We had a visitor in class tonight – Jon Udell, who is a perfectly lovely and gracious guy. He was very open to taking questions from grad students who are used to picking apart every little thing and critiquing it… sometimes rudely, like I may have done this evening.
Udell was explaining to us the power of democratizing information through online community building. We all can have access to vast amounts of information online, and this can be incredibly empowering. I agree with him, but I think my dialogue with him tonight made it seem like I didn’t agree with him. So I return here, to my second blog post, to try to explain myself a little better (even if no one reads this), and to apologize if I offended anyone.
I was trying to ask us to be considerate of the transfer of power in our use of these new communication tools. I’m sure someone out there who is smarter than I am has probably investigated this more fully. These thoughts are merely my hesitations. But we definitely hear a lot about “The Digital Divide.” (That’s the link to the crowdsourced Wikipedia page if you’d like to have a little info about this). I think more and more people are conscious of that divide, no matter what side of it you’re on.
But these new communication tools create an interesting shift in power on various levels. I acknowledge that power structures exist in any type of society; I just think we should be aware of them and how they affect us.
On one level, our reliance on these tools for communicating puts the power in the hands of those who are creating those tools, which are ever more and more complex. There are the elite few who know how to build and maintain these tools that now manage a lot of our information. It’s fantastic that we all can have access to this information, but what is the infrastructure of that information management, and what power structure does that have?
Maybe I feel threatened by this technological control? Previously, information was managed in institutions that I am perhaps more comfortable with – academia, government. Traditionally these institutions have been pretty closed. Some would say that they still are. The pathways of interactive communication available to us online are definitely much more open. But I am cautious about the amount of control that the technological elite (people and tools) has over the tools we use to access that information. Apple has trained us pretty well to drool on command these days. Pavlov would love it. It makes me feel a little squeeby. (I know, I know… that’s not a word. And yes, I am writing this on a Mac. I am open with my hypocrisy.)
On another level, when we choose to communicate in a particular way, we often end up excluding some people. In some cases, it’s not a bad thing. Perhaps not all of the information in the world is applicable to every instance or is quality information. But when we choose these online tools for communicating, who does that exclude? The person who doesn’t have access to the internet. The person who is uncomfortable using or engaging with the tools. The person who, like me, is much more comfortable having a cuppa joe with a person. The person who doesn’t want a record of every online interaction they’ve ever made. As I stated in my first blog post, we hang ourselves out there to be criticized and questioned when using these tools. Perhaps there are those folks who are not interested in that much outside attention to their thoughts.
So whether we’re using these tools in the classroom or in the policy-making arena, it’s still important for us to consider these other folks. Some of whom may already be pretty marginalized. Do our choices in community engagement further marginalize these people, even as we’re trying to build online communities of thought? That, in my humble opinion, would be awful.
So Mr. Udell, if you read this, I’m sorry if I made you feel attacked this evening, but this is what I unsuccessfully tried to explain. And to my prof – I’m sorry that I’m always the naysayer. I know that my critiques could make me seem like a Negative Nancy. But as I am often told in class… we all have agency in our actions. I just ask us to think reflexively about the various consequences of our actions before we leap into new things.