Archive for August 2011

Mobile Tech for Social Capital in American Cities

23 August 2011

Last week, I went in search of a few guidelines for using new network technologies– web-based and mobile-based– to help foster civic engagement and create social capital, and waded through a few pitfalls of these technologies as well. The two lessons I tried to distill out were: first, successful tools won’t simply offer an online environment, they will bridge the online world with offline communities and actions. Second, these tools will cross some of the cultural, political, class-based and interest-based boundaries that so often keep us in narrow information silos on the web.

In seeking to build social capital and bring people together not just online but offline, proximity is, of course, key. I don’t begrudge rural regions their elemental place in American society or question the importance of rebuilding social capital there, as well, but nowhere does new technology have greater potential to bring people together than in the city. Densely, diversely populated, well wired, and with a melange of public spaces, businesses and fora to bring people together– the city is the ideal environment to pursue these goals.

By bringing people together in cities over common concerns, the same tools can help make those cities more livable and more attractive. Of course, that’s good for people who already live there. What’s more, if city life is more appealing and less stressful, it could lure people back to cities. A trend toward urbanization would directly counteract the “sprawl and suburbanization” that Robert Putnam identified as contributing a full 10% toward the decline in social capital since the 1950s. And if that’s not enough for you, population density is, as David Roberts writes in a great series of blog posts over at Grist, “the sine qua non of sustainability.” That is, cities have, contrary to their sometimes sooty appearance, a smaller carbon footprint per capita than any village or town: the denser, the better. (more…)



Cloudburst Refugees

22 August 2011

It’s the rainy season here in Southeast Asia. In practical terms, that means it starts raining every time I walk out of a building. After a vain attempt to leave work on Friday, I spent half an hour stranded under a bus shelter not 40 paces from the front door of the clinic. This was the scene:



Challenges of Building Social Capital Online

15 August 2011

Last week, I opined on the decay and potential renewal of “social capital” in America. As chronicled by Robert D. Putnam, tectonic shifts in American culture, society and the economy led to decreased participation in civic organizations and dissipated communities, which in turn weakened the social fabric that holds together American life. In that introductory post, I proposed the online sphere as an alternate “public space” to strengthen (not replace) offline communities, and to put forward a few questions, the first of which I’ll try to answer here: How can new technologies help foster civic engagement and create social capital, without detracting from the same?

I’m not blindly sanguine about the impact technology can and will have on human relationships and society. We can sit at a bus stop in New York and video chat with a friend in Morocco or Thailand– a phenomenon that by historical standards might fairly be considered a miracle– but that same act can make us blind to the world at our feet. A few months back, the New York times ran an article describing “parallel play” in the fully wired (er, wireless) American home. Perhaps you know the scene: a family is gathered together in the home for the evening, but the room is quiet, each individual gazing, grimacing, giggling at their respective device, headphones in. These scenes are creepy, and they should serve as a reminder that just as these tools have the potential to bring people together, so too can they divide us and make us distant from those right around us.

“Go online to get offline” is a catchy phrase (and has been adopted by sites like Meetup.com and dating site HowAboutWe to describe their approach), but it’s perhaps the most concise summation of the social potential I see in network– and especially mobile– technologies. I’m not interested in online qua online. Purely online activities can have their value, but they’re unlikely to build social capital. An online protest never threatened any existing power structure. An online church service isn’t going to build a strong community. And I tend to find that even online conversation can only sustain a personal relationship, rarely build one. Rather, I see potential where online human networks intersect with offline, “real world” communities. (more…)



Thai Scenes

12 August 2011

Almost before I even knew which way was ขึ้น, my first stint in Thailand was at a close, and I was flying back to Cebu. Looking back, a few observations from the past month:

Chiang Mai Pork BunsChiang Mai offeringWriting on the wallWhere can you see lions?Lunchtime at the monasteryReflections in the Buddhist templeSunset on the River Ping
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Chiang Mai Pork Buns

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Chiang Mai offering

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Writing on the wall

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Where can you see lions?

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Lunchtime at the monastery

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Reflections in the Buddhist temple

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Sunset on the River Ping



Building Social Capital in America

5 August 2011

In this and my next several blog posts, I’m going to try to draw out a few ideas, and pull together several disparate strands of thought around what I see as the great promise (and, to some degree, a great threat) of network technologies– including social media, the internet and, most of all, the mobile phone. The ideas I’ll be discussing are not new; rather, they’ve been described and detailed carefully by men and women much cleverer than I. But I hope to pull some of these strands together in a fresh discourse that will drive toward some kind of an agenda.

This first post will be largely an introduction of the problem, drawing largely on one particularly piece of sociological research… I’ve been re-reading portions of Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam’s seminal sociological chronicle of the decline of “social capital” in America in the past several half-century (up to the book’s 2000 copyright date). For the uninitiated, Putnam describes social capital this way:

By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital– tools and training that enhance individual productivity– the core idea of social capital theory is that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups.

(more…)