People and Communications: In the Midst of Transformation
Challenges and Solutions
On the Role of Technology
People and Communications: In the Midst of Transformation
Our communities, our society, and the world have undergone dramatic change in the last ten to fifteen years. . . and it would appear that this change will continue, and potentially accelerate, through this decade. It could be argued that we as a people are in our most difficult and challenging period since the end of World War II; even after witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end to the Cold War, we continue to face global threats to our environment, the escalating dangers of localized wars and civic unrest, widespread famine and poverty, and the debt-laden infrastructures of almost all nation-states.
As critical as these global issues are, it is the challenges in our day-to-day lives that bring our priorities into sharp focus: the decline in our American educational systems; the problems and uncertainty of our health care; the eminent number of unemployed and persons in need of career retraining; the waning confidence in government, especially at the national level; the disappearing trust in the traditional corporate structure; our chronically homeless; our eroding physical infrastructures; and our constant battles against substance abuse and violence in our communities. Solutions to these difficult and complex problems will not come easily; and when they do, they will be the function of people, working together toward a common cause.
While this global change has occurred with enormous impact and repercussion, it has demonstrated how interrelated we have become not only in our societies and economies, but in so many other aspects of our cultures and lives. We make no claims to an all-inclusive understanding of these challenges. . . but we maintain that nothing short of societal transformation will provide solutions to these enormously difficult issues. This transformation must start with individuals within their communities as they take responsibility for their own destiny and the well-being of those around them.
The research we conducted in 1993 helped us gain a basic understanding of the challenges facing people and communities. Most importantly, it helped us understand and define our basic beliefs and assumptions upon which the mission of the Morino Institute are based. We offer these observations not as ivory-tower philosophers. . . but as concerned citizens ready to roll up our sleeves and go to work. Despite the daunting scope of the crises we have observed, we are optimistic that people and communities, working together, will be more than equal to the task.
Challenges . . . and Solutions
- People have distanced themselves from the world around them. Even as our society has grown and expanded in many ways, we have seen a growing disconnection between citizens and the array of social problems they face. We attribute this to a number of related developments, including: a dissatisfaction with government's ability to effect social change; the deliberate introversion that comes with economic uncertainty; the proliferation of passive electronic entertainment; and the unrealistic hope that if one pulls back far enough, one can ignore these problems. While this distancing is vast in its scope, we believe it to be uniquely personal in nature a reflection of individuals' detachment from society.
WE BELIEVE ... people must be reengaged to improve their lives and their communities. We believe that reenergizing individuals' participation in the world around them will help to reestablish a larger social connection: To once again look outward, beyond ourselves, to the world around us! We seek to invoke this sense of participation and engagement, and channel it toward constructive solutions for individual institutions, communities, and society as a whole.
- The decline in community is inherent in most social problems. The lack of a sense of community - a feeling which could once be found in the smallest of neighborhoods or the largest of cities - is inherent in most of the major problems our society faces today: ineffective education, crime, homelessness, and so much more. It is a relatively new phenomenon in our history, fed by the increasingly mobile, transient nature of our population, and one which is unfortunately exacerbated by the individual detachment discussed above. When we relinquish our sense of responsibility for our schools, streets, and neighbors, it is only natural that the attendant social problems continue to proliferate.
WE BELIEVE ... most of society's major problems can, and should, be solved at the local community level. Only by renewing, reinvigorating, literally transforming the human interconnection between ourselves and the people immediately around us can we effect lasting change. This transformation must begin at the local community level - in our neighborhoods, towns, and cities, within accepted community institutions. It is then a natural progression to look outward; expanding from community to community, and eventually throughout the world.
- Traditional institutions addressing social ills have had mixed success. With a few notable exceptions, the model of a hierarchical "top-down" solution to a social problem - in government, business, or elsewhere - has been severely discredited, and is a dubious prospect for future action. While there will always be some situations best addressed by national legislation or regulation, the very expansion and diversity that drives our growth as a people frequently precludes sweeping propositions coming exclusively from "the top". This phenomenon, combined with the ever-increasing public distrust of many large institutions, compels us to look beyond these traditional models.
WE BELIEVE ... the cures to society's problems must be "grass roots," at home, in our communities. The most successful solutions to our entrenched problems - such as education, crime, and homelessness - frequently come from "bottom-up" models that do not rely on large institutions. Engaged parents, neighborhoods policing, and church - or synagogue-run shelters then emerge as strong foundations on which to build models for action. We must recognize, and build on, the successes of grass roots community heroes.
