Science and Technology

Why Civic Tech Can't Be Neutral

Harnessing the power of technology to make real social change. 

Rachel M. Cohen
Rachel M. Cohen Catherine Bracy speaking at the 2015 Personal Democracy Forum in New York City. T echnology in the service of democracy—“civic tech”—has become the cause of a growing number of coders, hackers, political strategists, non-profit executives, activists and others who come together at an annual conference called the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF). The most recent meeting in New York City on June 4 and 5 attracted about 850 participants. But as that meeting showed, the civic-tech world is divided on a fundamental question. Some strive to avoid anything that could appear partisan or ideological, while others believe that civic tech’s shared vision cannot come to fruition without challenging power. PDF’s co-founders, Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej took a clear position: “Civic tech cannot be neutral,” they said. “When a few have more than ever before, and many are asking for equal rights and dignity, civic tech cannot be simply about improving basic government services, like...

The Cyber Conundrum: A Security Update

Recent events confirm that we need to rethink our approach to cybersecurity.

 

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File The National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Maryland. I n the wake of the debate over the renewal of the Patriot Act, Americans should consider a related problem with implications for their privacy and security: the assumptions behind cybersecurity policy. Several new developments bolster the argument in “ The Cyber Conundrum: Why the Current Policy for National Cyber Defense Leaves Us Open to Attack ” (published in the Spring 2015 issue of The American Prospect ). These developments reinforce the view that U.S. cybersecurity policy is primarily based on the military’s framing of the security problem, at the expense of the online security of the private sector and ordinary citizens. During the Cold War our approach was to undermine Soviet security systems while bolstering our own, but the problem isn’t so simple in an age of shared global technology and online infrastructure. Today, the military’s Cyber Command continues to see...

The Cyber Conundrum

Why the current policy for national cyber defense leaves us open to attack. 

Kristoffer Tripplaar / Sipa / AP Images
Kristoffer Tripplaar / Sipa / AP Images President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson discussed efforts to improve government collaboration with industry to combat cyber threats at the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center in Arlington, Virginia, last January. This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here . A follow-up to this article by Joshua A. Kroll will appear on June 4. Celebrate our 25th Anniversary with us by clicking here for a free download of this special issue . T he devastating cyberattacks against Sony Pictures in 2014 resulted in disabling of equipment, release of employees’ sensitive information, disclosure of company secrets and unreleased movies, and ultimately the departure of one of the studio’s top executives. The FBI blamed the Sony attacks on North Korea, and the attackers may have been operating in Sony’s systems undetected for more than a year. Many Americans were left...

The Robots Are Coming! The Robots Are Coming!

Bad economics, not automation, lies at the heart of persistent joblessness. 

Imaginechina via AP Images
Imaginechina via AP Images A Chinese worker controls a robot arm to weld components of elevators at an auto plant of XD Elevator in Lianyungang, China. This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post . A re robots destined to wipe out most human jobs? Is this round of automation somehow different from all previous ones? There has been a lot of commentary lately to that effect, including several books . Is there nothing to be done? Robots have indeed eliminated a great deal of factory work and are rapidly moving on to product design, medical diagnostics, research, teaching, accounting, translating, copy editing, and a great deal more. Once-secure professions are no longer safe. From that, many economists conclude that we may just have to adjust to a high plateau of unemployment. In the past, the story goes, as technology displaced some forms of work, the innovation eventually created new, mostly better jobs: fewer buggy-whip makers, more automobile assemblers; fewer telephone...

The Evolutionary Roots of Altruism

Do altruistic groups always beat selfish groups? A new book claims they do. 

Ciju Cherian / Solent News / Rex Features
Ciju Cherian / Solent News / Rex Features With a little teamwork, these ants turn themselves into a bridge for their friends to walk over in Kerala, India. Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others By David Sloan Wilson 192 pp. Yale University/Templeton Press $27.50 D avid Sloan Wilson opens his new book, Does Altruism Exist? , with an old conundrum that has animated many late-night dormitory debates: If helping someone gives you pleasure, gains you points for an afterlife, and enhances your reputation, is it really altruism? Wilson wisely decides to put acts before motives: “When Ted benefits Martha at a cost to himself, that’s altruistic, regardless of how he thinks or feels about it.” Great. But what does “cost” mean in that sentence? Does it mean “cost” after considering all those benefits, or not? Wilson believes that to answer this question, we must turn to evolutionary theory, and especially to a theory known as group selection, which holds that better...

