Plugged in, but not connected.

The occasion of starting a blog seems like a perfect opportunity to question the role of technology in civic engagement and public work.

Despite its enormous potential for enhancing communication, technology is often cited as a major barrier to creating an environment where people are connected and engaged in public work. A University of Minnesota student I interviewed recently provided examples: “The things that come to mind are computers, Internet, television, iPods and Palm Pilots. It keeps people in isolation because when everything is just a touch of a button away, why engage??

A student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College told me “the downfall of society [is] air conditioning. It used to be that in the summertime when it was hot, everyone would sit on the front porch and the neighbor kids would all play together. Back then, we knew every kid in the neighborhood. Now everybody stays in their house with their air-conditioning, playing their video games and watching cable TV.?

Do people who care about civic engagement have technology to blame? To thank? Both?


By making keeping in touch an effortless matter, can we really be faulted for not making the effort to keep in touch? It's tough to say.

There are, however, some technologies that have arisen in the past few years that have tried to bridge the digital-realworld (meatspace as some call it, as opposed to cyberspace) divide. Think of MeetUp's success in getting people who interested in various topics to get together in the real world to get to know one another. Twitter, a new instant-messaging/nanoblogging web application, allows people to keep in touch with a network of friends from their computers or cellphones while out and about and get together on the fly if they happen to read that someone they care about happens to be nearby.

What's difficult about creating community among people in one location is that in many instances that's all they have in common—they just live in the same place!

They don't like the same music, movies, TV shows, don't have the same hobbies, values, interests. They live next to each other and are therefore forced to live together in a community and they must make it work.

But these communities, the tough-to-build ones, are the real ones. The online interest-oriented communities are more like affinity groups, because at the end of the day they don't have to deal with the others in the group if they don't want to—they can just logoff and find a new messageboard. If you don't get along with your neighbors, it's not so easy to logout of your neighborhood and find a new one.

Technology can be used as a tool to communicate with others interested in a common issue, like inviting them to events.
But if people are more interested in staying home with their own technology devices than going out and meeting with a group of like-minded others, the technology is a useful communications tool, but not a very effective community-building tool.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs