I feel most passionate about two things – one is the the Internet and the other is people and how they communicate, make connections, and form networks. My interest in people led me to the Internet: I wasn’t interested in computers until I learned that you could use them to communicate with whole communities of people you might otherwise never have met. Some people call me a web guru, but I wouldn’t have spent so much of the last two decades at keyboard and monitor if I hadn’t seen the screen before me as a window on a world of potential social connections. I got that immediately, in 1985, when I read about bulletin board systems and bought my own pc and (300 baud!) modem so that I could be part of that scene.
For years, I’ve been explaining the social Internet and web to diverse people in various contexts, and watched them struggle with the notion that you can have profound social experiences with people you’ve never met face to face. But explaining is easier than it used to be. People are more aware that this other world of social interaction exists and somehow works. Most people are having some experience of it, even if they aren’t immersed in it, as I’ve been since the late 1980s. Kids, of course, are swimming in it… their future makes me think of the concept, espoused by Teilhard de Chardin and Vladimir Vernadsky, of a noosphere, a collective consciousness or sphere of human thought. This idea sounded pretty far-out in the 20th Century, but less so as we see every day web-enabled mind-melds all around us.
My online community focus also led me to explore the potential connection between technology and politics. There are two ways to think about this. If you’re an activist advocating for a particular position, you’ll see the potential to advance your cause and find adherents online. However if you’re an activist advocating democracy – for better and broader participation in the conversations that lead to decisions about policy and governance – you’ll want to explore the potential for online dialog and deliberation.
For a time I was interested in the former, but I’ve become more interested in the latter, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few weeks, once again observing the polarization of the electorate in an election year. This polarization is inevitable as parties fight for votes – as Dick Gephardt and others have said, “Politics is a substitute for violence.” Regardless who wins the 2008 presidential and other elections, we’ll find ourselves in January devoting energy to polarization, and/or attempts to resolve it, that we could otherwise devote to the unprecedented set of problems we face.
There’s a lot to say about how we proceed, but I’m especially interested in how we use our sophisticated communication tools to have conversations that are not echo chambers – how do we create conversations among people who profoundly disagree, and convince them to listen, think, and try to find common ground? We’ve proved that social technology alone doesn’t solve the problem. The Internet’s been mainstreaming since the early 90s, and we’re more divided than ever.
I think the solutions are social as well as technical, and that’s what I want to talk about this week as Perspectives guest blogger.