A Manifesto for Dignity in a Digital Age

A Manifesto for Dignity in a Digital Age

A Manifesto for Dignity in a Digital Age

On Ro Khanna’s bold vision.


Ro Khanna represents Silicon Valley in Congress. Over the years, he has come to greatly admire the creativity of its entrepreneurs, their ability to get things done quickly (so unlike the sluggish pace of Congress), and their tremendous capacity for wealth generation. These, he believes, are qualities our democracy needs. And since ours is a digital age, our democracy particularly needs the work those qualities achieve in Silicon Valley.

And yet Silicon Valley does not always work well for the democracy it inhabits. First, its creation of wealth and jobs currently benefits a narrow elite, and leaves not just many people but also many parts of the country behind. Second, the Internet has proven to be a source not only of critical argument that enhances democracy but also, probably more often, of rumor-mongering, viral hate speech, and encouragements to bypass thought and listening in favor of venting and immediate preference-satisfaction.

Khanna’s own story, which he engagingly tells in an early chapter of his book Dignity in a Digital Age, orients the reader to the particular brand of political optimism cum pragmatism he favors. Khanna’s maternal grandfather was a freedom fighter in Gandhi’s Quit India movement, imprisoned for some years by the British Raj, and later an MP in India’s first Parliament. His mother moved to the United States to marry his father, already studying chemical engineering here. Their parents arranged the meeting, but they then fell in love, and the marriage was a happy one. Khanna’s father took a job with a chemical firm, staying with the same company for almost 30 years, and his mother taught special needs kids in school. Both benefited from the loosening of immigration restrictions against non-Europeans at that time, and from the policy of recruiting engineers and scientists during the Cold War.

Khanna was born in Philadelphia, but he spent his most formative years in Bucks County, in the economically mixed community of Holland, Pa. This background taught him great respect for non-elite communities and their people. Although the Khannas were among Holland’s wealthier residents, they still needed to be thrifty and save, and Ro’s friends in public school were often less affluent than he. He remembers little racism and expresses gratitude to the teachers who nourished his ability and the Little League coaches who made an effort to include and encourage him, although he was not a strong player. From this background he developed a belief in the American Dream at its best, and his new book is an effort to examine what it will take to make his story the story of every American in a digital age. His central aspiration is to foster digital jobs that strengthen local communities—“new jobs without cultural displacement”—and digital media that strengthen the sort of capacity for the give and take of critical argument that he learned from his high school, rather than making this give and take a vanishing rarity.

Khanna is well known as a member of the Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party. But what stands out for the reader is his determined transpartisanship, difficult though it is to be transpartisan today. He has collaborated on digital-job creation with Hal Rogers, a Republican member of Congress from Kentucky, and when he discusses Internet speech in his book, he turns to libertarians Eugene Volokh and Nadine Strossen rather than to leftists who seek tighter governmental limits on speech.

Philosophically, Khanna is most inspired by the liberal views of John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas rather than by any positions further left. (Those were the centrist positions of an earlier era, and I recall Rawls saying to his colleagues that he refused to accept honorary degrees because he was being honored for holding status quo beliefs, rather than either socialism or libertarianism.) The Habermasian idea of a deliberative public sphere and Rawls’s ideas of the priority of liberty and fair equality of opportunity, as well as the Capabilities Approach pioneered in different ways by me and economist Amartya Sen (who wrote the book’s Preface) play a structuring role in his book, although explicit discussions of philosophy, present in an earlier draft I saw, have mostly disappeared from the finished product.

This is perhaps the time to mention my own connection with Khanna. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, he never took a class from me (his major was economics), but he sought me out as the head of a group of students who wanted to hold an ambitious conference on democracy. They asked me to be their faculty adviser. I said I would advise, but they would have to do all the work. The plan was unbelievably ambitious. Speakers on their wish list included a US senator, a cardinal, a president of a Central American nation, and many other luminaries. I was skeptical, both that they would raise the money they needed and that they would succeed in attracting the luminaries. I was totally wrong. This group of undergraduates did everything they planned, and more, the more being that they created a genuinely deliberative conference where ideas were discussed critically, not just a parade of the famous. Since then, I have kept in touch with Khanna. I donate to his campaigns and enjoy exchanging ideas with him. I’m more a Biden-style centrist, but Khanna doesn’t choose his advisers by ideology, and I have given him comments on early drafts of some of his book.

