Posts Tagged Mobile

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…)



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…)



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.

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NYT on Internet Freedom

17 June 2011

The New York Times has lately been doing an admirable job wrestling with the impact of social media, mobile phones and the internet on democracy movements and activism around the world.  Perhaps partly thanks to a certain ambivalence about social media among the paper’s top brass, the NYT has managed to avoid getting too caught up in the “Twitter Revolution!” zeitgeist, and has managed to present both the positive and the negative effects these new tools are having on the global prospects for democracy.

On Wednesday, Neil MacFarquhar had a piece on how activists in Saudi Arabia are taking to the public sphere of the internet for lack of the ability to convene in any real, physical space. Money quote:

Social media, which helped drive protests across the Arab world, seems tailor-made for Saudi Arabia, where public gatherings are illegal, women are strictly forbidden to mix with unrelated men and people seldom mingle outside their family.

Virtually any issue that contradicts official Saudi policy now pops up online, including the status of prisoners being held without trial or a call to boycott municipal elections this September.

Louai A. Koufiah, a Twitter enthusiast, quipped: “Saudis cannot go out to demonstrate, so they retweet!”

And last weekend, James Glanz and John Markoff covered the State Department’s growing and increasingly broad approach to supporting democracy activists using new technology, with a particular focus on constructing mobile networks in places like Afghanistan and North Africa that are entirely separate from the state-run apparatus and thus more (but, note, not entirely) secure.  From that story:

The Obama administration’s initiative is in one sense a new front in a longstanding diplomatic push to defend free speech and nurture democracy. For decades, the United States has sent radio broadcasts into autocratic countries through Voice of America and other means. More recently, Washington has supported the development of software that preserves the anonymity of users in places like China, and training for citizens who want to pass information along the government-owned Internet without getting caught.

But the latest initiative depends on creating entirely separate pathways for communication. It has brought together an improbable alliance of diplomats and military engineers, young programmers and dissidents from at least a dozen countries, many of whom variously describe the new approach as more audacious and clever and, yes, cooler.

Particularly glad to see them put in that historical context.  We’ve always supported democracy. The “internet freedom” push is simply an effort to defend our values in a modern context.



In Kashmir Uprising, Government Bans SMS

30 June 2010

Kashmir, the restive and contested region divided between India and Pakistan, has in recent weeks seen a surge in violence after a long period of relative calm.  Kashmir has been the flashpoint of three wars between India and Pakistan since 1947, and Indian-controlled Kashmir saw brutal, persistent violence from 1989 up until the early part of this decade, as the Indian government tried to crush an independence movement, with Pakistan-based terror groups throwing fuel on the fire. The past few years, however, have been characterized by relative calm, with violence abating, tourism returning, and tensions relaxing.

KashmirIn the past few weeks, a great deal of that progress has evaporated.  On June 11, a 17-year old Kashmiri student was killed by an exploding tear gas shell during an independence demonstration in Srinagar.  Since then, at least 11 more Kashmiri civilians have been killed, as Indian forces have shot and beaten protesters after being pelted with stones.  In their latest move, the Indian Army has instituted a lockdown on the cities where protests have occurred, and, as of yesterday, the Indian government has banned text messaging.

Back in November, I wrote about the Indian government’s ban of pre-paid cell phones in Kashmir– a part of their effort to diminish the photos, videos, and other first-hand accounts of the disproportionate, often unprovoked violence of the Indian army. This new ban of SMS messaging is not cloaked in any excuse about fighting terror– it’s simply part of an effort to prevent protesters from organizing themselves while under citywide lockdown.

India certainly has legitimate security concerns in Kashmir; Pakistani terrorist groups including Lashkar-e-Taiba have exploited the situation to stage attacks on Indian forces. But banning text messages is just the latest iteration of the Indian government violating the rights of all people in these cities to quell violence that began with their own army’s misconduct.  Increasingly, tools like SMS and pre-paid cell phones are vital tools for information access and communication, and denying access to these tools has to be seen as a violation of the right of equal access to information. 

What’s more, this episode is evidence that mobile phones– which put extraordinary power in the hands of individuals– tend to empower groups of individuals, rather than centralized authority.  Yes, the government has the power to switch off the network, but that’s an extreme move.  Maybe the most accurate way to say it is that the advent of the mobile phone makes it harder to be “just a little autocratic.” If you’re going to crack down, you’ve got to crack down all the way, or the power of the network will remain.

To some degree, that’s what’s happened in Iran since last year’s fraudulent election.  A government that used to be “somewhat authoritarian,” was faced with an increasingly well-organized opposition, and forced to either let the opposition movement continue to gain steam, or crack down hard.  The government opted for the latter, and in so doing, lost an awful lot of legitimacy in their own country and around the world.

Ultimately, I do think this growing global network will be a force for freedom rather than oppression.  In the shorter term, I think it is likely to widen the chasm between democracies and dictatorships, as it will force the countries in between to choose one path or another.