Articles

Digital Dimensions

Musings on the yearlong search for a full definition of digital communities.

by / December 27, 2006

Just what is a digital community? That is a question we have been discussing for more than a year.

There are of course glib, easy answers -- ones we've used to explain what the Digital Communities program is all about. We have said that, in a digital community, people are connected 24/7 -- anytime, anywhere -- which brings wireless Internet technologies to the fore. This, we have noted, would dramatically change how people live, work and play.

We have also repeated a common assertion that ubiquitous wireless Internet connectivity, along with a convergence of media, would bring forth a host of new applications that are not yet on the radar screen.

And although these are both certainly true enough, neither actually defines the digital community in terms that give communities an inkling of the road map ahead -- at least not one that extends much beyond basic wireless connectivity with a few mobile worker and public safety applications.

Yet having at least a partial road map seems rather prudent for initiatives that involve building out community-oriented wireless infrastructure or investing public money in applications and services designed to improve the efficiency of the government work force, as well as encourage digital inclusion and economic development.

A good definition of a digital community should provide a vision for the reinvention of our communities for the 21st century. And it should certainly embrace much more than anywhere, anytime connectivity or improved efficiencies for mobile workers.

If digital communities are the communities of the future, if technology is being harnessed to deliver its full potential in a community context, then the obvious goal must be the improved health, vitality, prosperity and sustainability of our communities.

At its core, the vision of digital communities should be about: reinvigorating communities that falter; healing communities that are troubled or in turmoil; fostering involvement rather than alienation or cynicism; making communities safer; and extending the ability and right of all citizens to participate in economic, political and social activities that are increasingly tied to the Internet.

Much of this boils down to access to 21st-century communication tools, yet it is more than that. As many have observed, digital inclusion programs aren't just about Internet access, but also what one can do with it.

In recent years we have begun to talk about digital literacy. This goes beyond the traditional ability to read and write, and now includes a set of new core competencies, including the ability to find needed information and critically evaluate what is found in cyber-space.

Digital literacy is just one of many factors that constitute a true digital community. In many ways, the question of what a digital community embodies is, as much as anything, about what emerging technologies can do for a community. Certainly there are economic, educational and social elements to this, as well as great efficiencies to be gained by anywhere, anytime connectivity. But if we step back and take a broader view, drilling down to the very fundamental notions of community and sustainability, we also get a slightly different take on all this.


The Essence of Community
Once we thought of communities largely as location based. Today we talk about virtual communities and communities of interest that span the globe. But no matter its raison d'être, the underlying essence of community is found in all of these. Members have something in common as part of a shared environment. This leads in some way to a sense of community as well as what social scientists have been calling "social capital."

According to Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, and a leading exponent of the concept, social capital refers to the collective value of all "social networks" within a community, and also to the motivation that arises from these networks for members to do things for each other.

Putnam and his fellow sociologists argue that social capital is a key component to building and maintaining democracy. And Putnam believes social capital has been declining in the United States and that this is seen in lower levels of trust in government, as well as lower levels of civic participation. Based on his research, he identified television and urban sprawl as two factors that have had a significant role in making Americans far less connected.

Lately we have started to realize that place does matter. As more commercial and social activities move online, we instinctively feel that this needs to be balanced by physical interaction.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg states in The Great Good Place that people need three places: the home, the workplace and the community hangout or gathering place.

Many people have started to recognize the importance of public spaces, both physically and on the Internet. On one hand, we have movements that seek to remake our cities so that public spaces are more prominent and inviting.

The nonprofit group Project for Public Spaces (PPS) has become fairly prominent in advocating "placemaking," which Wikipedia defines as "the process of creating great places that attract people because they are pleasurable, interesting and offer the chance to see other people." Just because a space is deemed public doesn't mean it will be well utilized or an asset to help foster community. According to PPS, placemaking is characterized by a focus on activities, management, community and sociability, as opposed to architectural or landscape design.

In this Digital Age, however, many people argue that the idea of public spaces on the Internet is also important. On his E-Commons Web site, freelance Canadian librarian Kevin Stranack notes, "The struggle for public space in cyber-space closely resembles the fight for public space versus commercial space in the physical world. And just as physical public space is a crucial forum for learning, arguing, discussing and cooperating between social groups in search of social justice and equality, so too is the public space on the Internet. But public space in cyber-space is under threat from the expansion of commercialism on the Internet."

Interestingly in the last few years, we've seen that some of the more successful commercialization efforts in cyber-space actually have recognized the tremendous value in providing public spaces with much more than free access. The success of MySpace is one prime example.

Public space and commercial space are not necessarily a dichotomy, but often most effective when they are intertwined.


