When I was a little boy in England in 1979, my parents bought me a picture book about technology and the future. The book described an imminent technological paradise where we would all have video phones and shop on our televisions, computers would recognize speech, and there would be robotic helpers in our homes.
Forty years later, we are living in a version of that future. We have video phones in the form of FaceTime and Zoom. We shop on our TVs — or at least on computer screens that let us order from Amazon and thousands of other merchants. We talk to our computers in the form of Alexa and Siri, and we can have sophisticated conversations about almost any topic with generative text AIs like ChatGPT. And while Rosie of The Jetsons has yet to appear in our homes, robotic vacuum cleaners, lawnmowers and pool cleaners have been on the market for years. What’s more, in the form of our smartphones, we have pocket-sized devices that let us instantly obtain information or communicate with virtually anyone in the developed world. We are living in the future.
But that future is not quite so rosy as the book predicted. Our digital devices are addictive, and they too often serve to deliver advertising, misinformation or both. Our politics have been riven by a distrust of expertise, by radical polarization, by the rise of conspiracy theories, and even by the return of specters of fascism and authoritarianism. A vast industry sometimes called “surveillance capitalism” profits from selling and sharing our most intimate personal data without anything approaching our meaningful consent. And we have been plagued not just by stagnant wages, wealth inequality, and the prospect of entire professions being eliminated by robots and AIs, but by a crippling mental health crisis that many attribute to digital disruption. We have never been more connected, nor so isolated. We are, as sociologist Sherry Turkle puts it well, “alone together.”
How can we survive this digital transformation? Innumerable articles offer us tips to protect our data security (“Encrypt!” “Use a password manager!”), our privacy (“Check your privacy settings!”), or our political polarization (“Read a wide variety of media!”). These may be all well and good, but in my teaching and scholarship on privacy and technology over the past 20 years, I have discovered that such tips are woefully insufficient. They tend to place the responsibility on individuals for broader social forces that they lack the capacity to control on their own. In the form of the Information Revolution, we are facing a set of transformations that are reshaping our society as radically as the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Industrial Revolution created marvels, ended professions and created a host of workplace, equality, environmental and consumer issues that we are still working to solve literally centuries later. We have made progress, largely through law, but our work remains ongoing.
In tackling the complexities of the Information Revolution, a similar set of long-term social strategies will be necessary. Helpful tips will not help us much, nor will “innovation.” Education will be an important part of any solution — not merely scientific and medical education to understand our new technologies, but the full suite of critical thinking skills across the arts, sciences and humanities as well. At our School of Law, I find myself teaching not just what the law is but, more importantly, offering the perspectives and analytical skills to train our students to practice law in a society that doesn’t yet exist.
More than anything, however, surviving the digital transformation will require laws that channel our new technologies in directions that are not merely driven by engagement and profit but by human flourishing. We will need to ensure that in the digital society we are building, hard-won fundamental rights like those of equality, consumer protection and democratic participation survive our “upgrade” to digital systems. And we will need to ensure that the services and institutions we rely on to live our modern, connected lives are loyal to us over and above what makes them more money, just like we required industrial food producers to sell only safe food, and just like we required cars to have seat belts and airbags. If we do it right and build human values into the laws we need to shape the Information Revolution, we will build a digital society that we all can trust. We might even build a society that is nearly as good as the one described in that 1979 picture book.