Hart House’s Great Hall was filled to the brim on Thursday for the annual Hart House Lecture, delivered this year by Darin Barney. Entitled “One Nation under Google,” the talk discussed the the uneasy coexistence of citizenship and technology. This was the seventh annual Hart House lecture since the tradition was started by Warden Margaret Hancock in 2001.
Barney holds the Canada Research Chair in Technology & Citizenship, as well as an associate professor and chair of the department of art history & communication studies at McGill University. He received his doctorate from U of T in 1999.
Before introducing Barney, moderator Wayne Chu, a political science PhD student, exhibited a short film. It asked Torontonians about technology and how they felt it affects citizenship-but the presentation was, ironically, plagued by technical difficulties.
“It appears that technology is failing us right now,” Chu joked as technicians struggled to get the sound working on the clip.
The technical setbacks set the tone for the lecture, where Barney claimed that, among other things, technology hurts us as much as it helps us. Indeed, according to Barney, sometimes technology uses us more than we use it.
“We need people to establish a deliberate relationship with technology, where we still have some control,” said Barney on Thursday morning. “As long as we have control, it’s okay if we make mistakes, because we can correct them.”
In his lecture, he followed this line of reasoning into a discussion about the democratization of technology, and what it means for national politics, citing the example of the Danish Technology Board-one of the world’s first cases of participatory design and democratized regulation.
Barney said that political parties must rethink the way that they support and represent technological advances.
“Every party feels it has to represent itself as at the forefront of technical development,” he said. “There is a deeply ingrained cultural disposition to associate technology with wealth, affluence, and progress.…Any attempt to say ‘wait’ is seen as backward and nostalgic.”
Barney made it clear that he is not against technology by any means, but he does see a need for that more careful thought and regulation as to how it is used and how it affects global society. While he denied that innovations such as YouTube and the iPhone are “revolutionary,” he acknowledged the role of technology as a unifying force.
“We may be the most multicultural country on earth, and we may be divided by differences of race, class, language and gender, but we can be one nation under Google,” he told the audience.
Even when we are divided, said Barney, we must take into account a democratic array of opinions about what constitutes where technology fits into the picture. In discussions of such things, we need to prepare for the fact that democracy doesn’t always yield the conclusion everyone desires.
“If you politicize science and technology, you can’t guarantee that the outcomes will be progressive,” he cautioned. “But you either agree with citizenship or you don’t, and you can’t back off your commitment when the bad guys are winning.”