Thursday, March 03, 2011

A Hyperlocal Internet Public

As radicalized Egyptians massed in the streets and Mubarak shut off internet for 92% of his citizens, Dave Parry (Asst. Prof. of Emerging Media, UT Dallas) wrote a post called "It's not the Public Internet, It's the Internet Public." Parry observes:
While the government could shut down the hardware of the internet, it could not shut down the social effects of the digital network. In the same way a public is fundamentally changed by the existence of print technology, a public is fundamentally altered by access to the digital network.
I've been thinking through Parry's formulation over the last month, as I watched citizens in my small town (38K people) organize against a proposal to cut 1/3 of our elementary schools and move 6th graders from elementary schools into middle schools.

At first, I was indifferent to reconfiguration.  I had long marveled that a community of our size (5667 students K-12) would maintain 9 elementary schools.  It seemed luxurious, like loitering beneath a showerhead unmodified for water conservation.  Atavistic.

But then my good friend Martha said, come to this meeting.  She's actively involved in LO United for Schools, a grassroots dream team.  About 400 people have signed their petition; this meeting drew about 200 people, including the mayor, the school district superintendent and local news crews.  The LO United team presented three tiers of budget cut ranging from $2.5 million to $11M, each tier preserving the 9 schools.  (Easier to do than you might think: even the rosiest projected savings from this utter reconfiguration nets only 1.5 million.  The LO United folks put that number around $400K.)

Breakout sessions, brainstorming solutions, willingness to engage skeptics: the rigor and emphasis on transparency impressed me.  I realized I was watching a f2f enactment of crowdsourcing, the culmination of hundreds of hours of budget work, mathematical modeling of the schools' physical capacity, social scientific research and lots of community organizing and outreach.

I went away to think.  And watch what might come of it.

Two weeks later at a school board meeting, district officials were indifferent to, even tacitly disdainful of, the bound book of solutions presented to them by LO United.

Me?  I was disdainful of the book. It seemed a slow way to navigate so much disparate information. Why not a webpage with links?

But even that bound report, it turns out, was too technologically progressive for district officials.  For it literalized the unsettling effects new media had rendered on their budgeting process and attendant public relations.  It was no longer credible to imply: we're the only experts.  We have all the facts, you don't.  Back off and let us do our jobs.

Over the ensuing weeks, the district kept mum as LO United churned out more budget ideas, more literature reviews, feedback from realtors about the depressing effect of shuttered schools on home values.  It seemed arrogant, this silence.  Not one suggestion worthy of consideration?  Really?  Many resonated with me.

Silence is no longer tenable for the powerful, because the Internet makes information hoarding difficult and costly.  Wikileaks shows that even high-test professional hoarders will mess it up anyway.

The folks at LO United hadn't heard the term "crowdsourcing" until I introduced it, but taxonomy is irrelevant. They were crowdsourcing; their entire MO is based on it.  Which goes right to Parry's point that "a public is fundamentally altered by access to a digital network" whether or not they are conscious of specific new media practices.

At a Feb. 28 webinar on Information Arts, Liz Losh (Director of the Culture, Art and Technology Program at UCSD's Sixth College) declared that she's "troubled with the ease with which people talk about new media literacy" because it "ignores digital rights and responsibilities." (Those interested in this subject should consult her book Virtualpolitik.)

I'm struck, in this hyperlocal example, by the extent to which social media has drawn a political line in our community: those who exercised their digital rights to insist upon transparency, and those who hewed to paternalism, however well-intentioned it may be.  Again, this question of taxonomy isn't relevant to the agents in question, though it is to me: I doubt people in my community would construe the issue in these terms, but as a scholar I'm alive to the political valences of mediation.

But what exactly is crowdsourcing "mediating" in this hyperlocal example?  It collapses the space between online and offline.  Face-to-face is the grounding element in the circuitry that is crowdsourcing.  As information and social applications of information zip through the grids too fast to follow individually, hyperlocal grounds those potentialities, that energy, in a specific place and specific bodies.  In this sense even what we saw in Egypt was hyperlocal: the global and networked telescoped down into particular bodies standing on a bridge being sprayed with power hoses in a particular moment.  I was suggesting this in my previous post.

Circuitry embodied in microscopic feedback loops of f2f conversation, connecting the wired and those who do little more than check email online: we stand shoulder to shoulder on the school yard watching our kids play.  Or nod at each other as we cycle down a path.  Or greet the local baker by name as we walk into her shop.  This is what I was thinking as I stood there at the playground last week, listening to my friends talk about their online LO United work as our kids loped around the schoolyard, a dog barking in the distance, gray clouds thinning overhead.  I thought, so many of these people standing next to me are not going to read a text heavy web page.

So I took out my flip camera and started making this video.

No comments: