TL; DR: Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center was founded in 1998 to explore the impact web-based technologies have on society and our everyday lives. Created as an interdisciplinary, university-wide endeavor, the Center attracts some of the world’s brightest minds to build, study, and collaborate on the ideas and tools that are shaping the modern digital landscape. It’s an environment developed to cultivate a deeper understanding of humanity’s relationship with technology with the aim to use that knowledge to further the greater good.
Harvard University ranks among the world’s most prestigious educational institutions. Founded in 1636, it is also one of the oldest, with a long history of global influence.
Among its most influential schools are the schools of law, medicine, and business. With extensive literary and financial resources, Harvard endures as a symbol of success, leadership, and learning. And, in 1998, a handful of professors and Harvard Law graduates continued this tradition by forming the Berkman Klein Center.
“They were starting to see the rise of the early internet and some of the concerns around the development of legal issues, as well as some of the cultural behaviors starting to arise online,” said Daniel Dennis Jones, the Berkman Klein Center’s Digital Media Producer.
At the time, the internet was still in its infancy, having yet to witness the rise of social media and massive video streaming sites. When Google was launched in 1998, more people became curious about how the web could benefit society, a question the fellows at the Berkman Klein Center sought to study.
The Center began as a small project dedicated to researching internet technology and how it relates to law and society but quickly grew into a prominent interdisciplinary endeavor that sponsors tech conferences and attracts collaboration from some of the world’s brightest minds.
Recently, the Center has been involved in the review of several public policy issues, including online child safety and global access to internet service, and also focuses on privacy concerns, cloud computing, and internet censorship.
Encouraging Collaboration on the Societal Impacts of the Internet
Given its broad range of diverse alumni in various fields, the Berkman Klein Center aims to unite as many perspectives as possible to get the most accurate insight into differing perspectives.
“We’ve definitely tried to develop within Harvard a place where people can not only go and talk about internet-related issues, but also to go out and be able to talk to all the different disciplines that we have under our roof and see where they cross over,” Daniel said.
In 2008, the Berkman Klein Center became a larger part of the university, encompassing more than just the Law School.
Upon branching into cross-disciplinary territory, the Center launched numerous projects with the help of students and professors from several schools, including law, medicine, design, business, among others.
“The internet wasn’t just something that lawyers were concerned about,” Daniel said. “We’ve gone to all different corners and brought people from all of our communities into our organization and started projects with them.”
In 2008, the Internet Safety Technical Task Force was launched, reviewing the pressing issue of online child safety. Additionally, the Internet and Democracy Project was started to examine the web’s effect on democratic norms in the Middle East. Connecting all the Center’s initiatives is the desire to advocate for the rights of citizens to access information and freely debate ideas.
Making Cutting-Edge Research Accessible to a Wider Audience
Among the most ambitious projects the Center helped build is the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which seeks to make a plethora of knowledge accessible to all. The project began development in 2010 and was fully spun into its own organization in 2013, having received funding from various government agencies and foundations.
While printed copies of books and physical storage media are limited in quantity and lifespan, the information held within can be stored and accessed in digital form forever. Described as a “union catalog,” the DPLA makes content that has been curated by archives, museums, and libraries all over the US searchable and usable under one roof. And it’s not just books, but also pictures, sound recordings, video, and letters.
As the Center’s Digital Media Producer, Daniel is responsible for making research data more digestible. Often, this takes the form of preparing infographics, videos, and animated illustrations.
“Sometimes the research work can be enhanced by translating it to a broader audience,” Daniel said. “For instance, we have this project in place to develop a new research technique called differential privacy.”
Differential privacy allows researchers to gather and share profile data without compromising privacy. Employing methods, such as subsampling and hashing, researchers can gain general insight into information about research subjects — all without revealing specific information about individuals.
The Center also hosts numerous events and conferences, as well as a growing number of visiting lecturers and fellows to discuss and spread new ideas. Its fellows program brings in approximately 50 new faces each year for collaboration and research purposes.
“The internet represents a lot of new modes of communication and interaction,” Daniel said. “For all of these different disciplines, it represents an opportunity to have new modes of study and outreach to bring together a lot of different people.”
Leveraging the Power of AI and the Web to Promote Civic Engagement
In addition to making already established knowledge more accessible, the Berkman Klein Center’s various initiatives explore the nature of human society and how it relates to the internet revolution, wherein information has naturally become more abundant than ever.
“We have a project called metaLAB that does a lot of really cool artistic projects that examine questions about the internet,” Daniel said. “Right now they’re looking at interpretations of how artificial intelligence technology senses the world around it.”
Another metaLAB project, Curarium, visually analyzes art collections to discern patterns in cultural expression. MetaLAB brings together software engineers, artists, and designers to both create and examine art through the lens of cultural norms and machine learning.
Through its Fellows Program, the Berkman Klein Center provides space for dozens of organizations and leaders from academia, activism, government, and the private sector to create an impact on the real world. SAFElab, a prominent research project of Columbia University’s School of Social Work, seeks to understand the mechanisms and motivations for violence both on and offline. Spearheaded by Columbia University’s Desmond Patton, who is also a Fellow at the Center, SAFElab includes a number of ongoing projects to extract gang-related information from social media posts and identify precipitating factors to violence.
“They study the language of potentially at-risk youth online and identify when they would possibly pursue dangerous or at-risk behavior,” Daniel said. “Prior to the internet, there would have been no way to identify these patterns so quickly or easily and intervene.”
Unifying Tech, Government, and Nonprofit Communities Worldwide
Dedicated to the pursuit and spread of knowledge, the Harvard Berkman Klein Center studies and builds the latest technologies, not the least of which is artificial intelligence. The research center seeks to improve the way we obtain, preserve, spread, and use knowledge and digital media.
“We just started an ethics and governance of artificial intelligence project last year to look into the potential challenges of AI and to bring more voices into the conversation,” Daniel said. “We want to help the governments, researchers, and companies developing and using AI to develop techniques and policies to help prevent some of the ethical dilemmas that may arise.”
In its 20 years of operation, the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society has hosted numerous research projects that not only help us better understand the relationships between the web and societal structures, but also help build on and improve those structures. Leveraging a wealth of research, the Center seeks to use technology for the greater good and unify people with disparate concerns through collaborative discussions, innovative projects, and archives of digitally stored and easily accessible information.
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