Speed That Kills – Platforms, Democratic Expression and the Role of Universities
A message of peace spreads all over the planet; an inspiring photo makes us appreciate the courage of our neighbors; a mobilization campaign reaches thousands of volunteers: the benefits of social media are well known. Billions of people use them daily for information, entertainment and communication. We also experience the perverse side of this dazzling and globalized dissemination of news and images: falsehoods often circulate faster than the truth, and hateful messages spread quicker than expressions of friendship. We now know that platforms have the capacity to inflame public debates, undermine access to real information, sabotage lives through derision and ridicule, encourage violence and hatred, and promote misogyny and racism. Algorithms can accelerate harmful trends and it is often difficult to stop them in time.
Technological development has always had a transformative social impact: the automobile has created suburbs, shopping centers, and our dependence on hydrocarbons. However, the acceleration of technological transformations is frightening: will we be able to adapt and avoid disparities in access and in use? Will the rise of technology lead to prosperity and equality or to increased social tensions and injustice?
Two aspects of the “speed” of our time may prove disastrous for the democratic spirit. On the one hand, the speed of technological change is testing our ability to adapt. In addition, the speed with which bad information circulates can limit our democratic capacity to make good decisions. We must first worry about the limits of the capacity of living beings to change rapidly. Who is left behind? The technological gap is widening, some actors and workers are able to adapt and others are abandoned. The examples are multiplying more and more: is it possible to live without a cell phone, to buy food without a credit card, or to have recourse to health care without access to the Internet. How do we ensure digital equity?
The speed of the dissemination of disinformation is another aspect of concern. Fact checking is a full-time job. Who should do it? At what pace? Should we require the presence of knowledgeable scientists 24 hours a day to respond to the exacerbated distribution of lies? Is fact checking an essential public service?
What is the role of universities in the face of this speed that kills, as said government announcements to counter speed driving? Universities are institutions of knowledge and search for the truth; they must promote access to this knowledge to enable adaptation and good decision-making. Universities have a “democratizing” role: they enable social mobility, enrich our understanding of the world, and are engines of technological, scientific and philosophical progress. Knowledge is made and unmade in universities: ideas evolve and change. Faced with the staggering rate of technological transformation, universities must react. Universities must accelerate their capacity and accessibility.
Science and education take time, but we have less and less time to respond.
I want to articulate here an increased duty for the university sector: productivity and presence commensurate with the challenges of our time. We must imagine and support a university sector, independent and with integrity and rigor, able to unmask errors and respond to them in real time with nuance and depth, a sector that allows everyone to get the skills to adapt to progress and to participate in the evolution of our society. The post-secondary sector must respond to the anti-democratic threat posed by misinformation and hasty technological transformations.
Speed kills, said the slogan: it can only be curtailed by institutions equipped to deal with it.