- There are widening gaps in our society - in opportunity, wealth and knowledge. We cannot escape the conclusion that these gaps have increasingly divided us - in our communities and nations alike - into groupings of "haves" and "have-nots." We further believe that business and industry will not always find it in their best interests to address this divide, and government programs in this regard have had, at best, mixed success. Such a problem is, of course, the most vicious of circles, and absent decisive corrective action, the gaps continue to widen.
WE BELIEVE ... ensuring fair access to meaningful, relevant knowledge can help bridge that gap. Reasonable public access to knowledge sources can afford all members of society - particularly the middle class and the truly disadvantaged - the tools to change their lives. This access should be available to everyone through our social intermediaries: our traditional knowledge "gatekeepers," our schools and libraries, as well as our churches, community centers, and other non-profit institutions. We further believe, however, that physical access to this opportunity is only one part of the solution; we must promote a supportive, learning-conducive atmosphere in our social institutions . . . to fully address the challenge, and close the gaps that keep us apart.
- Our educational crisis is not limited to our schools; there is a need for knowledge at all levels of our society. We believe that the manner in which our society defines learning is undergoing a profound shift; the narrow definition, simply encompassing pre-school, K-12/preparatory and collegiate education is no longer sufficient. The changes across the world, particularly in the workplace, compel us to reexamine the manner in which we create and transfer knowledge - toward a more lifelong, or "K-100" approach. The new definition of learning covers not only traditional education, but supplemental learning, adult education, vocational training and retraining, and all forms of practical knowledge accumulation.
WE BELIEVE ... readily available, broad-based, continuous learning is our best weapon against social problems. Expanding our definition of learning, and working toward an environment conducive to it, will open up new worlds of valuable knowledge for those less fortunate; help more people become self-sufficient; help to wash away the walls of hate and bigotry; and most importantly, provide people with the opportunity to fulfill their individual potential.
- Government and business will continue to cut back their commitment to social tasks. As business and industry continue to adapt to a more competitive, dynamic global marketplace, they will by necessity commit fewer resources to direct social programs. Likewise, the demands on the shrinking pool of government dollars have never been stronger - and there is little support among the public for increased taxation to pay for sweeping social programs. We are convinced by the arguments of Peter F. Drucker, the noted author and management thinker, who sees a fundamental shift in the execution of "social sector" responsibilities - less on the part of government and business, and more from the non-profit sector.
WE BELIEVE ... that social intermediaries, the non-profit sector, must serve a larger role and operate more effectively to fill the void in "social responsibility". The postwar era has seen an almost total reversal of the above roles, to the point where the efforts of non-profits have arguably surpassed those of government and business. We further believe, however, that the non profits must address the same obstacles that other institutions face - in particular, questions of how best to handle growth, "distribution" difficulties in reaching target audiences, and fundamental questions of management. We must help migrate effective and successful processes - such as mission definition, measurable goal-setting, and marketing - to the "non-profit" world, while maintaining the purity of purpose driving those who give of themselves. We will respect the autonomy and unique culture of the social sector ... while helping them learn the tools they need to succeed.
- Society's problems are not exclusive to separate groups, but highly interrelated. We strongly believe the words of the poet John Donne are especially appropriate in this modern age: "No man is an island, entire of itself." Throughout the world, competition and change are driving a new awareness of the interrelation of all that we do - in our schools, workplaces, and homes. Police enforcement alone, for example, cannot be the entire solution to the problems of crime - we must also consider the education system that has failed many of those who enter such a life . . . as well as the lack of meaningful family support systems and the spiritual vacuum unmet by religious organizations.
WE BELIEVE ... teamwork and collaboration of diverse contributors are vital. We must increasingly work together - across traditional boundaries of disciplines and vocations. There may be no islands entire of themselves, but we believe in tapping what philanthropist Robert Buford calls "islands of strength" within communities - a diverse array of individuals, drawn together by common interests and a desire to serve. We believe that the power of this sort of asset is rarely immediately apparent - but that the value of true collaboration is almost always grater than the sum of its parts.
- We have become increasingly fragmented as a people. The interpersonal remoteness and the decline in community sensibility have resulted in a larger social phenomenon as well - one that impacts our individual relationships and our behavior as a people. The sensation of real human interaction with our fellow men and women is less a part of our lives, and we have become somewhat cold and removed as a result.
WE BELIEVE ... the emerging medium of electronic communications can actually increase the "human factor" in our day to day lives. The broad-reaching, interactive experience draws on what Marshall McLuhan, the mass-media theorist who foresaw the advent of networking, identified as the "participation mystique" - a sense of belonging, of shared interest and common purpose - in short, a sense of community. It is people that are at the core of what will be done to change our lives for the better; computers, television, and their successors in communications technologies are simply tools. We would draw a distinct comparison to other manifestations of "computer" technology, which has frequently added to the coldness and depersonalization: We believe that the ultimate benefit of communications technologies will be realized when there is widespread understanding of the real reasons people are using them - personal interaction, the sharing of individual and institutional knowledge, and other forms of constructive social contact, as an augmentation to, rather than a replacement of face-to-face interaction.