Dynamics of Community
While sociologists and other researchers have worked to elaborately define and study the different facets of community in the modern age, many of their conclusions are not far from traditional definitions.

If we imagine all the dynamics of a small rural farming community 100 years ago -- the way people interacted, tolerated and supported each other -- we have an inkling of much of what academic journals describe today.

However, in terms of the directions in which technology is pushed, an important aspect might easily be overlooked in defining its role. This adds up to what is described in high-tech military jargon as situational awareness.

Through many informal and ad hoc information lines, communities of old knew what was going on within and even beyond the community. There were the town gossips. There were the feuds everyone knew about. Everyone seemed to know a lot about everyone else's business and yet they tolerated a great deal as well. People associating and talking to each other was the glue of social networks back then.
collective value of all "social networks" within a community, and also to the motivation that arises from these networks for members to do things for each other.

Putnam and his fellow sociologists argue that social capital is a key component to building and maintaining democracy. And Putnam believes social capital has been declining in the United States and that this is seen in lower levels of trust in government, as well as lower levels of civic participation. Based on his research, he identified television and urban sprawl as two factors that have had a significant role in making Americans far less connected.

Lately we have started to realize that place does matter. As more commercial and social activities move online, we instinctively feel that this needs to be balanced by physical interaction.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg states in The Great Good Place that people need three places: the home, the workplace and the community hangout or gathering place.

Many people have started to recognize the importance of public spaces, both physically and on the Internet. On one hand, we have movements that seek to remake our cities so that public spaces are more prominent and inviting.

The nonprofit group Project for Public Spaces (PPS) has become fairly prominent in advocating "placemaking," which Wikipedia defines as "the process of creating great places that attract people because they are pleasurable, interesting and offer the chance to see other people." Just because a space is deemed public doesn't mean it will be well utilized or an asset to help foster community. According to PPS, placemaking is characterized by a focus on activities, management, community and sociability, as opposed to architectural or landscape design.

In this Digital Age, however, many people argue that the idea of public spaces on the Internet is also important. On his E-Commons Web site, freelance Canadian librarian Kevin Stranack notes, "The struggle for public space in cyber-space closely resembles the fight for public space versus commercial space in the physical world. And just as physical public space is a crucial forum for learning, arguing, discussing and cooperating between social groups in search of social justice and equality, so too is the public space on the Internet. But public space in cyber-space is under threat from the expansion of commercialism on the Internet."

Interestingly in the last few years, we've seen that some of the more successful commercialization efforts in cyber-space actually have recognized the tremendous value in providing public spaces with much more than free access. The success of MySpace is one prime example.

Public space and commercial space are not necessarily a dichotomy, but often most effective when they are intertwined.


Dynamics of Community
While sociologists and other researchers have worked to elaborately define and study the different facets of community in the modern age, many of their conclusions are not far from traditional definitions.

If we imagine all the dynamics of a small rural farming community 100 years ago -- the way people interacted, tolerated and supported each other -- we have an inkling of much of what academic journals describe today.

However, in terms of the directions in which technology is pushed, an important aspect might easily be overlooked in defining its role. This adds up to what is described in high-tech military jargon as situational awareness.

Through many informal and ad hoc information lines, communities of old knew what was going on within and even beyond the community. There were the town gossips. There were the feuds everyone knew about. Everyone seemed to know a lot about everyone else's business and yet they tolerated a great deal as well. People associating and talking to each other was the glue of social networks back then.

But as the world has become more complex, fewer people know much about the things that directly impact their lives. People often scarcely know their next door neighbors. It's obvious that a sense of community deteriorates the less that people are actually aware of what goes on in that community.

The idea of situational awareness ties into this, but it also has everything to do with how a community plans and responds to external events as well.

According to the Naval Aviation Schools Command, situational awareness "refers to the degree of accuracy by which one's perception of his current environment mirrors reality."

Situational awareness really is about knowledge of the environment -- what is happening that is important. In the physical world, it's often created through simple perception of the different elements or occurrences around one and figuring out what those elements or events mean for present and future well-being.

One undisputed trend is that people are increasingly getting more of their information via the Internet, which shapes their perceptions of the world. Hence, in fully defining the true digital community, we must consider how situational awareness is improved for leaders and community members through new emerging digital technologies.

This is not an easy question. We see, for instance, that the press -- which for much of the last century has been a key instrument for shaping community situational awareness by deciding what is and isn't news -- is now re-evaluating its role to remain viable. We hear talk about the rise of citizen journalism and see this taking form through blogs and podcasting.

For a community in a complex society and a global economy, one that is awash with information at the click of a button, one important issue is whether in fact a community as a whole is actually receiving the information it needs. This is crucial for the survival of any democracy, for it is only when citizens are adequately informed that democracy works.

