More on the complexity of participatory culture and digital inclusion…

Hi, Kim  —  Inspired by Jon Udell‘s notion that our online conversations might be even more useful when we use our own blog space to move beyond the form and function of ‘comment boxes,’ I am posting my extended comment and contribution to the conversation here.  Thanks for your recent post following Jon Udell’s visit to our seminar.

I think you raised the issue of the digital divide (or digital inclusion, as it is now more often called) and community activism and that Jon Udell engaged with you and that the complexity of the question and answer were drawn out for all of us.  As a member of the audience, I think Jon was responding to your concerns (and I didn’t pick up on anyone appearing to be offended).  What I heard was that there are now, with the advent of networked knowledge via the web, a wider range of ways to inform community participation.  Whereas in a pre-internet world, F2F meetings (one-on-one conversations or many-to-many in a community center) and the distribution of info in one technological medium—paper, for example, via a flyer or pamphlet—may have been the only option, the web offers an additional means of information creation, aggregation, and distribution.  Jon’s example about the aggregation of resources with tags that allowed for increased open evaluation and interpretation of, as well as responses to, those resources (re: newspaper articles archived digitally, land survey reports, blogs, and such, given his specific example of the issue of the dam in the town) was to show but one example of how increasing access to information and creating additional forums for more voices to be heard can work.

What I took from the exchange you had with him was the importance of always considering ‘both/and’ vs. ‘either/or’ possibilities via new technologies.  Different technologies can work to broaden the kinds of access and input and thus enrich and expand the participation that would still occur among members of the community able to attend a scheduled town council meeting.  Such technologies needn’t replace the open town council meetings, where community voices are also heard, which I think was the concern you may have been articulating. It just adds to the process by increasing access in other ways, which is what I heard Jon suggesting.

(Dang, but it would’ve been great to have had such a networked participatory engagement with our own town council last year when they voted against bike lanes in the newly redesigned downtown Blacksburg.  So many of us concerned with bicycle commuting and safety issues sure could have benefitted from a viral network that aggregated data about the number of bicycle accidents in the downtown and national data on how bike lanes increase community members’ choices to commute via bike and so forth.  Instead, community members attended town council meetings, but not everyone could make every meeting, and not enough voices were heard, in my view, and we ended up with a new roundabout at Prices Fork and Main St., a traffic light at Alumni Mall and Main, and nice new brick sidewalks, but no bike lanes for our beautiful new downtown.)

So, I thought the Q&A between you and Jon was a useful exchange.  I do think we need to be attentive to, and continually work toward increasing, digital inclusivity.  According to a report commissioned by the FCC, “[a]ccess to the Internet is not a choice: It is a necessity.”   As far as feeling “threatened by this technological control,” I’m not quite clear about what that means exactly.  Perhaps I have less comfort with the institutions you name, such as the government or the academy.  I tend to celebrate the watchdog groups and academics who work to keep the “elite” in any institution from having the only voice, or the only interpretation, or all of the power.  I agree with you that the “pathways to interactive communication available to us online are definitely much more open.”  Indeed, our current technologies often allow more of us to speak truth to power with more speed and efficacy than many other avenues of communication.  I’m not arguing for replacement of previous venues, but I do get excited about the expansion of interactive communication via current technology.   I think we may have more agency and control than we tend to think.  In “The Machine is Us/ing Us,” Mike Wesch reminds all of us of the power we have in using and shaping our tools, too.

I guess I lean toward a curiosity about what technology can do to empower me, what it can do to empower learners, community members, and broaden participatory culture.  I am curious about what it can engender, even while I work to recognize, understand, and disrupt digital exclusion.  I just learned from a colleague with whom I work of a town in upstate New York that apparently does not have adequate broadband access much beyond the public library.  While that certainly shapes our choices about how we will choose to communicate and work with the citizens there on a particular community-based project, it also makes us equally committed to working actively with that community to address and solve the problem of digital exclusion (via organized community activism).  If knowledge is power, and access to all kinds of resources makes us more powerful, then access really is not a luxury or a privilege, but a right.

Like you, Kim, I also enjoy “having a cuppa joe with a person.”  So many rich conversations and sharing of knowledge can occur in that kind of interactive communication, too, and I don’t expect that to end.  I find that online interactions also enrich my convos over coffee.  And, yes perhaps we can’t always know “the various consequences of our actions before we leap into new things.”  Perhaps sometimes the leap is part of the process of our exploration and curiosity.  I agree with you that being reflexive is also an important part of the process.  Speaking of a cuppa joe, we can always continue this exploration that way, too.  It’s been an interesting dialogue thus far, and no offense taken, nor apology necessary.

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