I'm glad to see from Will Davies on iWire that he will be publishing iSociety's next report on the topic of locality, community and new media in July, building on previous reports he cites there. I will be particularly interested in how he treats the balance of social and technology-driven changes we are seeing.... or may see in future.
The suggestion from previous pieces - as I read it - is that the technology-defined Networked Society continues to be a good way of thinking about how in future people will get information, converse and develop relationships locally and in civic spaces as well as in communities defined by interest or work. Maybe...but I'm not sure it is very useful at present - about which more later.
The Renewal piece , written with James Crabtree starts: "What does a public realm look like, if it is no longer oriented around a central state government, with a single focus for civil society? This essentially is the question that the left confronts every time it sets about the hazardous task of decentralising power.
"Could a public sphere consist of multiple over-lapping, but integrated conversations, some local and some non-local? Could civic engagement be reconceptualised to include the informal social networks that we organise, as well as the formal political structures which organise us? Look at the latest social and civic uses of the internet, and it's clear that the answer is yes. The internet, we argue, offers both the mental template and the practical opportunity which the left sorely needs if it is to make decentralisation commensurable with its belief in public action."
After a discussion of the changes the Net is bringing locally and globally, Will and James conclude:
"It makes little sense to think of the world wide web as a global public space, because there is little evidence of a global public to occupy it. Instead, it is a vast network of inter-linking public spaces, a model of how we can occupy multiple public realms, some local, some non-local. But crucially, the very purpose and essence of the web is towards inter-communicability and social integration. This is a decentralised technology, that is incapable of supporting complete cultural ghettoisation - which is not to say that it automatically leads to homogeneous globalisation either. This is a model of decentralised publicness that steers between parochial nostalgia and neoliberal privatisation, and it's a model that the left must embrace."
In his iWire Will also gives us a matrix charting different models (local centres, e-government, local intranet, community media, BBC and commercial offerings) again function, operator and funding.
For what is it worth, here's my very rough matrix of audiences (individuals, groups etc) against type of communication (getting information, collaborating) and the types of tools that may be appropriate. It is a different perspective from Will's, because I'm mainly looking at who you wish to help to communicate, to what end - and then suggesting that technology is just one of the ways to do that. In doing that I suppose I'm trying to unpack Will's broad model categories, and paying less attention to who operates and how it is funded.
However, the main point for me is that I'm not finding technology-defined models very useful in exploring and supporting local civic communication. I work as a consultant on quite a few local renewal and social cohesion programmes, and if anything there is less rather than more interest in the Net than a few years ago.
The other day a major property developer, engaged in an innovative sustainable community project, said to me "let's NOT do a web site"... but instead concentrate on a community cafe and newsletter. He thought it might alienate people and demonstrate a lack of commitment to more valued 'real' methods. Mention of blogs and wikis draws almost universal blank stares from most council and public agency officials. Community groups will probably be using email and may have a web site - but face to face conversations, meetings, 'real' places are what matters.
Of course this is changing with wider access, confidence and skills. The hobby use of digital cameras is introducing people first-hand to the potential of multimedia.
But I don't think that is the point. People who may not be substantial users of the Net - or not users at all - are becoming aware that, yes, it does change things in commerce and the delivery of public services; yes, it does offer great personal benefit... BUT the basis of good communication (and politics) is trust and relationships and the Net doesn't offer quick fixes.
Models for understanding our increasingly (but not always) networked society that start with technology are not just before themselves... I suspect they are potentially misleading. We need to mix in the many variety of people, and the many modes of communication as well.
I expect Will has this all covered in his report, but he did ask for comments on iWire, so I couldn't resist. What I should now probably do is download Network Logic? Who governs in an interconnected world available free from Demos as part of its admirable open content project linked to their Greenhouse blog.
The Net really does change things for some of us.... if you are interested in that sort of thing.
Update: Will's contribution to the recent Notcon event argues - it seems to me - against Net social models as 'real world' political models.
He writes: "The underlying point of the piece is kind of captured in the last paragraph:
There’s an analogy often made between the American settlers and internet dwellers, and it’s a good one. Like the American settlers, internet dwellers create a myth that there was no politics before they arrived. In order to establish entirely new and egalitarian communities, American settlers had to ignore the fact that the land was already occupied. To the same end, Internet settlers choose to ignore the historical and sociological facts of how the internet is run, who lacks access to it and why, and the mechanisms used online to divide people. The risk is that the politics of the net follows America towards gated communities, each having only an inward-looking, group-based notion of politics, and ceases to question the macro institutions and systems around them.
Agreed. So let's be wary of the Net as a model for communities.
Update: launch details here