Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Society in an Interconnected World

In our increasingly digital world, two basic underpinnings of progress in our society are undergoing a profound shift. One is how we learn. Learning these days is not what it was: "if the 20thCentury model of thinking was to measure the accuracy and ownership of information, the 21stCentury’s model is form and interdependence". "The greater the abundance of accessible media, the greater the need to embed thought in important, enduring, and collaborative conversations that flash across the internet, then out into non-digital realms of universities, businesses, books, and coffee shop conversations".

Today education is the enterprise of making people more thoughtful: "consider the contrast between being thoughtful and being thoughtless. Thoughtless people lack perspective, self-criticism, circumspection; they think they understand more than they really do; most importantly, they lack self-understanding..."

The other great shift is in how to interpret the meaning of citizenship. In the pre-Internet world citizenship meant "the quality of an individual’s response to membership in a community".  Among today's digitally connected citizenry we may be wise to consider qualifying this definition to something more like: "self-monitored participation that reflects conscious interdependence with all (visible and less visible) community members". Digital citizenship recognizes that good behaviour online is just as important to maintaining a civil society as it is in more traditional forms of interpersonal interaction.

In a world where we can reach people quickly and easily without ever speaking to anyone, forms of antisocial behaviour like bullying and abusive invective become so much easier to do. By using avatars and nicknames we can have a degree of anonymity that was near impossible in former, more tight-knit societies. It can, and too often does, bring out the worst in us. It is so much easier to send off an unkind text message than it was to write a hateful letter and post it.

The most digitally competent citizens we have are the young, a complete reversal of the traditional model of competency growing with age. So the young, those with the least developed understanding of the important of civility and good manners in human discourse, are the ones most capable of interacting digitally, the most frequent users of texting and social media.  Whether they realize it or not, those who teach the young and very young have become the gatekeepers of a civil society, along with parents who traditionally filled that role. Yet the digital competency gap between any adult and our children widens by the day as new formats for messaging appear unceasingly.  Right now kids are into a world of picturing life online just as we adults are coming to grips with texting by micro-blogging. All in real-time, which in itself is a real challenge for us older folks.

It is likely that in no previous era in the history of human societies has their future shape been as unguessable as it is today.

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