05 November 2008

New Media, New Democracy: Power to the Unempowered

On Tuesday morning I went to vote in Holland, Michigan. There the first person I met at the polls was checking picture identification under Michigan's new "suppress the vote" law.

But I saw a problem. The poll worker was checking the addresses on the IDs. This is not allowed. The ID is only to prove identity. And there might be many reasons why a person's ID might have an address different from their voting address. This is especially true in a voting precinct that includes many lower-income rental housing units.

So I said to this poll worker: "You are not supposed to be doing that." And I explained why. The response? "You should call the City Clerk." I wanted to just say, "Wrong again, pick up your phone and call, this should not be the voter's responsibility." And I might have muttered it. But I voted, then I went home. Then I called the City Clerk (who agreed that I was right, but didn't quite see much urgency), then I Twittered-The-Vote.

"#votereport 49423 Holland, MI ward 1 precinct 2 telling voters they must vote by affidavit if address on ID doesn't match reg address. Wrong" I Tweeted.

Then I got in my car and headed toward campus. Fifteen minutes later, as I was putting fuel in the car, an email arrived on my Blackberry. It was from a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, which - I need to make clear - seemed mighty unexpected. "Saw your vote report," the email said, "Please call me."

And then I was driving and discussing elections and technology with a writer at one of the world's premier newspapers (I'll admit that no matter how much I disagree with their political views).

And this morning, his report is in The Wall Street Journal.

This is incredible. An obscure voter in an obscure corner of the United States now can make a problem with democracy massively public in a heartbeat. That changes the power structure. That changes our ideas of control of media. In fact - as the power of SMS in many budding democracies has shown - as the power of Barack Obama's new media efforts have shown - that changes lives in huge ways.

And that changes what our students must learn regarding communication.

I've said here before that if you are a traditionally empowered person: wealthy, white, Protestant, English-speaking, "Traditionally-abled," understanding the power of these new media technologies may not be that essential. But if you are the kind of student we typically discuss on this site, the ability to leverage these new technologies will often make the difference between life success and life disaster. This is true at critical moments - elections, confrontations with police, battles for rights in education. And it is true in everyday life - communicating with teachers, employers, and their peers.

If you are not teaching these technologies, you are damaging your students' opportunities for success. Because if you are not teaching the tools of power, you are condemning your students to powerlessness.

- Ira Socol


Anonymous said...

your famous again....

Nina Simon said...

Wow. Great story. This also speaks to the utility of intimacy in these online environments. If everyone were on Twitter, there would be more noise for that reporter to break through. I think it's important for us to continue to build tools that connect micro-communities defined in many ways (not just by who has access to what technology) so that people can really be "heard" by those who care. This isn't about mass populism but about a diverse set of newly-connected communities.

narrator said...

Wow Nina - "the utility of intimacy in online environments" - fantastic. I think about the way these environments might build in a hierarchical fashion. Smaller communities supporting larger meta-conversations. An aside example - massive museums are hard to handle in many ways, we wouldn't want all the art in one "room" - but if we liked Monet at the Art Institute in Chicago we might want to quickly be able to see what's in NY, in Paris, and to chat, if we're there alone, with others in other places discussing Monet. And then we might want to leave our conversations out there so others, who can't get to the museums, can join in later. We need not overwhelm to take advantage of these things - but we need to thing seriously about this as we build these online communities.

- Ira Socol

Tim Lacy said...

Ira: Great, great story. That is awesome. And your cause gets some of the publicity it deserves. - TL