A healthy digital community is one that harnesses digital technology to provide adequate situational awareness so community leaders and citizens can make the right decisions, thereby ensuring the safety, prosperity, vitality and sustainability of that community.

In other words, within a digital community, digital communications can have an almost infinite range of purposes. It is important that they assist in developing social capital. However, when those communications add up to create both community and situational awareness, then a true digital community begins to emerge.


Learning From the Military Context
Diane H. Sonnenwald and Linda G. Pierce noted in Information Behavior in Dynamic Group Work Contexts, a paper published in Information Processing and Management, that many dynamic work situations require that people seek, collect, integrate, analyze and disseminate information from multiple sources. However, they suggest that one of the most dynamic work contexts is found in the military within command and control (C2) at the battalion level. A battalion typically consists of 300 to 1,000 soldiers. And command and control for the battalion is generally performed by a team consisting of small groups of experts.

"The team must dynamically seek information from multiple sources and explore and integrate the information and their specialized knowledge to create and execute plans," they noted. "Their plans and subsequent actions should accomplish the intent of the battle mission, be achievable within the constraints of the situation and be synchronized with other organizational units, including joint and coalition forces, who are typically geographically distributed, and new collaborators.

"Furthermore, while supervising and performing tasks before and during the battle, they must continually evaluate their units' performance and the situation to determine what additional specialized information and activities are required. These activities must be achieved on demand under increasingly strict time deadlines imposed by the battle tempo and continually for periods lasting days to months to years.

"To create and maintain an interwoven situational awareness," Sonnenwald and Pierce added, "information flow among C2 team members (and others) is critical. An important question is what information needs to be communicated and what social network structure best facilitates information flow?"

That question is equally important in the context of a true digital community. Beyond connectivity, a vital core issue is not just the information that can and should be communicated in different spheres, both public and private, but also what network structures are needed to facilitate these communications.


Unprecedented Challenges
Our communities today face unprecedented challenges. In many respects, it can be quite daunting to look out upon the future that is now hurtling toward us.

Modern weapons technology has made it possible for what Thomas Friedman calls the "super-empowered angry man" to cause massive destruction alone or with few conspirators. Medical scientists tell us that wide-scale pandemics are inevitable, that it is not a question of if but when.

Global warming is melting the polar caps and raising the oceans. Environmental scientists predict that if we continue on as we are now, the world's maps will have to be redrawn in the next half century and that weather patterns will continue to change with more extreme storms causing ever increasing damage to communities. As former Vice President Al Gore argues, our climate crisis may seem to be happening slowly at times, but in fact it's happening very rapidly now. It has become a true planetary emergency that impacts many communities around the globe.

Because of overpopulation in many regions of the world, mass consumption and water pollution, the availability of drinking water per capita is now inadequate and shrinking. And modern agriculture methods, which use vast quantities of fresh water, are also impacting water resources. Experts tell us water is becoming a strategic resource that will lead to political conflicts in this century just as oil did in the 20th century.

Communities face not just the consequences of these external challenges, but also a wide range of looming issues within their own jurisdictions. In an age when knowledge is vital to personal and group prosperity, education systems in America are failing far too many students. Reportedly one-third of high-school students drop out before even finishing this basic education.

Globalization has placed new strains on even the most sophisticated economies, devastating industries in some regions and moving them elsewhere where cheap labor, lax environmental regulations and other factors offer corporations more profits.

In America and many other Western countries, there is a growing gap between the rich and poor. And there is heavy erosion of the middle class that has in itself many social ramifications. High levels of crime continue to plague our streets.

More and more prisons are required to house convicted offenders at taxpayers' expense, with prisons essentially serving as de facto schools of crime. Real criminal rehabilitation occurs far too infrequently.

Much of our industrial infrastructure is aging, and in urban areas roads are increasingly jammed to over-capacity.

Put together, the challenges that communities face are clearly unprecedented. And in many spheres, we urgently need fresh thinking and new approaches to replace the Industrial-Age solutions that have been our mainstay for so long.

Against the backdrop of necessity, communities must make the leap in earnest to the Digital Age, harnessing all the potential of new technologies to do things differently, recognizing and solving our problems faster and better, and reinvent themselves to meet the looming challenges of this century.

So what is a digital community? To answer that -- so we understand how we must reinvent our communities for the 21st century -- involves many things beyond just wireless connectivity, greater efficiencies for mobile workers and digital inclusion programs that only offer cheap or free access.

At the very least, a digital community is also about digital literacy, social capital and situational awareness, and perhaps even more important, about creating the social networks that let these develop sufficiently to meet the real challenges communities face.

And while this may not be a comprehensive definition for a digital community, it does point a direction forward. It stands as work in progress, as do our emerging Digital Communities themselves.

Blake Harris Editor