In his advocacy and in his new book, Khanna identifies two major problems that digital media pose for American citizenship. The first concerns skills training and job creation. His Silicon Valley constituents have done brilliant creative work, but, as he acknowledges, they live to a great extent cut off from the rest of the country, including residing in areas where only the super-rich can afford housing. Because this isolates and depletes rural communities, Khanna’s first goal is to devise ways to energize forgotten areas of the nation, training people in digital skills, giving them access to jobs, and giving everyone high-speed Internet access. He takes issue with Paul Krugman’s argument that big cities are and will be where the action is. He thinks this bad for people and for democracy, and he envisages a different possible future, if only we have the will to create it: one in which smaller cities such as Erie, Rochester, and Columbus serve as “tech hubs” to which people in yet smaller communities can connect, often working from home or setting up a “satellite office.” Khanna has studied successful and not-so-successful programs that seek renewal of communities through job creation, and the first half of the book gives a detailed analysis of many of these, with ample data and personal knowledge. A lead story is that of a jobs training program centered in Paintsville, Ky., and run by Interapt, a technology services program founded by Ankur Gopal, an Indian American raised in Kentucky.

Decentralizing tech opportunities, Khanna believes, will allow people to flourish while staying rooted in their local communities, thus strengthening democratic society. Most of the cases that work involve private investment, and partnership with state colleges; but Khanna also sees a stabilizing and incentivizing role for federal government, which should, he believes, help along this vision for decentralizing digital innovation and job creation through tax incentives, digital grants to develop future-of-work programs. Most ambitious, he advocates for a National Digital Corps modeled on the Peace Corps, where bright young tech entrepreneurs would partner with universities, community colleges, and local businesses to build credentialing and apprentice programs and mentor new workers in left-behind communities. Some of this has bipartisan support and may be attainable (as indeed the extension of broadband garnered some bipartisan support as part of the infrastructure bill). The ideas themselves are not ideological. They should attract bipartisan support, and they would, were our politics not so hideously deformed by rancor. For the rest, Khanna currently has to rely on private partnerships with states and local communities.

The second problem Khanna identifies concerns the many ways current digital media affect our lives as citizens. Its first chapter is an “Internet Bill of Rights” coauthored by Khanna and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, in consultation with other experts. The first issue they consider is privacy. They favor an opt-in regime for consent to data gathering by tech companies; easier access to knowledge of what is done with our data; the right to delete personal data and abusive content (limited, however, he urges, by the First Amendment right to post such content where relevant); and clear standards for data security and timely notice of any breach. They strongly favor net neutrality, recently repealed by the FCC; Khanna suggests that Congress should pass a law giving the FCC power to regulate ISPs as “common carriers,” thus preventing further elite domination. (An example Khanna gives of a tech innovation meeting all of his standards is the Apple/Google Covid tracing app, which suitably respects user privacy.)

Following a somewhat technical discussion of the important issue of antitrust, there is an impressive chapter on speech and deliberation, in which Khanna considers the general topic of free speech, the problem of disinformation and false information, and the importance of digital literacy for creating truly inclusive democratic discussions. On the topics of hate speech and false speech, Khanna is appropriately cautious about government intervention, but argues that there is much more that media companies can and should do to police themselves. Each should create an independent monitoring board to guide them in determining what speech is so hate-filled, or so dangerously misleading, that it does not deserve Internet amplification. The decisions of such groups should be cautious, transparent, and nonpartisan. At the same time, both tech companies and governments at many levels should foster digital town meetings where people can meet to share respectful arguments and really think, rather than going with the currents of social media fashion.

The book ends with an uplifting chapter on democratic patriotism, drawing on Frederick Douglass’s speech “Our Composite Nationality” to articulate a vision of a multiracial and multireligious America that still manages to share a unifying vision of national purpose. In Khanna’s view, we can and must confront our differences in a spirit of civility and genuine curiosity about the views and practices of others. Finally, Khanna summarizes the unifying thread in all the book’s recommendations. It is that America is a nation of unparalleled richness and creativity, exemplified at a high level in the achievements of Silicon Valley. But these riches must not be permitted to drift, so that they foster primarily the wealth of elites and impoverish both non-elite communities and democratic discussion. Americans must seize the helm and make technology work for all of us, supporting truly democratic aspirations. Khanna’s winning energy, pragmatism, and idealism are a model for all of us who have been passively tolerating the “drift” he deplores.

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