Access Granted

Kathy Goodson

If the most diligent and efficient way to provide public information to citizens is through the Internet, then Internet access should be free. Free access to information is not only a right, but it is also an integral component of the government’s responsibility in creating informed citizens. The government provides multiple quality-controlled ways to access public information. This includes, but is not limited to, physical records at city hall, public hearings, and free public records databases. However, as the government continues to digitize public information, a new approach to providing access to this public information will be necessary. An approach that requires all citizens to have access to the Internet will ensure the public retains free access to the information found in places and documents such as libraries, public reports, and phone books.

Phone books and pay phones are examples of free access to public information. It is archaic that we still print in such high volumes. In Chicago alone, 1.2 million phone books were distributed this year. Supporters argue that greater than 50% of all Americans still use phone books, but every unwanted phone book incurs a fine for the phone company. The remaining 50% of Americans have a better resource to find public information in their pocket, their smartphone. Just like traditional public pay phones (when is the last time you saw one of those?), phone books are slowly being phased out for their smartphone counterparts. The smartphone gives us the functionality of the payphone and the information of the phone book all in one small portable device. Yes, there are great arguments for the use of pay phones including ensured access to phone services for those who can’t afford them. However, there is an equally compelling argument to provide public information to everyone in the most responsible, effective, and productive manner possible. Free Internet access as a means for public information would support that goal.

An educated public is vital to the existence of our democracy. Accordingly, the government has historically advocated literacy through institutions like the public library. However, traditional forms of free access to public information are no longer the most convenient or productive. Court records, marriage licenses, and phone books are all better utilized in electronic formats. The shift toward electronic repositories is becoming the norm. Legal electronic documents with electronic signatures are considered just as valid a their handwritten counterparts. Security clearances are digital from the initial application to the fingerprinting process. Shouldn’t we extrapolate these digitized models, such as the security clearance process, into all forms of public information? However, in order to do this successfully, Internet access has to be free everywhere, all the time. To achieve free Internet access in a quality-controlled manner, management by the government, as with other forms of outsourced dissemination of public information, will be required.

Hence, the government should supply reliable free Internet access to the masses everywhere. The hope is that public access to government information increases or at minimum maintains public literacy. Lack of access to government information debilitates people from interacting with the local, state, and federal government. The government is well aware of and has even made preparation for America’s Digital Age. Last year, a panel from the National Academy of Public Administration put out a report with 15 recommendations regarding ways to better position the federal government in our digital society for the Government Printing Office. While the recommendations prompt the retention and safeguard of digital documents, and the continued mandate of free public access, it does not focus on how this access will be given to the masses. If there is a shifting tide in how the masses obtain their access to government information, the government should be able to accommodate the need. The requirement to meet this need is competent and successful access. Thus, Internet access should be free. This ensures that the free government repositories of public information remain totally free and available.


The Truth is Hard to Find in the Digital Age

Charles Mueller & Jennifer Buss

Do you trust everything you read on the Internet? No, ok. Do you scour the first couple hits on Google until you find a source that you believe is reputable? That reputation has never mattered more than in today’s world because the level of competition for the public’s attention has never been greater. In order to respond to this demand, our information generation and delivery processes have become focused on being the first to grab the public’s attention. In order to be first, many sacrifice the accuracy of the information they produce, and because modern technology has enabled information to be spread at unprecedented rates, this results in misinformation and inconsistent “facts” becoming mainstream common knowledge; the truth is becoming harder to find.

A recent example of this occurred when Rolling Stone reported on a girl who claimed she was gang-raped at a UVA at a fraternity party. The story only reported the perspective of the female involved and did virtually nothing to corroborate her story. Rolling Stone has recently come forward explaining that their original report no longer agrees with the facts that have since emerged. This error forces the conversation away from the fact that UVA has a poor history of properly dealing with rape issues. Rolling Stone should feel absolutely humiliated. Maintaining a good reputation and trustworthiness in journalism requires good detective work, but in this instance, it looked like the author didn’t even try. If journalists can’t verify the events from the sources, they aren’t doing their job (i.e. reporting the facts to the public).

This situation has exposed a problem with our information delivery systems, a problem where the truth is sacrificed for personal gain. We’ve seen this problem with Internet reporting of current events; in the scientific literature regarding the creation of stem cells from skin cells; in medicine with the claims that vaccines cause autism; and in the 2008 global financial crisis. What matters most now is no longer the truth. The most important objective is giving your audience what they want because that is what they pay for.  We are pressuring scientists to produce revolutionary results instead of encouraging them to think freely and incentivizing journalists to entertain us rather than report on the facts. What are going to be the long-term consequences of putting these types of pressures on the professionals that produce information in our society?

In the days where the newspaper reined supreme, there was less disagreement among society about the facts surrounding an issue. In the digital age, where the accuracy of information is questionable and availability of different perspectives is unprecedented, the amount of disagreement among the facts can only broaden. While a diversity of opinion is essential for a democratic society, too much diversity, especially when it’s spawned through misinformation, can only damage society. The opinions built on misinformation are only going to increase as technology continues to make it easier to access and generate information. To counter this trend, we need to start mandating trustworthy sources, validating our news, changing the monetary value in publishing, and modifying the current system to focus less about the individual and more on the greater good. Applications like Checkdesk attempt to do this, but more is needed. It is time to take action, combat this reality head-on, and restore confidence in our information generation and delivery processes. The truth in the Digital Age is already hard enough to find.


