Posts Tagged Technology

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.

(more…)



Innovation in Learning: Lessons from the Slums

24 June 2010

Charles Leadbeater is a researcher at British think tank Demos who focuses his work on innovation. He recently delivered a TED talk about innovation in education, and he challenges his audience to think beyond the places we typically look for new ideas in education– places like Finland, where prosperity and homogeneity contribute to success that is difficult to replicate.

Leadbeater knocks the “19th century Bismarckian school system” that still prevails in most of the world as increasingly irrelevant to students and to the world they live in.  And he encourages people to look for innovation in the places where that system is least relevant: the favelas of Rio, the slums of Patna, or Kibera in Nairobi.  In these places, where a teacher in a traditional classroom delivers lessons based on a tight curriculum, forcing students to memorize the kings and queens of England, the education system couldn’t more more irrelevant for children. 

For these students, more relevant learning would cover topics like “how not to contract HIV,” or “carpentry 101,” that would help them stay alive and find a job.  But even this “extrinsic” motivation for going to school, based on a long-term payoff, is not enough for the slum-dwelling poor– the “long-term” is just too long.  And so the most successful innovations in education have also included some intrinsic motivation, making learning relevant, fun and accessible.  Put another way, if the Bismarckian education system was based on a “push” of knowledge to students, a new model needs to be based on a “pull” toward learning.

Not surprisingly, many of the most successful innovations in education have introduced technology to technology-poor regions.  Leadbeater talks about programs that have brought computer labs into Rio’s favelas, or installed single computers at the entrances to the slums in India’s megacities. These projects have gone a long way toward pulling children and adults alike toward learning by making it relevant and accessible. 

Why is this important here in the US? Because here, also, students are increasingly finding the schools they visit everyday disconnected and unrelated to the world they live in.  This is particularly true with regards to technology. More and more students have cell phones, and they’re texting up a storm.  Increasingly, they won’t find a job after graduation if they’re not computer-literate. So when they go into a classroom in which a 19th century schoolhouse teacher would feel at home, it’s a bad disconnect from the outside world.

Innovation in EducationLeadbeater broke down innovation in education into a two-by two box, which I’ve replicated at right.  Most of the innovation we see today occurs in the top-left box: sustaining innovation based in formal classroom settings that, at best, improves what we have.  He argues that we need a lot more innovation in the other three boxes– particularly in the bottom right, where disruptive innovation in informal, non-classroom settings will lead to a transformation of learning.

It’s a really interesting talk, and now that you’ve spent half an hour reading me gush about it, you might as well spend the 20 minutes to watch it yourself. 

(h/t Jason)



Facebook, Google, and Privacy in the Cloud

27 April 2010

As Mark Zuckerberg’s deep-held desire to tell the whole world about your relationship status becomes ever clearer, four Democratic Senators have written him a letter with a few complaints and a few requests about Facebook’s privacy policies.  Specifically, they’re concerned about information that can no longer be kept private, information that is stored indefinitely by third parties (advertisers), and the default privacy settings which are very, very open, allowing partner sites to personalize their offerings to creepy levels.

I’ll admit that I’ve given some thought to shutting down my Facebook account, simply because their convoluted and constantly-shifting privacy policies feel invasive and make it very difficult even to understand who can see what.  Facebook is pretty dominant in social networking market, and their privacy problems (Gawker has a roundup of the problems here, and the EFF covers the most recent changes) are to be taken seriously. But it’s only a part of a bigger conversation about how, in our networked, information-rich society, we will balance privacy with security, with free speech, and with our desire for a personalized, responsive world.

Facebook GoogleWith all the information about us that is now available online in social networks, government databases, and cloud computing resources (like webmail, web-based documents, etc.), the practical expectation of any kind of obscurity or anonymity is increasingly suspect. Last week, Google shed some light on just how un-private our information is, by revealing the number of government requests for user information they had received by country. Brazil and the U.S. topped the list, with each government making more than 3,000 requests in the second half of 2009 (usually for law enforcement). A decade ago, much of this information could only have been discovered via wiretap– which requires judicial intervention– and now it’s all available the government, upon request.

A big part of the problem here is legal ambiguity. The most up-to-date law on the books is the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) which, though forward-looking at the time, is hilariously out of date now. In 1986, the only e-mail was MCI Mail, which allowed you to download mail directly computer, whereupon it was deleted from their servers. Now, we’re living in a world in which much of our e-mail is stored in remote servers indefinitely.  Needless to say, nobody saw this coming in 1986, and now all our data– in Gmail, in Facebook, and elsewhere in the cloud– is legally unprotected.  Put another way, it’s highly ambiguous who owns your e-mail: it might be you, but it might just as easily be Google or Yahoo. Fortunately, there are people trying to answer these questions, particularly the individuals, institutions, and companies behind Digital Due Process.

So when the government comes knocking on Google or Facebook’s door, how much information should Google provide about you?  How much should they be allowed to provide?  Does the government need a warrant? How much are we entitled to know about these activities?  Can Google be held responsible for user content they host– as in the recent case in Italy? What about the ISPs, like Comcast and Verizon– To what degree are they responsible for retaining data about where you go on the internet? To what degree are they allowed to retain this data?

These questions of “intermediary liability” will dominate the privacy debate in the coming years. On balance, I’m of the firm belief that this flood of information is a boon. A more data- and information-rich world is a better world. But we’ll need to manage the flood in a way that upholds our Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure and maintains our right to privacy. For better or worse, we’ve probably lost a degree of privacy that we won’t be getting back– but really Mark, must you tell the whole world about my heartbreak?

UPDATE: Check out a recent post by Melody on Transcapitalist in which she rounds up a recent win, a loss, and a tie in the effort by intermediaries like Yahoo, Google, and the ISPs to avoid liability. It sounds to me like mostly good news, in that the government seems inclined to think that they ought to have a warrant if they’re asking intermediaries for your data.  Even if they don’t actually need one.