On the Role of Technology
The Morino organizations and their principals have certain core competencies in the application of technology . . . and we believe that networked interactive communications technology in particular can serve as a great enabling tool for social change. We take a cautiously optimistic view of the potential of the often-promised "information highway" and other revolutions in communications technology - as long as the technology is understood, both the good and the bad, and made relevant to individuals' daily lives. With those caveats, we offer the following assumptions on the role technology can play:
- Technology in and of itself is not a solution for society's problems. There is a tendency among many information-age prophets to overstate the potential benefits of communications technology. It frequently manifests itself as a "cult of the new," responding reflexively to advances in technology - and misunderstanding the significance of those advances.
WE CONTEND ... people can use the tools of communications technology to help change their communities and their lives. But they must understand that these tools are precisely that - merely sophisticated implements by which they can work toward their goals. It is the human interconnection, and human leadership in communities and institutions, that provides the "brainpower" for the process of societal change - and even the most dazzling advances in technology will not change this basic dynamic.
- The information age will render the education and skills of many obsolete. As the mechanization of the industrial age displaced many low-skill workers, so will the revolution in communication make the experiences of certain members of society impractical and dated. Many others will be forced to reexamine and redefine their roles in an age of instant communication and access to near-boundless information. This is a profound consequence of the new technology, and one which we as a society must address squarely and forthrightly.
WE CONTEND ... awareness of the information and communications age - a teleliteracy - is critical to our leaders and the public at large. In addition to establishing a basic right of access to communications technology, we must help all of our citizenry in adapting to the "brave new world." Establishing this teleliteracy, which encompasses both a knowledge of the resources available, and an understanding of the tools by which to access them, is crucial - for those "obsoleted" professionally by new technology, and particularly among our leaders.
- The injudicious use of this technology can pose threats to our democratic process, our fundamental individual rights, and the moral fiber of communities. In addition to the vocational risks, new developments in information and communications technology raise potential problems in the conduct of our day-to-day lives. While promising in many respects, teledemocracy - direct citizen participation in government - is also fraught with opportunities for demagoguery, fraud, and mob rule. As political scientist Benjamin Barber observes, our government is an intentionally deliberative system; in a very real sense, the speed at which information and communications now move works against that premise. Additionally, the benefits of instant information-gathering are in many ways offset by the difficulty of protecting individual privacy in our personal and financial pursuits. And just as physical communities wrestle with socially undesirable behavior, so must electronic communities guard against those who would lie, cheat, steal, or engage in other such conduct.
WE CONTEND ... the general public must be made aware of the threats, as well as the opportunities, that come with information and communications technology. On balance, we certainly believe that the enormous potential for individual and community growth far outweighs these negatives. This new electronic environment is one of considerable freedom; but as the timeless adage warns, "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."
- The above assumptions notwithstanding, information and communication technologies will drive the continuous pace of innovation in our society. The pace of technological change in the modern world is almost immeasurably rapid. As social scientist Don Kash observes, it is now a continuous process - rather than an intermittent series of major inventions like the railroad or the telegraph. Our world is in constant flux all around us, and we must realize that an environment of perpetual innovation has its own momentum built in. Put another way, the rapid pace of information and communications technology development will dramatically impact our society, whether we like it or not.
WE CONTEND .. people can tap into this perpetual innovation, and use it to transform their own lives and the lives of those around them. In order to "ride the tiger" of continuous change, people must be able to adapt - in their workplaces, as well as their homes and everyday lives. Simple electronic mail, for example, has already compelled tremendous changes in the dissemination of information and knowledge in the world of higher education - but its potential as an agent of social change has hardly been tapped. The same will be true of the technology driving today's world - and tomorrow's - and we must be ready to put it to good use.
- Networked interactive communications technology has enormous potential to effect societal change. The explosive growth of the global Internet, commercial service networks, and public interest computer networks across the world frames the opportunity; the democratic and personal nature of this emerging communications medium makes it uniquely suited to be a vehicle for community change.
WE CONTEND ... the power of personal, human communications is driving this growth, and is central to the opportunity to create lasting positive change. Networked communications affords us the chance to dramatically improve how we communicate and interact with one another as people - to share our knowledge and experience, and work together across the boundaries of time and space in a more constructive fashion than ever before. If properly harnessed and structured in a supportive, collaborative, human context, this technology can be a powerful and useful tool for changing people's lives.