I’ve been intrigued by the possibilities of communications technologies since reading the Isaac Asimov Robot and Foundation books as a young teen. Asimov was a futurist without equal. His vision of the far future included the imagining of the Spacers, a first-wave of extraterrestrial settlers who had grown sedentary in reliance on robot servants. In one memorable sequence, he described how they would meet and communicate almost entirely through holographic projections. That somewhat dark projection is intriguing but unlikely without a huge evolution in the human psyche. We crave contact – and in the modern life, we can accentuate the physical with so much more. A couple years back, I clipped a newspaper article about a company that hoped to capitalize on the nuclear family by providing video networking solutions for families to have dinner with their far-flung aged relatives.
The future is now, although I’m now sure how much of the population yet realizes it. Current technologies in the next five-10 years will revolutionize how we communicate and come together, from family relationships, religious affiliations, work, politics and just about every sphere of our lives. A new Pew study, “Networked families,” (pdf), discusses how technology actually has created the ability to be closer in our human relationships (for a while social scientists were projecting the opposite). I can say that text messaging and video calling service such as Skype and Tokbox are changing my life for the better. Who stops calling or meeting with their families because of e-mail, phone and texting? These technologies in fact accentuate family and friend relationships, as found in the Pew study.
As a Government 2.0 enthusiast, I am very interested in how these technologies will revolutionize grassroots Democracy and citizen participation. Also noted in the Pew study is the clear-as-the-nose-on-our-face fact that modern life is incredibly busy. As a longtime observer and participant in local government – the agencies in so many ways responsible for our immediate surroundings, from school performance to play fields to built environment – I have noticed something sad that I believe is nearly universal in capitalist democracy. Even though so many local government decisions impact the citizenry as a whole, there are generally only three groups who are intimately involved in petitioning that government: retirees with plenty of free time, those with vested financial interests of one kind or another, and single-issue/attention cranks. “Just folks” are so busy that if an issue fails to directly impact them (and even then they might need an activist to alert them to that impact), that they barely vote, let alone participate in local democratic decision-making.
But what if government changed? What if after the soccer game, religious gathering, family dinner, late meeting, etc., you could check your local network and know exactly what was going on with your local government? What if you could meet and discuss issues easily and quickly online with your neighbors? What if you could participate in interactive polls during a lull at work, or from your cell phone, to tell your local government what was most important to you? What if consultants and city staff asked your opinion on various design components for a new commercial or recreational development, complete with a slides you could pull up quickly and look over? What if you then got a chance to discuss and vote on options before the city council, and even to weigh in with a comment to the council by video, either live or recorded? The tools are here. The question for the moment is whether our local governments are ready.