Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy
|Event Date/Time: Feb 24, 2010||End Date/Time: Feb 26, 2010|
There is no question that the free access to knowledge and information are the bedrock of all democratic societies, yet no democratic society can function without limits on what can be known, what ought to be kept confidential and what must remain secret. The tension among these competing ends is ever present and continuously raises questions about the legitimacy of limits. What limits are necessary to safe guard and protect a democratic polity? What limits undermine it?
Of course, there is no need to be a student of history to know that the kinds and severity of limits wax and wane, over time. In fact it would appear that all stable democracies (the United States is a case in point) appear to place structural limits on limits; that is they appear to have a built-in capacity to â€˜returnâ€™ from periods in which access to knowledge and information is severely limitedâ€”such as the period after World War II or after the McCarthy period in the U.S. to a more â€œnormalâ€ state. What processes account for this? How have whistleblowers and investigative journalists increased freedom of information and public accountability? What is it that explains why periods in which limits increase invariably seem to be followed, after some time, by a relaxation of limits and a return to some mid-point â€“ between maximal and minimal limitations?
The central question asked by this proposed conference is, where is America today with respect to the limits on our access to information, limits on what we can keep confidential and what the government and other institutions can keep secret? How can the public gain access to information and how do we decide what information is a citizenâ€™s right to know? What information endangers individualsâ€™ or the countryâ€™s wellbeing and safety? Are the ever-increasing number of technological innovations fundamentally transforming what we can know and what we cannot? What can remain confidential and what cannot? On the one hand, technology has aided access to information and knowledge to broader and broader communities, thus eroding limits, while on the other hand, technologies are increasingly used by governments, businesses, and other social institutions to monitor and interfere with what we can know and cannot know and what is private and what is not.
The conference recognizes that it is not only governments which impose limits on knowledge and control the flows of information. Limits and accessibility to information also are affected by political manipulation of the scientific enterprise, by funding decisions, by research communities themselves which decide what to explore and what not to, by the governmentâ€™s censorship (both explicit and implicit) of the media as well as the mediaâ€™s own role in controlling or increasing the publicâ€™s access to information and, sometimes, misinformation. Less obvious are the limits imposed by the culture itself which both implicitly and explicitly may control what questions can and should be asked and which are ignored. These forces all together have serious impacts on what we seek to know and what we are content not to know.
Because the question of the limits on knowledge and their relationship to power, policy, intellectual life, and privacy in a democracy is eternal, and because what has been made possible by technology and globalization has so drastically altered the possibilities both of limits and no limits, the question of limits has become more urgent than ever, which is the reason we are proposing a Social Research conference on this subject. The conference will not only examine the question of limits in the new global environment but the ways in which limits may both support or undermine democracy.
Conference attendees can also register for a guided tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was created for the conference. The tours of their permanent collection will address the ways in which art has engaged questions of secrecy and free expression. The tours will be one hour, each on Saturday, February 27th and $15 per person. Tickets will include general admission to the museum.
This conference is the 21st in the Social Research conference series, founded by Arien Mack in 1988. Dr. Mack is Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology at The New School for Social Research and editor of Social Research since 1970. Social Research: An International Quarterly of the Social Sciences is the flagship journal of The New School for Social Research. For a list of over 70 degree programs at The New School, please visit the degree programs site. For a list of other events at The New School, please visit the university calendar. For general information about The New School visit the quick facts page. For the history of the conference series, visit the Social Research conference series site.