Digitizing Democracy: Technologies of Citizenship at the End of the Twentieth Century

Endorsed by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA) and the Business History Conference (BHC)

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Politics; Science and Technology; Social Welfare and Public Health


At the end of the 20th Century, U.S. Americans were promised that novel technologies would function as a powerful democratizing force. In the iconography of the famous “1984” Apple computer advertisement, the personal computer would empower the individual, breaking down the power of an authoritarian state. These techno-utopian dreams also animated social policy, from Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton’s shared determination to close the “digital divide” to IBM and Arthur D. Little’s promise of an improved and efficient welfare state. These technologically grounded ideas, and their advocates, challenged the foundational mechanisms of the social safety net, from local schools to welfare payments. This panel asks how those technologies were deployed to reimagine and reconfigure the experience of democratic citizenship, and noncitizenship. In the post-Great Society United States, an era increasingly identified with the retreat of the state, a new set of actors, previously at the margins of policy making, relied on expertise about technologies to assert powerful visions for the state. This panel traces how those actors claimed authority about the management of the U.S. poor. Such an approach expands current understanding of the cast of policymakers and the types of ideas that were central to determining the experience of the state at the end of the century. In this panel, we are interested in both the expansive power of the tech industry and the effects of specific technological systems. In Geismer’s paper, she details how Silicon Valley entrepreneurs allied with Clinton Democrats to advocate for a growing charter school movement, while Estruth foregounds Silicon Valley municipalities as they became the site of novel forms of “feminist capitalism.” Aidinoff’s paper tells the story of IBM’s role in the computerization of a racialized child support enforcement system in Mississippi, while Vidan shows Arthur D. Little’s conviction electronic banking could eliminate racialized poverty. In our collective story, venture capitalists and electronic banking proponents joined county caseworkers. As a whole, this panel asks how attending to histories of technology and technocracy might intersect with histories of the U.S. state, and how these fields might be mutually enriched by such a reappraisal. Technologiestheir material effects, their imagined values, and the coalitions formed around them-- have reconfigured the experience democratic citizenship. Across papers, we use these case studies from 1970s San José, California to 1990s Jackson, Mississippi to trace the construction of the technical ideas that would constitute the neoliberal state.

Papers Presented

Public Schools Are Our Most Important Business: Democratic Neoliberalism, the Tech Industry, and the Rise of Charter Schools

This paper will explore how a partnership between the Clinton Administration, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Netflix’s Reed Hastings and Kleiner Perkin’s John Doerr played a critical role in the development and expansion of the charter school movement in the 1990s. The paper will show how the advocacy of charters by both Democratic politicians and policymakers and tech executives proved critical in injecting the ideas of the private sector and language of the marketplace into discussions of education, and making learning ever more focused on incentives and results. In doing so, charter school policies helped to bolster the democratic version of neoliberalism. Examining the rise of charters also illuminates the expansive power that the technology industry came to wield in a range of policy arenas at the end of the 20th century. The Clinton administration and their tech allies emphasized that their larger aim was to draw on market-oriented techniques of competition and data-based accountability to make public schools more effective, accountable democratic. Their efforts to expand the charter school movement, however, did not only remove key arenas of oversight from public education. These campaigns also opened up a new and powerful place for the private business leaders and their philanthropic foundations (which are not accountable to the public) to shape and potentially benefit from public policy. Thus, similar to other new technologies, charter schools reveal how efforts to use the market to promote democracy and equality have often done the opposite.

Presented By
Lily D. Geismer, Claremont McKenna College

Family Feminism and the Philanthropists: The Technology Industry and the Rise of the Public-Private Partnership in Post–Proposition 13 California

In 1977, the National Women’s Political Caucus named San José, California, the “Feminist Capital of the Nation” due to its high numbers of elected female officials, and their family-forward policy agendas. In 1978, the voters of California passed ballot measure Proposition 13 by nearly 63 percent, radically decreasing homeowners’ property taxes, and hampering the State’s budget. Amid the subsequent budget crisis, actors who Jeannette Estruth calls “feminist capitalists” set about enacting their family-focused policies through a series of private, philanthropic donations from Silicon Valley technology firms. In this paper, as in her book, Estruth shows that, as municipal governments in the Silicon Valley turned to public-private partnerships to enact feminist policies, they shaped the political terrain and urban management of northern California, and ultimately, the nation.

Presented By
Jeannette Alden Estruth, Bard College and Harvard Law School, Berkman-Klein Center

Cashing Out: Arthur D. Little, Inc. Imagines the Electronic Poor

What does it mean to be disenfranchised in the digital economy? In the 1970s, with the rise of consumer-facing electronic banking, consumer rights advocates, policymakers, and industry leaders were eager to make the case for the early adoption of Electronic Fund Transfers (EFTs) by the poor. EFTs, a broad and unstable category of payments that aimed to end the use of cash and checks, were conceived as a means of relieving the most vulnerable among the poor from the perceived burdens of physically handling welfare checks and large sums of cash, in communities plagued by distrust of established financial intermediaries. Policymakers have awoken to the reality that when it comes to financial services, the poor paid more for less. They turned to a group of market researchers, technologists, and social scientists to dream up a world in which electronic payments offered a way forward. The National Science Foundation commissioned a technology assessment report from Arthur D. Little, Inc. which in turn produced a series of scenarios for the adoption of EFTs, written as historical case studies, looking back from the vantage point of decades of imagined experimentation with EFTs. This paper examines the ways in which the Little scenarios served as both a critique of the Nixon administration’s economic policies targeting black communities and perpetuated the notion of the “ghetto pathology” as a cultural and economic reality. These reveal a complex and dynamic relationship between the powerful visions of technology promoters and the categories of technological disenfranchisement.

