Does technology build community?
My son Devon made a short movie ‘Jeff’ where the main character is a zombie college student who turns on his computer every morning to find he has no friends on Facebook. Do you wake up and go to your computer right away to see what mail you have received or do you keep your smartphone by your bed?
Our desire and ability to stay in touch with one another and our communities through technology is increasing faster than any of us ever thought possible. Definitions are changing rapidly and the impact on our relationships with one another is still unclear. The term ‘friend’ is a good example. What does it mean to have a few hundred friends? Or even thousands of friends?
Some 40% of many of our communities are not connected to the internet, mostly low-income. This has been given the name “digital divide.” Is the distance between the haves and the have-nots widening due to technology? I have to admit to my own set of biases about the value of technology. Yet I, too, have fallen prey to its applications. I communicate with friends and family through technology. I get directions. I shop for some items online. I read the news online but I still read newspapers and magazines the old fashioned way. Yes, I even search for love online. You can even pray online and submit your prayer request to the prayer team! I have not done this yet and still would like to think my prayers have just as little chance of being answered with or without the support of a tech prayer team!
Comcast offers a deal to low-income families to gain access to the internet for $9.95 per month. If you have one child on the “free lunch program” at school, you can qualify for this program. The “free lunch program” is for children from low-income families. Of course there are some other conditions including an up to date cable bill. Since Comcast is one of the few utilities that requires you to pay for the next month ahead of time, many of us are not current. Of course, you also need to have a computer to get online. Needless to say, there are few takers for this service.
Technology is changing so quickly and we are unable to keep up especially in terms of laws and regulations. For example, if a burglar breaks into your house and steals jewelry or other personal items, they are charged with a felony. If a company obtains information from your computer on your purchasing habits and sells it to others companies, there is no criminal offense, for the most part.
Community engagement on important concerns of development and other issues are now part of new apps where people can immediately register their opinions over their smartphones. Of course, the large percentage of low income families who may not have a smartphone do not get to participate in these new technologies which are allegedly in the name of democracy.
The power of technology has huge potential to build community across social and economic boundaries. But, so far, we have not had the public will to create these possibilities. We have been more interested in how many ‘friends’ we have on Facebook.