Making the "Right" Connections

Last Thursday, June 2nd, USA Today ran an intriguing article: Beyond Kiwanis: Internet Builds New Communities. The piece focused on how technology, specifically the internet and cell phones, helps to build new communities and strengthen engagement around the country. There’s some inspiring news in the piece; but there are also some potential dangers that we must address.

On the upside, the piece suggests that people are more “connected” with each other through their use of technology. One man is quoted as saying, “I wouldn’t have been able to be Cubmaster of Pack 152 without email. I don’t have time to do traditional phone trees and calendars by hand.”

I’m a youth soccer coach, and I know exactly how he feels. For years, I made individual phone calls to contact my team about changes to practice times, game venues, uniforms, and countless other things. Now, I can contact my entire team with just the click of a button; and, as long as I have my laptop, I can stay in touch from anywhere. There’s no doubt in my mind that e-mail has made me more connected to my players – as a team, and as individuals.

The USA Today article suggests that people are now more civically active through the use of technology. For instance, the articles states, “Activists are using instant text-messaging to organize protests.” It goes on to say, “MoveOn.org has become a big factor in liberal political organizing.”

I know of many instances where people have used technology to become more civically engaged. Meetup.com has been phenomenally successful at helping people with common interests find each other.

But amid that silver lining lurks some questions we must confront about the use of technology in civic life. Here are three questions to consider:

    1. Because we have new ways to communicate, does it mean that our communications are any better? For instance, we can now more easily marshal people’s energies to protest on an issue via the use of technology, but have the tone and substance of public conversations changed any? More acrimonious debate is not what the country needs.
    1. Just because more people are involved, does it mean we’re acting for the public good? Technology allows us to quickly ramp up the numbers of actively involved people, but striving toward maximum feasible participation doesn’t necessarily mean that the engagement is focused on the collective or public good. It just means that lots of people are expressing their individual views. The public good is much greater than the sum of its parts.
  1. Because we can instantaneously contact one another, does it mean that we are acting any smarter or that our ideas are any better? One could argue that our fast-paced tendencies lead us to bark out protests and claims before we’ve had ample time to consider what we believe and value – either as individuals or collectively.

One of the main points in the USA Today piece is that by increasing the number of contacts through the use of technology we create vital “ties” to one another. This rings true with my own experience. But the questions I pose above suggest that we need to think beyond the mere number of “ties” that are being created among us.

Simply having social ties that derive from the use of technology will not, on their own, help us address issues such as improving public schools, reforming social security, ensuring health care for people, or a host of other public concerns that people wrestle with every day. To address those effectively, we need to be able to imagine and act for the public good.

Thus, we must make sure that as we use technology the following ideas are in place:

    • Our conversations must move from what “I” want to want “we” seek. Let me be clear on this point: this is not a matter of merely aggregating people’s individual preferences, but arises only from give-and take conversation among people. We must use new technologies to create spaces for more genuine conversations in society, not simply easier ways to bark out our demands and claims. Then we can find common ground to move forward on the issues that confront us.
    • Our interactions must have some continuity. Through more interactions with the same people over time, we can create deeper bonds that give rise to expressions of compassion, tolerance, and the willingness to compromise – all essential ingredients for a society to work.
  • Our sense of connection must go beyond our self-defined group. Research has shown that people in our society are moving into newly self-defined groups and organizations. The good news is that this movement provides a sense of belonging for people. Yet, often these new groups become incredibly insular. We must exercise vigilance in looking beyond “ourselves” to see the needs and aspirations of the larger society. Otherwise we are simply further fragmenting ourselves.

I could go on, but for now I’ll only list these three ideas. I list these, in particular, because I am now completing a new book, Hope Unraveled, which traces people’s relationship to politics and public life, their community, and each other over the past 15 years. What’s clear in the book is how people have retreated from the public realm. Also clear to me is their latent desire to engage with one another and to gain a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves.

At issue is how we will tap into people’s latent desire – will it be to provide more spaces for people to engage as individuals expressing their own needs, or as citizens who are interested in acting for the public good.

I believe deeply that people want to work for the public good. We just need more venues to foster this collective action, and I hope that those who are designing new technology platforms will build them in ways that reflect the people’s aspirations.