Presented By
Gili Vidan, Harvard University

Technical Debt: Automating Child Support Enforcement in Mississippi, 1987–2001

By the late 1980s, welfare case workers and child support enforcement officers in Mississippi had become accustomed to colored memos from their division directors. Through the circulation of bulletins, these officials, responsible for collecting tens of millions of dollars of child support payments from non-custodial parents, stayed abreast of changing technical requirements: new log-in procedures, new mechanisms to classify income, and updated codes for compliance. The memos also reveal the evolution of a technical logic by which the state would identify, track, and punish noncustodial parents. As contractors from IBM and related technology firms shared technological methods among states, they emphasized potential efficiencies that could be gained by punishing non-custodial parents who were classified as being in arrears to each state. Across the 82 Mississippi counties, new computerized systems were designed to monitor noncustodial parents’ payments measured against the welfare checks received by their recorded children. By centralizing the collection and accounting of payments, and non-payments, state government was able to punish poor parents who fell behind and accumulated this troubling from of debt. For parents who owed more than $250, the system automatically set in motion a set of actions outside the traditional scope of a welfare officefreezing bank accounts, suspending licenses, and denying access to other government services. Automating these processes made them easier to expand. The technological innovations changed the scale of child support enforcement, from individualized casework to mass audit. As one caseworker explained, the process transformed child support work from “retail to wholesale.”

Presented By
Marc Aidinoff, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Alice M. O'Connor, University of California, Santa Barbara
Alice O’Connor is Professor of History and Director of the Blum Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She teaches and writes about poverty and wealth, social and urban policy, the politics of knowledge, and the history of organized philanthropy in the United States. Among her publications are Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History; Social Science for What? Philanthropy and the Social Question in a World Turned Rightside Up, and the co-edited volumes Beyond the New Deal Order (with Gary Gerstle and Nelson Lichtenstein); Urban Inequality: Evidence from Four Cities (with Chris Tilly and Lawrence Bobo); and Poverty and Social Welfare in the United States: An Encyclopedia (with Gwendolyn Mink). Her work has appeared in a number of historical and interdisciplinary journals, including the Journal of Urban History, the Journal of Policy History, the Annual Review of Sociology, and the Du Bois Review. Before joining the UCSB faculty in 1995, she was a program officer at the Ford Foundation and the Social Science Research Council and a National Science Foundation fellow at the Center for the Study of Urban Inequality at the University of Chicago. She has also been a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation and a fellow at the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University. Her current research focuses on wealth and inequality in the post World War II United States, and the origins of the second Gilded Age. She also serves on the Board of Directors of the Fund for Santa Barbara, a non-profit community foundation that supports grassroots organizations working for social, economic, environmental and political change in Santa Barbara County.

Presenter: Marc Aidinoff, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Marc Aidinoff is a doctoral candidate in the Program in History, Anthropology, Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His dissertation traces the role of networked computing in evolving permutations of the welfare state since 1984. His research has been supported by the Horowitiz Foundation for Social Policy, the National Science Foundation, the Society for the History of Technology, the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative. He is also a teacher with Freedom Summer Collegiate and serves on the board of the Rosedale Freedom Project in the Mississippi Delta. Prior to becoming a historian, Marc served as an Assistant Director for Policy in the Obama-Biden White House and as a strategist with Civis Analytics. Marc completed his AB in History and Science at Harvard College.

Presenter: Jeannette Alden Estruth, Bard College and Harvard Law School, Berkman-Klein Center
Jeannette Alden Estruth is Assistant Professor of Historical Studies at Bard College, where she teaches American History. She also holds affiliation with the Harvard Law School Berkman- Klein Center for Internet and Society.

She received her doctorate in History, with honors, from New York University in 2018. From 2018-2019, Estruth was a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2019, her book project was a finalist for the Herman E. Krooss Prize for Best Dissertation in Business History. Estruth’s work has been supported by the Mellon Foundation, the University of Virginia Miller Center, the Hagley Library, the Huntington Library, the NYU Henry MacCracken Fellowship, and the Fulbright Program, among others. She was formerly the Associate Editor of the Radical History Review, and an Editorial Assistant at Harvard University Press. She is a proud alumna of Vassar College.

She is currently working on her book manuscript, The New Utopia: A Political History of the Silicon Valley, which explores the history of social movements, the technology industry, and economic culture in the United States.

Presenter: Lily D. Geismer, Claremont McKenna College
Lily Geismer is Associate Professor of History at Claremont McKenna. College. Her research and teaching focuses on 20th century political and urban history in the United States, especially liberalism. Her book Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (Princeton University Press, 2015) traces the reorientation of modern liberalism and the Democratic Party away from their roots in labor union halls of northern cities to white-collar professionals in postindustrial high-tech suburbs by focusing on the Route 128 corridor around Boston. She is currently working on a book project entitled Doing Good: The Democrats and Neoliberalism from the War on Poverty to the Clinton Foundation, which explores the Democratic Party’s promotion of market-based solutions to problems of social inequality. She is also co-editor of Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century (University of Chicago Press, 2019). In 2018, she was named an Andrew Carnegie Fellow by the Carnegie Foundation. Her work has also been supported by the American Council for Learned Societies and the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University.

Presenter: Gili Vidan, Harvard University
Gili Vidan is a PhD candidate at the Department of the History of Science and a research fellow at the Science, Technology, and Society Program at Harvard. Her work looks at digital information technologies, changing notions of public trust and democratic governance, and narratives of crisis and future-making in the US. Her dissertation, “Technologies of Trust,” traces technical attempts to solve the problems of trust and transparency, with a focus on the development of public-key cryptography in the late 20th- and early 21st-century US. She is the 2019-20 Ambrose Monell Foundation Fellow in Technology and Democracy at the Jefferson Scholars Foundation.