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Alumni

Technology Scholar

November-December 2004

"Technology" is a chameleon-like word that takes on the tone of its context, especially where government is concerned: technology may be used to facilitate the flow of information to the public and keep us safe from our enemies or it may be used against us to violate our safety, privacy, or civil liberties. Peter Shane '74, a law professor at Ohio State University since 2003 and editor of two new political-commentary collections, believes we can benefit from keeping all these potentials in mind, not just those that inspire fear.

Peter Shane explores intersections of government and technology.
Courtesy of the Ohio State University/Photo Services

Democracy Online discusses the potential of communications technologies to involve more citizens in the democratic process. A Little Knowledge: Privacy, Security, and Public Information after September 11 offers a positive approach to a few of the hottest political issues. "Digitization and networking have profoundly changed the way the government collects information and gives it out," Shane says. "What we're worried about is that, in the post-9/11 world, there is an assumption that sharing information always increases your vulnerability. That's very dangerous because, in many conditions, security depends on the free flow of information."

Why, for example, hasn't the color-coded danger alert system consistently elicited a serious response from the public? According to Shane, because the system did not actually provide people with any information to react to. Risk analysts disagree, Shane says, with the widespread worry that too much information about possible threats could cause general panic. Disseminating information allows people to make informed decisions and assess the risks for themselves, rather than encouraging vague rumors and uncertainty. In fact, he adds, a vigilant public can also help the government gather information by being on the lookout for signs of environmental or health hazards.

Although Shane's interest in politics dates at least as far back as John F. Kennedy's election, when he was eight, his focus on technology did not sharpen until the early '90s, when he was invited to contribute to an on-line public-policy journal. At the time, he says, many political writers still cherished the belief that laptop computers would thoroughly revamp politics and even make direct democracy possible. Although Shane was encouraged by the increased accessibility of information, he found certain flaws obvious: "The political chat that the journal evoked was, to exaggerate only a little, insane. This suggested to me that the Internet...would not realize its potential without much more thoughtful design efforts."

With support from Carnegie Mellon and the Hewlett Foundation, Shane designed such a project. He and colleagues assembled a representative sample of Pittsburghers to participate in surveys on public-school consolidation (which they shared with the city's school board). Before filling out the survey, one group participated in an on-line discussion using software designed for the project. The other two groups either discussed the issue face to face or not at all. Shane says comparing the opinions of the three groups demonstrated "the capacity of discussion to leave people even better informed than they become from the mere receipt of written material."

In the case of electronic voting, he says, the technology's potential is clear, but the system's glitches are practical. Special design features can expedite voting for the physically impaired, for example; multiple language settings can accommodate other subgroups of voters. Electronic systems also increase the speed and accuracy of tabulation. But, he adds, "there is no such thing as bug-free software, and I don't think you have to be paranoid to take that concern very seriously" (see "Bollixed Ballots," page 12). A paper trail would increase public trust and provide a backup, but state and local governments may not want to shoulder the extra cost, so the issue becomes whether that trail should be required. "When you have a problem of social organizations," Shane notes, "technology is almost never the root of the problem, but a symptom. The problem isn't the ballot; the problem is that we didn't have any legal rules in place to enable us to deal with that sort of problem. It seems the question is how to respond when systems malfunction — which is not a technology question but a policy question."

~Emer Vaughn