity bias and “reclaim our sense of wonder” in the fight for tech policy by doing things like going to technology museums and reading old science fiction.

Szoka’s point prompted Gabriella Coleman, a professor of technological literacy at McGill University, to respond that society is “culturally stacked” to overvalue technology.

This launched a debate about the merits of the internet’s accomplishments that ran throughout the rest of the panel. The panelists also considered the need to better incorporate the arts and humanities in the upper echelons of decision-making.

Chris Lewis, CEO of Public Knowledge, leveraged Coleman’s arguments to shed light on the digital divide and argue for more careful inclusion and exclusion in data sets. Coleman said he was concerned primarily with inclusivity as a crippling issue of technology.

Szoka countered by insisting that positive social advancements like more open discussions on mental health and homosexuality would have been impossible without internet communications. He said technology’s biggest challenge is an “epistemological crisis” arising as we attempt to “know what the truth is” in an era of misinformation and deepfakes.

Lisl Brunner, the director of Global Public Policy at AT&T, said that the toll of cyber-bullying and harassment are formidable when compared to the minor gains of addressing social stigmas. She also referenced China’s “social credit score” system of using video technology to rank the social standing of its citizens as an example of the current dystopian state of technology.

Lewis drew the conversation back the to the big picture, comparing the internet to a teenager going through an “awkward adolescence” that will arrive at maturity when it learns proper accountability.  “The biggest conflict is a lack of accountability”, stated Lewis.

But Szoka countered that the real conflict is located at the human level – and that technology will ultimately provide the solution.


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