Tools for Civic Purposes

"Tools for Civic Purposes"

It's somewhat "old hat" to note that networked information technology creates tremendous potential for social and civic good.  The corporate communications departments of leading technology companies roll out examples of this on a regular basis (I should know as I was part of these efforts...).  What is interesting, though, is that the conversation of "technology for good" invariably uses the metaphor of "technology as tool" to make its case.  To the extent there are more conversations about the socially beneficial uses of information technology, more conversations will displace the "cyberspace" metaphor to focus on networked information technology as tool.

Some recent examples include California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom's book "Citizenville," which argues for better governance through what Newsom refers to as the "tools of technology."  While the book's subtitle uses a spatial metaphor - "How to Take the Town Square Digital" - Newsom's "Town Square" is less a "space" than it is a tool of governance.  In particular, it is a technology that fosters citizen engagement in issues of public concern and a vehicle for responsive government (in contrast to the metaphor of "government as vending machine").  Throughout the book are examples from around the globe of government "reinvented" with tools.

Another example of government "reinvented" with tools is the U.S. State Department's use of technology in foreign policy.  Just before leaving office, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked to the Council on Foreign Relations, "[y]ou can’t be a 21st century leader without 21st century tools, not when people organize pro-democracy protests with Twitter and while terrorists spread their hateful ideology online."

Under her leadership, the State Department developed various programs to apply tools to foreign policy goals, such as the "Civil Society 2.0" initiative, as part of what she called "21st Century Statecraft": "complementing traditional foreign policy tools with newly innovated and adapted instruments of statecraft that fully leverage the networks, technologies, and demographics of our interconnected world."

The tool metaphor also animates conversations about advancements in technology in the classroom.  One laptop per child is supplemented, naturally, with the tools of connectivity.  An entry refers to the Internet as "the greatest educational tool."  Information Week uses the language of tools (e.g., "utility") to report on a new startup that will enable online interactivity with presentations displayed in the classroom.  Discussions of the "digital divide" - access to the Internet among historically disadvantaged communities - uses the language of "tech tools."   China's media even refers to the Internet as a tool for learning, and for socially positive innovations in science.

Meanwhile, there are conversations noting the cyberspace metaphor makes discussions about technology and public good more difficult.  Michael Lind, writing in Salon, argues the very point I made in my first blog entry on this theme: "There is no such place as cyberspace. It is not a parallel universe, coexisting with our world but in a different dimension. It is just a bad metaphor that has outlived its usefulness." 

Among Lind's arguments are that "using the imagery of a fictitious country makes it harder to have rational arguments about government regulation or commercial exploitation of modern information and communications technologies."  I agree, in that information networks and technologies are subject to regulation by real governments, operated by real businesses.  How these businesses should be regulated, for social ends such as privacy, safety, security, and free expression, is a debate that does cross borders, precisely because the tools enable you to project aspects of yourself across distances, or to interact with people in different geographies.  

The way to address this is not to consider the technology a space unto itself, but to bring to bear the customary frameworks of international relations, state sovereignty, and cross-border commerce.  These discussions are - as they should- taking place around the world.  And, it seems likely that more and more of these discussions will use the tool metaphor to illuminate meaning.


Add new comment