How Solar Is Lighting the Way for Recovery in Nepal

Renewable energy companies have formed a coalition to repower the country after its massive earthquake. 

(Photo: Milap Dwa)
(Photo: Milap Dwa) Milap Dwa and Chij Kumar​, technicians from Gham Power​, installing a 120-watt solar PV system kit on top of one of the few houses in Barpak, Gorkha, that are still standing. I n the days following Nepal’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake on April 25, as massive power outages complicated relief efforts, Sandeep Giri and his coworkers were shaken but determined to help. Giri, who was born and raised in Nepal, is the CEO of Gham Power , a solar company that’s been operating in Nepal for the last five years. After the earthquake, Gham Power’s employees sprung into action to deploy solar power systems that could power lights and mobile charging stations for relief workers and the displaced. Besides basic needs like medical attention, food, water, and shelter, electricity is a major issue in the wake of a disaster, says Giri. “First, you don't want to be in the dark, as it's scary, you don't feel safe, and it is also very cumbersome to get or administer relief without light...

Little Magazine, Big Ideas: The American Prospect at 25

Reflecting on a quarter century of politics and change.

T he American Prospect began 25 years ago with a small circulation, a limited budget, and great ambitions. Our aim was to rethink ideas about public policy and politics and thereby to restore plausibility and persuasiveness to American liberalism. The first issue appeared in spring 1990, a moment when Democrats had lost three successive presidential elections, conservatives were pushing schemes for privatization, and liberals were in disarray. But in 1990, Congress was still in Democratic hands, the Cold War was coming to an end with the Soviet collapse, and the focus of politics was turning from foreign to domestic policy. Rising economic anxieties, it seemed, might spur political change just as a “peace dividend” could finance new initiatives. By historic good fortune, the Prospect had arrived at a time not only of global change but also of “liberal opportunity,” as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., called it in the first issue, which carried a cover image of an old world cracking open to...

A New Approach to Policing Focuses on Strengthening Communities

Without progressive solutions to the tension between law enforcement and people of color, every city is one incident away from being the next Baltimore.

(AP Photo/Al Behrman)
A s police officers and members of the communities they’re charged with protecting continue to go head-to-head in the streets, one thing is clear: Policing needs to change. At the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s fifth annual America Healing conference, transforming American policing is exactly what attendees are trying to do. The conference in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, attracts hundreds of activists, lawyers, and, academics from across the country. In the nine months since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, police departments nationwide are under intense scrutiny—in particular the departments within cities and communities of color. Thanks to social media and smartphones, we’ve been able to document the unjustified police killings of black people in New York, Baltimore, Ferguson, North Charleston, and more. At the America Healing event, civil rights and justice take center stage, as exemplified by the Tuesday morning panel titled “Healing Relationships...

Why California's Drought Is the Nation's Problem

Rising food prices, unsafe drinking water—climate change will only make things worse unless stronger measures are taken.

(Photo: Governor's Press Office, California)
View image | gettyimages.com I t was the worst kind of photo op. California Governor Jerry Brown and other state employees assembled in the Sierra Nevada mountain community of Phillips Station two weeks ago for the annual snow survey. Every year since 1941, April 1 has been the day of reckoning—a time to take stock of the winter’s accumulation and plan for how much spring runoff may help fill the state’s reservoirs, feed its rivers and streams, and be available for irrigated agriculture. This year was grim. The area, at nearly 7,000 feet of elevation, usually has about five feet or more of snow at this time of year. But this year, there was no snow on the ground. Brown launched a press conference in the middle of a field of brown grass and announced mandatory drought restrictions for the state as part of an executive order that aims to restrict urban water use by 25 percent in the next year, spur the replacement of lawns with drought tolerant plants, and increase efficiency and...

How Schumer's Iran Gamble Threatens Democrats' Chances in 2016

If enough senators in the minority party follow the lead of their next likely leader, the minority may be where they stay.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)
(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images) Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, left, has pledged support to Republican Senator Bob Corker, right, for a bill designed to scuttle the Obama administration's agreement with Iran over the development of nuclear technology. Here, the two are pictured in the House chamber before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to a joint meeting of Congress, March 3, 2015. A week and a half ago, Chuck Schumer, currently third in the leadership of the minority party in the U.S. Senate, moved quickly to solidify his position as the next leader of Democrats, securing the support of his caucus. This week he endorsed Republican Senator Bob Corker’s bill, which, on paper, gives Congress the right to approve the nuclear agreement hammered out with Iran by the U.S. and its allies (collectively known as the P5+1). In reality, this bill is yet another carefully crafted attempt to thwart a negotiated end to this nuclear...

