Pew’s Future of Digital Spaces and Their Role in Democracy

There is nothing quite like taking the time to respond to a research survey and then finding that your responses have been binned. Such was my experience in answering the 13th “Future of the Internet” canvassing by Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center. (To see the full report: URL.)

I post their questions and my answers below.

Considering the things you see occurring online, which statement comes closer to your view about the evolution of digital spaces. (Followed by 5 options.)

First, your questions are both constraining and a little lop-sided, making them very difficult to answer. In the first question you use the verb “evolving,” which suggests that digital spaces are developing some sort of fit to an environment, rather than being the environment themselves. The second question is loaded teleologically: things are either going to get better or worse, not different. While I can hope for better and I can hope for the political will of enough nations that the public sphere will get better, I can rest assured that 2035 will be a different landscape.

On the downward trajectory, we have to face the fact that the infrastructure upon which “digital public spaces” exists is largely in the hands of large corporations and/or nation states who have their own interests. Yes, some sort of tribalism is happening — though I don’t like to use a word once applied (albeit in a somewhat racist fashion) within a somewhat colonial project (anthropology), but, let’s be honest, it’s the colonialist technology that has set the awful ethno-centrist mind virus in motion and we can’t seem to put that genie back into its bottle. (What a terrible mixing of metaphors.)

While it is nor surprise that autocratic states seek to use the public sphere as a surveillance apparatus, it is rather appalling to see just how good a pairing the digital public sphere and autocracy are: the ready feeding of ethnocentric ideas to key groups keeping a larger population whipped into a threshold level of frenzy is impressive in ways that I would rather not be impressed.

That some corporations have benevolent impulses, in the face of capitalist impulses to maximize profits, which again seem to lean into ethnocentrism and autocracy, reveals that there is some hope for us.

Looking ahead to 2035, can digital spaces and people’s use of them be changed in ways that significantly serve the public good?

In a democratic and free society, I can imagine a digital public sphere in which each of us possesses a certified/verified online identity whose metadata and data we control fully. Fake/alternate identities will be available, but they will be clearly marked as such and we will understand that whoever is using a fake/alt ID is doing so for particular reasons. There will still be the ability to fake this new “Real ID” of course, which will have to be overseen by someone, but it will be rare enough, and difficult enough, that it will take a great deal of effort (time and money) to do so. This will not necessarily be a good for refugees, because immigration will now involve being issued a Real ID, but so long as we don’t tie such ID to all forms of commerce, it might be tolerable. Such an infrastructure can only exist, of course, in a benevolent state with no interest in controlling its citizens.

In such a scenario, we might escape some of the weirder/wilder problems of people saying things in the digital public sphere, but, honestly, the people shouting the loudest right now are real people and we can’t know if they actually mean the crazy stuff they say or if they are saying it for attention, power, money, something (e.g., Marjorie Taylor Greene). This scenario won’t avoid such individuals, but it might tamp down the swirl of misinformation created by adversarial state and non-state actors. As a folklorist, I don’t think misinformation is going to go away in such a scenario, because misinformation did just fine before any kind of digital public sphere, and it will continue to do just fine within one, but we might be able to return to something more like a pre-internet moment, in which we were not all seized by the latest bit of misinformation. (To be clear, the “pre-internet moment” was an historical oddity in which mass media dominated the American, and many other, information landscapes.)

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