A few years ago, when my son was a high school teenager, he was totally absorbed in online multi-player games. One day, I heard him talking to his friends during the game (using a form of voice over IP, like Skype). So thinking these might be high school buddies, I asked who he was talking to. He said there was one boy from Korea, another from Mexico and a fourth from Russia.
As I told the chief elected executive of our county at the time, my son’s body was there all day long, but his mind was spending lots of time outside of the county (even the country).
This phenomenon is not limited to teenage boys. People of all ages are generally more attentive to life online than they have ever been before. In the US alone, three quarters of the people use social media
Think about where you spend your “mind-time”.
Not the old philosophical debate about a mind-body problem, but a new digital age version has emerged: a new kind of problem where body and mind are in different places.
Moreover, we are actually in the early days of the Internet because our communications with each other generally are not visual. Without conversational videoconferencing, a major means of communicating fully and building trust is absent from online communities. We’ll really see the impact when those visual tools are more widely used.
This situation poses an increasing challenge for public officials.
With their attention focused in all kinds of places around the globe, people are virtually living in multiple jurisdictions. To which jurisdiction does that person have primary loyalty or interest in? Could they be good citizens of more than jurisdiction? In any case, if their attention is divided, doesn’t that have an impact? What if they just don’t care about local officials and their government?
Some cynical political advisers might well like a situation that reduces citizen attention and engagement since it makes the outcome of elections and lawmaking more predictable. But smarter elected officials realize that eventually a lack of public engagement stands in the way of getting things done. In other countries, lack of engagement, knowledge and trust for the government has led to failure to pay taxes or even physically leaving a jurisdiction forever.
Over the last few decades we’ve seen an erosion of trust in this country as well as the Pew Studies, among others, have shown.
Some people attribute the lower trust to the time people spend online, which they view as another form of Bowling Alone, as Professor Robert Putnam titled his most famous book. If anything, the causality may be the reverse – it might be the case that people seek to be engaged in online communities because their physical communities are no longer as inviting to them as a result of the overall decrease in social capital that Putnam portrayed. But that’s a separate story.
Although this may strike many public officials as something new, the study of virtual communities and their implications go back at least as far as Howard Rheingold’s seminal book on the subject in 1993.
Much of the research that has been done so far would indicate that online communities and physical communities have many characteristics in common – both positive and negative.
Size is a good example. Does a person have a greater sense of belonging to an online community of a few hundred or a physical, offline city of a million?
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much research or data collection about where people are spending their mind-time and what its implications are, especially for government. For that reason, the Algorithmic Citizenship measure is interesting to follow.
Please let me know if you’re aware of other attempts. And I’ll keep track of the work of the Citizen Ex project.
© 2015 Norman Jacknis