Digital disruption ‘demands social science solutions’

New centre vows to tackle ‘loss of trust’ driven by technological change

June 26, 2019
Source: iStock/Alamy

Universities’ standing has been undermined by the same disruptive forces that have torpedoed trust in democracy, according to cybersecurity expert and Barack Obama confidante Jeff Bleich.

Professor Bleich said that scepticism about expertise and mistrust of governance – phenomena that had contributed to the surprise Brexit vote and election of Donald Trump – had common roots: rampant technological change that had outpaced governments’ capacity to react to it, spawning a tsunami of fake news and a “collapse of confidence” in civic institutions.

“Facts are the currency of universities,” Professor Bleich told Times Higher Education. “Once people no longer trust facts – and don’t have trust in experts who represent the facts – it makes it much more difficult for universities to do their job of educating critical thinkers and producing research that allows society to make better choices.”

Professor Bleich was special counsel to President Obama and served as US ambassador to Australia for four years. He has now given his name to a multidisciplinary research centre at Flinders University, where he has also been awarded a professorial fellowship.

Known as the Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security and Governance, the new facility responds to a call to arms issued by Professor Bleich during a visit to Canberra last year.

“We need to rethink education to help address the things that ail our democracies,” he told a curtain-raiser event for Universities Australia’s higher education conference. “Educational institutions need to refocus on solutions that reboot our democracy.”

The new centre’s self-described mission is to “address the challenges and dangers of the digital age to the fabric of our societies”, through a three-pronged focus on technology, security and governance.

Its director, political scientist Don DeBats, said cybersecurity was often characterised as a technological problem but the new centre’s humanities focus was vital.

“This is a real opportunity for the social sciences to do what they’ve always been designed to do, which is to understand the complexity and directions of society,” said Professor DeBats, head of American studies at Flinders.

Professor Bleich said that the current digital revolution had a parallel in the turbulent period between 1870 and 1910, when the first industrial revolution gave way to the second. He said that it had been social scientists, not technologists, who conjured the solutions to the challenges of industrial change.

In the US, these solutions included health and safety laws and collective bargaining to address concerns about worker exploitation; a conservation movement to protect the environment; high school education to prepare people for the new economy; and antitrust laws and federal income tax to tackle worries about “money pooling in the hands of the few at the expense of the many”.

“It was the social scientists developing these norms, principals and ideas, even over how democracy worked,” he said. “That’s when the US extended voting to all women, and allowed the public to elect senators. Up until then they were selected by state legislatures.

“These were major changes to adapt to a new set of technologies and a new economy, driven largely by the fact that society was feeling overwhelmed. Ultimately, democracy is about people making choices. You can’t make good choices if you don’t know the facts and you don’t have ideas to address your concerns. That’s where social sciences really come in.”

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