Google Gives Information: Knowledge Promotes Empowerment

I was recently asked what information we actually still need to know in an age of Google. At about the same time, I was invited to speak to a local high school social studies class studying Ancient Greece. In preparing for the latter, I found a partial answer to the larger question that undergirds how to think about knowledge in the 21st century.

Having recently spent a year working for the federal government in Washington and having been a Voter Advocate during the 2012 presidential election, it seemed apt to talk to the students about voting rights -- from the time of the Ancient Greeks to today and into tomorrow.

So, I Googled "Ancient Greece Voting Rights." Among the results was an explanation, that: "... [O]nly citizens could vote. Children & slaves were not considered citizens, so they could not vote. All citizens have to take part in government. In old times, they believed all Greek men, rich or poor, had the right to vote. Women were citizens, but without political rights, so they could not vote. Slaves were not considered to be citizens, so they had only some basic rights."

First, the Athenian model is hardly the Democracy to which we aspire. Second, the statements are not all true; there was no mandatory participation and only male landed gentry were allowed to vote. Can an ideal democracy exist when some large portion of the population is disenfranchised?

And, there remains the question of how voting has worked and currently works in our own nation -- both in theory and practice -- as a means of comparison. The answers to these questions require not just accurate information. Knowledge, in its fullest sense, requires understanding and provides a pathway to empowerment.

While Ancient Greece is often touted as the exemplar of democracy, only 20 percent of the population voted -- not because 80 percent decided not to bother but because they did not have this right. Male citizens who were landowners and sons of citizens were the only individuals allowed to vote. Women, non-landowners and freed and unfreed slaves were denied.

Our nation -- at its onset - was not much better. The only male landowners aged 21 or older, virtually all of whom were white, were allowed to vote. By 1870, former male slaves and non-landowning males were allowed to vote but literacy tests and voting taxes, among other constraints, inhibited actual voting. Women did not receive this right until 1920; Native Americans were granted citizenship and voting rights in 1924. The 1965 Voting Rights Act forbade discrimination of any citizen the right to vote. In 1971, the voting age was lowered to age 18.

As recent U.S. elections have shown, though, having the right to vote and being able to exercise that right are not the same thing. Many U.S. citizens still find their voting right impaired due to, among other factors, voting irregularities, redistricting, inaccessible voting areas for elderly or disabled Americans and the absence of quality lists of registered voters.

But here is one truth: We need more citizens to vote, to represent a wide range of constituencies whose voices matter in how our nation is run. There is a remarkably strong correlation between education levels and the exercise of one's right to vote. Non-high school graduates vote at a rate of just under 34 percent. High school graduates vote at a rate approaching 51 percent. Almost 72 percent of individuals with a four-year college degree vote and those with advanced degrees vote at a rate slightly above 76 percent.

While there are no easy solutions to increasing voter participation, one option is to continue to encourage more Americans to continue their education beyond high school. Another is to improve access to the polls and to eliminate artificial hurdles to voting. A further option is lowering the voting age to 16 -- something for which there has been some support. Perhaps like my home state Vermont and in Maine, too, we should allow convicted felons to vote, whether they have served time or are still in prison. The high schoolers' debate on these issues was heated.

Debating information matters but it does not necessarily mobilize voters. How do we curb disenfranchisement -- whether caused by political or discriminatory reasons? To answer these and similar questions, we need more than information. Google does not tell us what to do. Figuring out how to use valid information is the real challenge.

Here are concrete steps I suggested today: I challenged the high school students studying Ancient Greece to think about their own town and how voting occurs: who votes and who does not. Are voters excluded and if so why? Today, Nov. 5th, 2013, is Election Day. They can start by paying more attention to today -- who is running and for what. And, when we have elections locally in Vermont, they can visit the polls. They can make sure their friends and families vote. This will animate a process started -- but left unfinished -- by the Athenians.

The Internet can only take us so far with information. Simply stated, Google leaves the really hard work to its users, hence, the title to this piece, created with the help of the high school students with whom I met. Web searches only get us so far; it's what follows the gathering of information that truly matters. And it is this latter effort that we can call "knowledge."