I attended the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City in late June and returned home excited about how social media and web 2.0 tools can help to create a transparent, accountable, and innovative government and a more inclusive and dynamic civic sphere. I also returned with a deeply nagging concern that we may not get there from here. Not because of any technological barriers, lack of will, or lack of creativity, but because of our education system.
The personal democracy reflected by the speakers and discussions at PDF assumes an engaged, tolerant, and reflective citizenry. It assumes a personal relationship with civic sphere and the capacity to think critically about complex topics, debate issues, cooperate, and solve problems. Are the goals, strategies, and resources of the education system aligned to support personal democracy? I’m sure there are examples of schools and districts that are, but is the whole system? What kind of citizenry is our education system creating?
Jeff Jarvis invited the audience into a discussion about the government as a platform, an API, a network that allows citizens to fully engage, create and innovate as a part of the civic process. He exclaimed, “do what you do best and link to the rest, ” whether that is volunteering, campaigning, or any other activity in the public interest.
Vivek Kundra, the first CIO of the United States, thrilled the audience with the IT Dashboard, a site that makes all federal IT spending open and accessible to the public, and mashable. In notes to the Press Kundra said, “In making this data publicly available, we are providing unfettered access to investment performance to its true owners – the American people.”
David Weinberger described how a digitally-based personal democracy benefits from difference and seeks higher truths. The “hyperlinked world of difference adds context and meaning” and “argument, conversations, debate, controversy give up wisdom not just facts”. This new open platform will bring transparency to government enabling us to scale democracy and discover deeper insight, and presumably create a more just and equitable society. “The linked world of difference gives us a greater sense of truth of what a topic is than the paper world”.
These statements are exciting, possible to realize, and could bring real transformation to governance. But then I think about danah boyd’s and Michael Wesch’s presentations.
danah posed the question: are we growing together or apart? She suggested that we’re falling prey to the shallow argument of “anyone can participate if we just give them access”. She continued to reveal how racism and classism manifest in social networks, suggesting that we are witnessing the equivalent of the “modern incarnation of white flight” among social networking sites. The early signs of stratification online by race and class exist, and we risk creating a bourgeois public sphere rather than a truly broad and inclusive one.
Michael Wesch, giving a standing ovation presentation, asked if we can use the new media ecology to conquer narcissism and triviality he sees in the MTV generation. Can we discover our authentic selves, he asked, a deeper sense of self-awareness in the new media ecology that provides tremendous connection without constraints? Can we shift our society, specifically youth culture, from the indifferent “whatever” to the purposeful “whatever” it takes?
Both danah’s and Michael Wesch’s talks point to education transformation as a critical factor in creating a broad and inclusive personal democracy. Given this country’s dropout rates (particularly in large metropolitan areas), the economic constraints that face public education in the next decade, and the uncertain national leadership in education system, it is unsure whether the student age population that matures along with the personal democracy platform will engage in a personal democracy even if there is access.
There are some hopeful signs on the horizon. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills is working with educators in 10 states to introduce a new curriculum framework that includes 21st century themes (such as global awareness, civic literacy, health & wellness awareness, and financial literacy) along with Life & Career Skills; Information, Media, and Technology Skills; and Learning & Innovation Skills. While Partnership for 21st Century skills tends to weigh heavily on workplace skills for a knowledge economy, stressing global competition as a key element in its rationale, the effort moves curriculum away from traditionally siloed subject areas and toward relevant, integrated activities that connect students with their broader world. And CIRCLE at Tufts University is a research and information center supporting the link between academic success and civic education and engagement. Service learning is becoming more common at K-12 schools and the eco-schools movement is using food and nutrition to make the link youth, health, geographic community, and learning.
In order to achieve the personal democracy envisioned at the PD Forum, the tools of personal democracy, the digital media applications and the cooperative, bottom up, social practices, need to be used to bring a systemic alternative to education in the U.S. Perhaps having the equivalent of a Vivek Kundra and a Beth Noveck (Wiki Government) in the Department of Education could bring a sophisticated awareness and understanding of transparency, openness and bottom-up, co-creation to the education policy and institutional worlds. What kind of incentives would catalyze social media application developers to focus on mobile and web-based apps for families and communities to self-organize and create their own relevant learning ecologies? We need an Obama style campaign to get education raised to a first tier issue in this country at the national and local levels.
Perhaps these can be threads discussed at the next PD Forum so that we can ensure that personal democracy is not just accessible to all, but meaningful, relevant, and treasured by all.