How DO we make policy in the digital age?

February 24, 2010

As I think about the points I’d like to make at the Policy Making in the Digital Age conference this Saturday, and the “Policy Schools and the New Media Debate” panel I’m moderating, I can’t help but stop and wonder, “How DO we make policy in the digital age?” I am someone who looks deep into these issues every single day, and from what I see each day, and have  watched happen over the past few years of this digital age, I can only think that there may be no hardened answer to this question but, “With great flexibility and a watchful eye.”

Innovation at Light Speed

Everything about digital technology innovation is moving in light speed. The technologies are constantly changing, adapting, and advancing as rapidly as they are spreading. It’s almost like a supervirus that, unless some kind of cataclysmic event comes along to cure it, will just keep mutating and infecting. Over half the human population now uses a mobile phone, and there are projections that 35% of those users will have a smartphone by 2012. In the past ten years, the number of people accessing the Internet has grown 380%. And, people are flocking in droves to social media Web sites, with Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter representing respectively the #2, #3, and #12 most trafficked Web sites in the world (as of Feb 2010). Moreover, if you used any of these sites for any period of time, then you know how quickly they are changing, upgrading, becoming bigger, stronger, faster. Lest we forget that Web design used to look a lot like Craigslist (which, by the way, has made its way to countries like Ghana).

Possibility Itself is Changing

With all of this innovation, and adoption of the technology spewing out of so many brilliant minds, we are seeing rapid evolution in possibility itself. Certainly we can now easily stay in touch with our friends in Ukraine, or Brazil, or wherever, just as easily as we can find just about anyone, with any interest or expertise, that maintains some kind of Web presence.  We can also, for only the cost of a computer, electricity and time (and without any Web programming skills), fire up a blog about pretty much anything, and that blog can theoretically be read by anyone in any country without extreme Internet restriction. In such a short period of time, we as a global society have advanced at a blistering speed into one in which the spread of ideas is flourishing in ways unprecedented in human history. That’s important, given how significant knowledge and access to information are to freedom, progress, and opportunity in the thinking of people like Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Jefferson.

A Golden Age of Digital Democratization

Digital technology is making it possible to challenge the status quo, authoritarian regimes, and more corrupt elements of society. As we have seen in events like Iran’s election last year, digital technology is making it possible to reveal to the world in real time a grim reality such as mass political unrest and violence that some might hope to contain and control. Information is, after all, a weapon feared most by totalitarians and the corrupt. Now, anyone with a smartphone, a blog, a Twitter account, and/or a YouTube channel can suddenly become a citizen journalist at a moment’s notice, and play the watchdog documenting evidence for the world to see and keeping the powerful a little more honest. We are witnessing, in many regards, a golden age of digital democratization.

A Darker Side

But there is another side to this. A darker side, if you will. We are sure to hear at this conference about the concerns this wave of innovation is causing. Those out there, especially in developing countries, that aren’t keeping up are, well, being left behind. We are losing our status as private citizens, and control of our identities, as what we put on the Internet can come back to haunt us, and as mobile technology can be used to catch us in, and mass distribute incriminating photos and videos of, an act we’d rather keep to ourselves (Michael Phelps knows what I’m talking about). The easier it becomes to transmit information between two points, the easier it becomes to commit cybercrimes, driving us toward greater need for regulation and security. Yet, on the other side of the regulation and security coin, we are seeing countries that are stifling expression and innovation from oppressive regulation, filtering technology, and imprisonment. Digital technology makes it frighteningly easy to pirate intellectual property and mass disseminate it, which is running roughshod across whole business models. Speaking of business models, we are seeing newspapers hemorrhage audience to the Wild West of alternative (and often dubious) online sources of information like blogs. If one of the panelists refers to the “echo chamber,” and you hear someone yell “Bingo!” you will know that I just hit the middle square on my digital media policy conference scorecard. And who among us has not found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on one thing at a time, and for extended periods of time? All of these concerns, and more, are begging serious questions about the real benefit of digital media to human society.

In the Face of All of This, How?

In the face of all of this, how DO we make policy in this digital age? Our borders are disappearing before our eyes. Our ability to subvert authority is keeping the most dangerous of us always one step ahead of authorities. Ours is becoming a generation that expects for free what previous generations paid for. And with it all happening so fast, next year could make this year unrecognizable. There’s just no way any government that doesn’t employ the tactics of an iron fist will ever be able to keep up.

This is why I’ve only managed to take my digital age policy thinking as far as “with great flexibility and a watchful eye.” When it comes down to it, forming true policy involving anything touched by digital media, and expecting that policy to stick for more than a few minutes, might be a lesson in futility. Or worse, it could lack a grasp on reality if we don’t pay attention to what is happening, and keep that watchful eye. So many of our definitions are changing, or need to change, that perhaps our definition of policy itself will undergo a metamorphosis.

None of this changes the fact that we still have to make policy in this digital age. That need won’t just go away. While it is evident that making policy is clearly growing more challenging and complex, we have no choice but to find some way to do it, even if it means that our policy will have to remain flexible, a constant work in progress. Otherwise, what will guide our thinking as we make decisions that could affect the lives of millions, or even billions?

Policymakers Must Understand What’s Changing

The reality is, as our world continues to digitize, the policymakers of the world must commit themselves to understanding what is changing and the technologies underneath it all. They don’t need to become Web programmers, of course. But they do need a firm grasp on what these technologies are enabling people to do, for good or ill. Without this understanding, they risk forming policy that could minimize the benefit of digital technology, and maximize the cost, the effects of which could be devastating.

Without enmeshing policy education in the context of digital technology, there would be a gaping hole in this education, and subsequently, in future policy. This is why it is incumbent upon us to push our policy schools, and our policy students, to stay current with what exactly is changing in this digital age if they hope to stay relevant.

Review of colorful words that tell the story:
light speed, supervirus, mutating, infecting, cataclysmic, blistering, wave, six million dollar man, unprecedented, spewing, echo chamber, Wild West, iron fist, Bingo!, hemorrhage, watchful eye, linebacker, metamorphosis, enmesh, gaping hole.

Note: This post was originally published on The Morningside Post.

Photo 1: Courtesy of Lightworks.
Photo 2: Courtesy of
Wesley Fryer.
Photo 3: Courtesy of
Photo 4: Courtesy of



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  2. […] the Digital Age conference at Columbia University, which prompted me to write this post to get the digital age policy juices flowing (doubling as my last post before this unintended hiatus). I started to write a post […]

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