how to teach the constitution of cyberspace

Tomorrow at the American Political Science Association, I’ll be joining Hahrie C. Han (Wellesley College), Cathy J. Cohen (University of Chicago), and Joseph Kahne (Mills College) on a panel on Civic Education after the Digital Revolution Date (10:15 AM-12:00 PM, Omni Palladian Ballroom, DC).

This is one topic I’d like to discuss: Students should understand and be able to critically assess the basic rules and structure of the Internet, much as they should understand and be able to criticize the US Constitution. But the Internet is harder to grasp, for both teachers and students. How should the “constitution of cyberspace” be taught (if at all)?

The US government as an institution that students should understand in order to critically assess it. To be sure, the government is large and complex, it has changed over time, and it has both proponents and sharp critics. Yet it has one fundamental document (the US Constitution) and one impressive justification (in the Federalist Papers) that provide focal points of debate. Students can learn a lot by reading the Constitution, some of the Federalist Papers, and some critics of the Constitution and then applying their knowledge through discussions of historical and current controversies.

In contrast, Web 2.0 has no constitution and no Federalist Papers. I admire perceptive theorists of the new media landscape: Benkler (2006), boyd (2008), Castells (2000), Lessig (2000), Shirky (2008), Sunstein (2007), and others. None of these authors would claim to be the James Madison of cyberspace. They did not have the authority to write its fundamental rules, and they do not offer highly general justifications of it. Their writing is too difficult to be assigned directly in most k-12 classrooms. Their scholarship has not been digested for youth audiences, nor has it prominent expression in political discourse. If there is a Gettysburg Address for the new media environment, I have not seen it.

I do not presume that the US Constitution is preferable to the rules of cyberspace or that the framers of the Constitution are more admirable than the architects of the digital world. The Constitution requires critical evaluation; the Internet has attractive features. I would simply assert that it is harder to understand cyberspace than the US government because only the latter has an authoritative code (the Constitution) and official justifications that we can read and critically evaluate.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

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  • Felicia Sullivan

    Interested to hear what your panel yields. I wonder Peter if you are looking far enough back. The theorists you mention are looking back and assessing the development of this amazing system that had its origins almost 40 years before.

    What would it be like to look at the very beginnings of the Internet? The very choices that were made about protocols, packet switching, agnostic platform acceptance, etc? What were those original design specs sought out by the minds at DARPA and their rational for those specs? What informed the choices of those consultants at BBN in working through their problem-solving? One of the best books I’ve read on the early Internet is Hafner and Lyons’ “When Wizards Stay Up Late” — I recommend it as accessible with minimal tech jargon.

    It is amazing to me that a U.S. Defense Department project would have created a technology that envisioned a world of non-hierarchical, completely dynamic, non-centralized communication that would allow many different machines with different programming languages to talk to one another. These are very democratic choices. Like the framers of the Constitution, I doubt they really could have imagined the developments that were to take place and how many of the world’s globe would connect in and be shaped.. It is as awe inspiring to me as the U.S. Constitution. It would be interesting to pick apart these very technical designs specifications to see what goals they sought to achieve and what values were embedded therein. Hmmm . . . I’m inspired to dig around a bit in the archives.

  • PeterLevine

    Felicia, that’s extremely interesting. I agree that the origins at DARPA are fascinating. I may raise some of this tomorrow, citing you.