Dr. Chris Galdieri's Response to Dr. Austin's Talk

The following is the text of Dr. Chris Galdieri's response to Dr. Timothy Austin's talk delivered at the Academic Syposium on October 16, 2013. Dr. Galdieri is an assistant professor of politics at Saint Anselm College.

Chris GaldieriI, too, enjoyed Dr. Austin's discussion of technology in education. I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about that.  On the one hand we see technology opening up new frontiers of revolutionizing the way we learn about the world. On the other hand, 90% of the Internet consists of videos of cats, or Snoop Dogg rapping about Hot Pockets with Kate Upton. When a student has a smartphone out in class hidden under the desk, of course I have a pretty good sense which type of content he's engaged with. And so a lot of us grumble about technology because we see it as a disruption.

But then, pretty much all technology is disruptive. Fire was disruptive. The wheel, the printing press, the automobile ñ all of these advances upended the world as it had been before. So technology is not just changing education today, it's always been changing education ñ Just imagine being the first students who got to learn evolutionary biology from a textbook! Or the first professor trying to convince his colleagues to use a textbook to teach evolutionary biology! -- and will always be changing education in the future.

Technology is also changing citizenship, another thing that's closely tied to liberal arts education. In the last few elections we've seen the emergence of what's called "Big Data" -- campaigns now build enormous databases that tell them not just who lives where and what party they're registered with, but how often they vote, and then they cross-tabulate that with commercial data about the cars people drive, whether they subscribe to HBO, and based on all that data figure out which issues people care most about, so they can make individually-tailored appeals to voters. So if Alice cares most about education, that's the message a candidate will use to appeal to her, and if Bob cares most about taxes that's what the candidate will talk to Bob about, and so on. And bear in mind that what we've seen in the last few elections is a very primitive form of this; expect these techniques to become more and more sophisticated as time marches on.

On the one hand, this is potentially very exciting! From a democratic standpoint, it's good to have people who seek public office appealing to voters based on the issues those voters actually care about. When candidates and their campaigns talk about the issue you care most about, it makes government seem less like an abstract argument over something you don't care about and more like something that's relevant and responsive to your concerns.

On the other hand.

On the other hand, there's a risk that all of this data will be used not to have a better, more relevant conversation with citizens, but instead to manipulate, to tailor messages that are something less than honest, to tell voters exactly what a campaign has figured out they want to hear, regardless of whether it's true or not or whether it's possible or not. Instead of coming up with a message they think the public in general will respond to, candidates could come up with exactly the message they think each individual voter will react to, in a manner that's much more precise and exacting than anything that's ever come before. That's troubling. The line between persuasion and manipulation could become as thin as the line between Saturday night and Sunday morning.

So to bring the future of politics back around to the future of the liberal arts, I would suggest that one of our responsibilities as faculty, and as a college, is always going to be helping students develop the tools they'll need to be skeptical, informed citizens who can tell the difference between honest appeals and manipulation, citizens who have the capacity to evaluate what they hear from candidates, from advertising, from the media, from smiling young people with clipboards on your doorstep. If we want to have a functional democracy ñ which, given the month we've been having, I think is a nice idea we should consider adopting -- we need to have citizens who know how to think critically, and know how to their system of government actually works, and understand that campaigns are always going to put their better foot forward, and have a sense of what their own interests actually are. And that's the case regardless of whether campaigns are using Big Data or old-fashioned shoe leather or whatever the new technology of the 2032 campaign is.

This is one of the things that makes studying politics as a social scientist unusual.  The laws of physics and chemistry apply to us whether we want them to or not; if we never perform Shakespeare or learn French or read Thomas Aquinas, the loss is, for the most part, our own.  But if we don't know how politics works, if we haven't thought about our role as citizens and what government does and how it affects our lives and the lives of the people we care about,  then the resulting effect is not limited to ourselves but potentially involves our fellow citizens.  So as our technology helps our politics become more and more focused and tailored on individual voters today, and as technology continues to evolve in directions we can't imagine, I think the goal for the liberal arts is to help our students figure out how to become the citizens their fellow citizens need them to be, regardless of the technological changes tomorrow brings.