Andrea Batista Schlesinger is executive director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy (a non-partisan, non-profit think tank founded during the Civil Rights Movement that generates ideas that fuel the progressive movement). She is currently working on the forthcoming book The Death of Why, to be released in Spring of 2009. After looking at my blog and reading what I had said in a 2006 panel (the MacArthur Online Discussions on Civic Engagement, PDF transcript here) she contacted me to ask some questions about the role of the Internet in promoting civic participation. Our email exchange, reproduced with her permission, follows:
Andrea Batista Schlesinger: You write that “We should be less concerned about designing technologies that will afford young people ‘satisfying participation opportunities’ and more concerned about ensuring that new generations can challenge and question the opportunities that are ‘offered’ to them. The goal –for young people as well as old– should be the self-critical individual.” Do you think that the Internet — either as a medium, or as an environment — inspires/encourages such self-critique? Do you think that digital natives are more or less likely to be interested in and have the capacity for inquiry and/or self-reflection? Continue reading
Will the internet play an increasing role in shifting the source of moral standards from face-to-face communities to online networks? Gergen (1999), for example, argues that 20th century technologies of social connection undermine traditional face-to-face communities as the generative site for moral action. According to this kind of perspective, technologies such as the internet erode our ability to act in concert with locally defined moral standards. Instead, by connecting people across space, the dispersed network becomes the generative site for moral standards. Gergen seems to suggest that this is something we should lament. But if instead of acting in concert with what my next door neighbor thinks is right, I act in concert with what my online community thinks is morally appropriate, is this all bad? What if my next door neighbor is a deplorable character? It is true that non-geographically bound communities (such as online communities) have probably replaced the traditional community in more ways than one. But do these communities, and online communities in particular, simply give voice to the collective moral standards of their members, or are the moral standards of their members being shaped by the experience of being part of such a community? Furthermore, given the fragmentary nature of online communities, will the internet promote relativistic notions of morality, or contribute to the development of universally shared models of morality?