A National Focus on Neuroscience

Brian Barnett

Neuroscience and neurotechnology have the potential to greatly improve our society, but the field needs significant investment in the form of a National Neurotechnology Initiative. We need a federal initiative that will bolster basic research and technology development for the entire field of neuroscience. There is a discrepancy between our neuroscientists’ efforts to study the brain and our available knowledge on the subject. Last month, thousands of neuroscientists came to our nation’s capital to attend the Society for Neuroscience annual conference to report on their research. During the conference, Nature put out an issue focusing on the difficulty in understanding depression and other mental disorders. We have so many great scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying the brain, and large portions of them are performing research to find cures for neurological disorders and disease. We put millions of dollars into research and we have a cohort of capable neuroscientists, so why are we still so ineffectual in our efforts to help those in need? The answer is that neuroscience is a complex field that currently has insufficient funding and resources to address all of its issues.

More than 350 million people worldwide are affected by depression, and as many as two thirds of those who commit suicide are afflicted by the condition. Hundreds of other neurological conditions affect our population across all age groups. We are still using drugs and technology from the 1950’s to address mental disorders and perform research. We develop new methodologies like cognitive behavioral therapy and we can’t explain the mechanisms by which they help patients. These observations plainly show that we are not doing enough to invest in neuroscience and provide our researchers with the tools and technologies to better understand the brain. Unfortunately, there is not one single problem area or deficiency that we can target to improve the situation. To succeed, we need to address a fundamentally incomplete understanding of all mechanisms and scales of brain function, from intercellular communication to the cognitive bases of behavior.

The solution is a large, long-term federal investment in neuroscience research and technology. Basic research, technological advances, and industry development will improve our scientific knowledge about the brain and give us methods and instruments for effecting positive change. We will be able to cure diseases and disorders when we understand the brain’s basic mechanisms, languages, and systems. We will share and combine findings from separate laboratories and research centers when we incorporate big data and IT infrastructure. We will create positive feedback loops where scientific knowledge informs novel technology development, and this technology enables entirely new methodologies for research investigations.

Our neuroscientists want to present research that truly demonstrates our essential understanding of the brain when they attend conferences. Our scientific journals want to publish great news about improvements to our health and well-being. Our innovators want to develop neurotechnologies that will better all of society. In light of the President’s BRAIN Initiative, national scientific journals’ coverage of mental illness, and an ever-growing national research society, the spotlight has never shone brighter on the field of neuroscience. The inspiration and motivation is readily apparent, so the only missing piece is a bold federal initiative that makes progress in neuroscience and neurotechnology a reality.

Constitutional Evolution

Charles Mueller

I think it is time we reexamine our Constitution. The purpose of the Constitution, as laid forth by our founding fathers, was to have a set of rules that protected our rights. Our rights are reflected in the values and cultural norms of our society. They are a product of the times. Therefore, the Constitution should evolve with the times. It’s not to say that we have to change the Constitution just because things change, but we should have a habit (either forced or by due diligence) of reexamining the Constitution every 20 years or so; each generation should have at least one chance to reexamine how their rights are protected.

Thomas Jefferson’s 1789 letter to James Madison examined the argument that the Constitution should be dynamic and reflect the times of those being governed under it. So why doesn’t our Constitution reflect the current era? Why was the most recent amendment to it (the 27th) really an idea from 1789 that took over 200 years to ratify? When we refuse to acknowledge the needs and demands of society are different now than what is portrayed in our Constitution, we cement our governance to the will of those who last laid pen to it.

The idea of having flexibility in the rules for an organized system is not a human invention. In fact, our cellular constitution (our DNA) already embodies this concept. For example, if a virus enters our body, it triggers our immune system to search our DNA for a solution to stop the virus. If we have encountered the virus before, our DNA likely has a solution for stopping it (an antibody gene). However, if it has never seen this virus before, something interesting happens: a new gene is created that is optimized to deal with this new change in the environment. This makes the human body both dynamic and rapid in its ability to adjust to a changing environment, and is just one example of the many ways the human body is built to adapt.

If humans are nature’s best design for an organizational life system, and this system is designed so that its cellular constitution must be rapidly adaptive, then isn’t there some sort of lesson to be learned here? Why isn’t the US Constitution designed and being used in a manner that allows for it to be rapidly adaptive? Why, in a time when the global environment is changing at an exponential pace, do we still insist on being governed by a Constitution that is frozen in time? Shouldn’t our Constitution, like the DNA inside our cells, have some sort of flexibility that allows our “blueprints” for running this country to properly reflect the state of the world?

Thomas Jefferson once said, “The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct…every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right”. I think it is time we change the way we manage our rights. I think it’s time we come together to update the Constitution in such a way that it protects not just the rights of the citizens of today, but also allows it to adapt with the times.   Let’s get serious about our future and have a Constitutional Convention were we reexamine the fundamentals of our nation like our forefathers intended.