How to Sabotage Iran Negotiations in the Name of Avoiding War

Israel and AIPAC are using Congress to push their own agenda of increasing sanctions on Iran and reducing presidential authority.

(AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
(AP Photo/Cliff Owen) Stage hands prepare the stage for the 2015 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., Monday, March 2, 2015. A s multilateral talks over Iran’s nuclear program continue with the U.S. leading the negotiations, Congress seems to be doing its best to complicate things. And both Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are doing their part to help. Earlier this week, as 16,000 people convened in Washington, D.C., to attend AIPAC’s annual conference, the powerful pro-Israel lobby made it clear that the organization would push not only for increased sanctions on Iran—through the passage of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act —but also for the ability to make it more difficult to lift sanctions later, via a new bill, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act . This latest bill, introduced on Friday by Republican Senator Bob Corker and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, would give Congress a 60-day period to...

Saving Obama from a Bad Trade Deal

Republican intransigence may have saved the president's legacy—from himself.

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File) In this June 11, 2013, photo, President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, prior to a trip to Europe for a Group of Eight summit of major Western democracies, where the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with Europe was be a top item. The deal is touted as a means of boosting growth and jobs by eliminating tariffs and other barriers, but those expectations are unlikely to be fulfilled in the deal, which would benefit corporations far more than governments or citizens, which would likely be hurt. P lans to rush fast-track authority for two trade deals for a quick House and Senate vote abruptly broke down on Tuesday. The White House was hoping to put the vote to Congress as early as this week. But Republicans wanted to see more details of one of the deals, which addresses trade with Pacific nations—before agreeing to a fast-track vote. Democrats who favored the deal were seeking some concessions to...

Why Markets Can't Price the Priceless

It takes government planning to promote the rational conservation and use of water.

(AP Photo/Wichita Falls Times Record News, Torin Halsey)
(AP Photo/Wichita Falls Times Record News, Torin Halsey) A public works wastewater reuse project accounts for approximately half of the water used daily by Wichita Falls, Texas. This article appears as part of a special report, "What the Free Market Can't Do," in the Winter 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here . W ater sources for many Southwestern cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix are drying up. Meanwhile, most Eastern cities have ample supplies but decaying infrastructure that can’t handle the more frequent and severe flooding brought on by climate change. The Cato Institute and Reason Foundation are part of a libertarian movement arguing that market pricing of water could solve both problems. But water, as a public good, can’t just be left to private markets, or we will have billionaires watering lush lawns while other citizens have dry taps. Privatizers are also notorious for underinvesting in the infrastructure needed both to supply fresh water and to...

Failed Theory Posed by Wall Street Dems Puts Hillary Clinton in a Bind

The Hamilton Project, led by the presumed presidential candidate's adviser Robert Rubin, serves up a prescription for the middle class that won't help much—and defies the recommendations of her friends at CAP.

(AP Photo/Lynsey Addario)
(AP Photo/Lynsey Addario) Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks with former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin at Columbia University Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2000, in New York. T here was a time where it was plausible to argue that more education and innovation were the primary solutions to our economic problems. But that time has passed. You cannot tell that, however, to the Wall Street Democrats and their Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. They’re not ready to change just yet, even though most of the Democratic Party has. This shift was signaled by a recent report by the Center for American Progress (CAP) Commission on Inclusive Prosperity, which is co-chaired by Lawrence H. Summers, who served as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, and as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in President Barack Obama's first term. The report calls for full employment (a "high pressure economy," as Summers calls it), a more welcoming environment for collective bargaining,...

Did Koch Brothers Just Doom America to a Future of Crumbling Roads and Tunnels?

First, their minions called for Chris Christie to cancel a much-needed rail project, and he did. Now they've set their sights on Congress to do much the same.

A.M. Stan
It was never going to be easy for the Republican-controlled Congress to pass an increase to the federal gas tax—a tax that finances the Highway Trust Fund and pays for roads and bridges around the country. Last raised in 1993 to 18.4 cents per gallon, the tax has since lost much of its value , especially with the rise of fuel-efficient cars. With the Highway Trust Fund running huge annual deficits, plans for many infrastructure projects and repairs have been left hanging out to dry. But there were signs that raising the federal gas tax was possible, as when Republican Senators John Thune of South Dakota and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in early January that a gas tax increase couldn’t be ruled out , and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, later agreed with him. Well, forget it. Because last week more than 50 conservative groups, a number of them funded through the Koch brothers’ network, sent a...

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