The Two Codes of Responsible Citizenship

In an editorial in the February 12th edition of The New York Times, Thomas Friedman describes how the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT exam, recently mused about the essential skills today’s high school students need as they enter adulthood. After much discussion, the organization centered on the need for students to master two seemingly unrelated things: Computer Science and the U.S. Constitution. It turns out these two “codes”, as the article describes them, are not as dissimilar as they, at first, appear.

In an age in which we find ourselves challenging each other’s rights for political purposes, belittling others who believe differently, attempting to silence dissenting voices, and dreaming aloud about criminalizing dissent, the venerable law of the land, our Constitution, looms larger in importance than ever. What rights does it guarantee? Why did the Founders believe it important to codify these rights in the Constitution and through its various amendments? What does having three equal branches of government mean when it comes to executive or judicial overreach? How should the legislative branch balance political concerns for party purity and allegiance with its responsibility to protect individual liberties through laws, even when those laws run afoul of the wishes of an authoritarian President and his base?

These are pressing questions that surely are not easy to answer, but answer them we must. Responsible civic engagement requires knowledgeable activism, not reactionary fury but informed and respectful action and argumentation, one that works within our structures, respectful of the wisdom that founds them and of their long and successful history of protecting our freedoms. Fundamentally, we must understand the language of our shared legal code, our Constitution.

We must also understand a different kind of code, one that operates slightly above the digital logic of ones and zeros. Computer technology has transformed the way we communicate, entertain, and inform, the ways in which we engage with each other and our civic institutions. Through computer innovation, we have access to an always-on and ubiquitously reaching platform for exchanging viewpoints and expressing ideas. This platform is remarkably brittle, exposed to constant cyber attack and efforts to misuse it. And yet, it is unparalleled in its ability to convey ideas and sentiments over vast distances and daunting barriers.

At its best, technology functions as a remarkably egalitarian mouthpiece, one capable of amplifying the voices of freedom above the cacophonous din of oppression. At its worst, it suppresses and lambastes, criticizes and cajoles, vilifies and belittles with the unforgiving relentlessness of a schoolyard bully made to look foolish for the last time. In other words, it can be, and certainly has been, used for means that run exactly counter to the rights expressed in our Constitution. It has proved frighteningly adept at disenfranchising and silencing people whose rights should otherwise by protected under our rule of law.

It is interesting that the College Board chose these two seemingly distinct codes – that of the Constitution and that of the computer – as essential components of a modern education. They alternately complement and confound each other, complete and combat each other. The challenge for us educators, I suppose, is to prepare students who are knowledgeable enough about both to discern the great value that comes from getting them to align and to avoid the terrifying perils that arise when they don’t.

Will our students use technology to give voice to the voiceless or to drown them further out? Will they provide services that help others exercise their freedoms, or will they create needless barriers that prevent them from enjoying their rights? Will they empower citizens to know the intricacies of issues that affect them, or will they bombard them with messages that distract and confuse? Will they build platforms for exchanging ideas or tools for critiquing and stifling them? Will they extend the capabilities of man, or will they create technologies that obviate him, leaving the pursuit of happiness an exercise in folly? Will they understand that just because they can build something doesn’t mean they should. Will they have the wisdom to recognize that line before their technolust endangers the rights and freedoms of others?

Put simply, will our students protect our freedoms with technology, or will they imperil them? Ultimately, the answer hinges on how well they learn the two codes.

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

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