Thursday, September 17, 2009

a new political model: "just in time" civic engagement

Over at Empathetics: Integral Life, my pal Rafi Santo just published a post about his experience voting in his city's Democratic primary election.

He explains that despite his commitment to civic participation--which, for him, includes casting a ballot in primary elections--he has struggled to keep up with electoral news. He writes:

While I’m motivated to vote in these elections, realize that my vote will make a real difference in deciding who gets into office, and understand that these politicians have probably the most impact on the issues immediate to my city ranging from education and real estate development to local environmental laws and criminal justice, I just can’t seem to get motivated enough to actually follow these races.

His solution: Whip out his laptop, plug in to his polling station's free Wi-Fi, and search for details on the candidates before casting a vote. In doing this, Rafi writes, he engaged in "just in time" learning, which he contrasts against
“just in case” learning, where the learner learns something on the chance that they might need to know it at a later point, but the situation in which they might apply it is certainly not present, and may never be. For a great example of just in case learning, think back to a good bit of your high school experience. I swear I have never used trigonometry.

Given the historically low voter turnout in primary elections, Rafi argues that it's not that people are too busy or don't care but that "they don’t want to waste their time with something they know nothing about." He suggests we leverage our capacity for supporting "just in time" learning by offering research terminals at polling stations so people can gather the information they need, when they need it.

I find this to be one of the most sound and cost- and time-effective ideas I've heard for fostering greater participation in the electoral process. Though clearly significant issues of equity and fraud could emerge (would certain sites be blocked? could hackers crash the system? what if some polling places lost their internet connections? would activists use the terminals to spread electoral results or other [mis]information?), the payout is potentially enormous. After all, more democracy is generally better than less democracy, and dealing with the fallout is therefore worth the investment.

Not only is Rafi's idea an important one to consider, but it also pushes us to rethink our definition of "civic engagement." Voting, after all, is not exactly the tippy-top of the civic engagement mountain--though we do like to believe it is, since it's fairly easy to measure and stands in nicely for everything that civic engagement means to our culture. But it's not the casting of the ballot that matters, but the symbolic drive behind the vote. Culturally, we carry in our head this icon of the Engaged Voting Citizen who stands up when the times call for it; who stands up in earnest and urgency to make herself heard on the matters at hand.

The days of the Engaged Voting Citizen, if those days truly ever existed, are long past. When it comes to voting for POTUS, it's almost a no-brainer for most of us, and the results are generally decided long before Election Day by pro-am journalists and media outlets whose reportage dictate not only what choices we will have, but upon what criteria we will make our decision. They fill our space up with information, just in case, and we try our best to remember as much as possible in case the time comes to act upon it.

Compare that to what we might call "just in time" civic engagement: It often emerges organically, from inside of an online or offline community that forms or unites around a perceived injustice, problem, or challenge. One example: The thousands of people who united to save the TV show Jericho for one more season were, for all intents and purposes, as engaged as the most energized campaign organizers. They didn't need to be heckled or cajoled into participating; they understood the need and, just in time, gathered and circulated the necessary information on how to react effectively and efficiently.

In Here Comes Everybody, technology guru Clay Shirky considers why so much collective action focuses largely on "relatively short-term and negative goals." He points to political protests in the Philippines, flash mobs, and protests against corporate policies as examplars of this, then writes:

Despite the number of stories about collective action, though, they have one thing in common: they all rely on "stop energy," on an attempt to get some other organization or group to capitulate to the demands of the collected group.... Everywhere we look, social media makes creativity not just possible but desirable enough that these examples and millions of others are all out there, with more added every day. Everywhere, that is, except collective action.

Perhaps collective action is more focused on protesting than creating because collective action is simply harder than sharing or collaborating.

Perhaps Shirky's right; but then again, I'd be hard pressed to think of a powerful example of civic engagement, either online or offline, that didn't emerge out of a need for "stop energy." I suppose voting is our best example of "go energy" engagement, coming around as it does like clockwork; but when do we get the largest voter turnout? When it's time to kick someone out, of course.

It's time to move past the lamentation that young people don't vote; they're used to models of civic engagement that feel more powerful, more effective, and more directly relevant to their everyday interests and desires. If we want (and I agree that we do) to get young people engaged in local and national politics, then we need to find ways to leverage this new ad hoc, "just in time" model for a range of civic needs, both large and small. Bringing in research stations and offering (hack-proof) online voting are two interesting strategies for doing this; and as we continue to rethink what we mean by the terms "civic engagement," "community" and "participation" we need to continue to develop and shift our long-established notions of what it means to be a good citizen in an increasingly participatory culture.


Julie said...

I, too , share this guilt over local elections and politics, and find your friend's solution to be so disarmingly, shockingly obvious. How could a system like this NOT already be in place? Are we all so full of ourselves that we can't admit our ignorance, or so lazy that we prefer to let that ignorance limit our civic engagement?

Sean said...

Love this post, Jenna. The idea of just-in-time learning seems really powerful, and possibly a way to think through the negative aspects of collective action that Shirky talks about. When we talk about positive engagement with social media, we often use "learning-as-process" metaphors and models, and those ways of thinking about it make me wonder how that translates into positive action. "Just-in-time" seems to be an interesting answer to this, and your post brings up some fertile questions about how to combine playful, process pedagogy with more active and decisive models of engagement. Does Shirky's observation say something about the relative infancy of collective action that leverages new media? Maybe the first phase of working together will always initially be reactive (and possibly negative). What does more mature and goal-oriented community work look like?

Jenna McWilliams said...

Hey guys,
Thanks for your comments! @Julie, I'm fascinated by the prospect that you feel guilt--especially since I know you've dedicated your life to doubt you really have anything to feel guilty about.

@Sean, I do wonder if civic engagement is always, at first, reactive or negative. Maybe there's a first moment where someone (or some group) says, "hey--no." They reiterate this stance in some symbolic or physical or virtual way, and that gives way to "hey--no more," which is extended engagement beyond an initial reaction. Then, perhaps, the "no more" attitude flips toward proactivity and effort toward positive change.


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