This is an era when every question seems to have an answer — and when that answer is as close as your phone, your laptop or your tablet. But these implements, which answer so many of the questions that we did not know we had, also have raised difficult new questions that we now know we cannot avoid.
Many of these critical questions have become part of the national debate in recent days in the wake of disclosures about how the new technology has opened up new avenues of government surveillance. Here are three of the most important questions suddenly dominating American civic life:
What is the balance between freedom and security?
This may seem like one of the eternal questions pondered by the ancients — you’re thinking of freedom and order, an entirely different matter — but in fact it is a recent issue, raised by terrorism and the specter of weapons of mass destruction.
Until Sept. 12, 2001, Americans gave little thought to the clash of freedom and security, because the pressure against freedom came mostly from barriers involving race (American blacks were denied the freedoms whites enjoyed), gender (traditional roles and some laws imposed barriers to women in the classroom, workplace and elsewhere) and religion (dating to the exclusionary impulses of Colonial settlements, which did not recognize the hypocrisy of religious discrimination by people who traveled to the New World for religious freedom). Security was a targeted issue, not that much of a broad issue, except of course during the Red scares after both World Wars.
The modern pressures on freedom come less against social mobility and personal expression than they do on the heretofore widely accepted freedoms of personal mobility and personal communication. In the contemporary world, unfettered access to public venues (the latest victim: sports stadiums) and the ability to communicate without government surveillance (cellphones and computers) are now genuinely at risk.