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Societal Impacts of Digital Exclusion

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Recently I was asked to comment on the importance of digital technologies from the perspective of local governments, which led me to think philosophically.

The most basic question of any endeavor is, “why?” Why does local government exist? Libraries? Grocery stores? Philanthropic organizations? At ICMA -- where I work -- the driving vision is to build sustainable communities that improve lives. On some level, is this not the underlying purpose of all organizations? In fact, is it not why we have organizations and societal structures that extend beyond individuals, families, and tribes?

In a highly complex, densely populated, technologically-based world, survival is based on interdependent relationships. Even the life of an iconoclast is a luxury supported by the interconnected...supported by the community of humankind.

As the second half of the last century evolved, there was an increasing sense that we were losing a sense of community in the U.S., that we were losing civic responsibility and interpersonal consecutiveness. There was a growing sense of social isolation, perpetuated first by interstate highways and the suburbanization of America. In the last quarter of the 20th century, technology was increasingly seen as a contributing factor to isolation. First generation technology--telephones and audio recordings--brought people closer together. Second and third generation technology drove us apart: television, cable television, personal computing, video recordings, video games, and then, the thing called the Internet. This sense of social isolation was captured by Robert Putnam's concept of "bowling alone"--which became an orthodox view of the state of society at the turn of the century.

A few years ago (around 2008/9) I was espousing this orthodox view to a graduate class at George Washington University, when one of my students interrupted and offered an alternative view: that technology was actually enabling the building of communities in a different way. Subsequent years have affirmed that student's observation. The maturing of smartphone technologies and the evolution of "social media" have enabled physical communities to better connect people within them and enabled the creation of virtual communities in ways never before even imagined.

Whereas technology once was a source of isolation, suddenly and increasingly lack of technology is a source of isolation, constraining personal and collective societal development. And, the threat does not stop with social isolation. Technology is now the entry point into all aspects of society. Technology is how we apply for employment, how we shop, how we participate in politics. Through technology, we connect to our family, friends, neighbors, and to what is supposed to be a democratically-based government. It is how we connect in business and philanthropy. Technology is how we now connect in love and war.

This summer, Hurricane Irene threatened two places where I have homes, as well as my evacuation path. I had a compelling need for situational awareness across two states and multiple local governments and agencies. Amazingly, the best source of information was Twitter, a ridiculed technology guilty of producing mass quantities of meaningless drivel. Nonetheless at a time when timely information was critically needed, I found it most easily and most accurately in the tweets of Currituck County, Dare County, City of Virginia Beach, North Carolina Department of Transportation, Virginia Department of Transportation, television stations, and others. Information was provided in real time, with compelling relevance in 140 characters. No other technology provided better or faster information than the strings of tweets, available in car, at home, or walking along the beach.

This increased societal connectiveness and awareness, however, is only available if one is connected. If you're not connected, you're really not connected.

In an earlier day, we could legitimately debate the importance of a digital divide relative to other public priorities. In its infancy, informational technology was interesting and useful, but was it truly essential for everyone all the time? This is no longer a credible question.

Without digital connectivity in the 21st century, people will earn less, pay more for the things they buy, live life with fewer personal connections, and they will not be exposed to virtual worlds of vast knowledge, art, and even frivolity.

If we really care about having successful communities of educated people who can compete in a global economy, who are entrepreneurial and creative, if we really want people to connect with one another, if we want our institutions to connect with the people they serve, if we want a sustainable world that improves the lives of all people, then we must ask the question: can any community afford involuntary, digital exclusion for any of its residents?

Ron Carlee

Chief Operating Officer

International City/County Management Association (ICMA)

A version of these comments was presented at the Los Angeles Public Library on September 12, 2011

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