How will online and other electronic commuications impact the capacity of civic life?

In thinking about electronic forms of communication and the implications for civic life, it is important to think about the socialization patterns of today's youth, human development, and the function of community.  First of all, today's youth is very different from times past.  Where back yard games were once played out with the negotiation of rules and the determination of who was safe and who was out decided by one's peers, we now have organized leagues controlled by some form of adult authority. In truth, children are rarely unsupervised these days. They need day timers to keep track of their schedules and no schedule is made without parental involvement and the guarantee of adult supervision.  Whether it is soccer moms or football dads, parents are out there or at least making sure that someone is out there providing "proper" supervision.  This means that the determination of who's out and the rules of play are no longer negotiated between peers.   This means that the creation of rules of interaction, social norms, and values are externally controlled by adults.  While the significance of this can't entirely be known, it is important to think about the skills and attitudes that are no longer realized through childhood play.  The ability to argue, to make a point, to see difference, to work through that difference toward an agreement, to believe that one can solve a problem through communication might be some of the possibilities.  Thankfully there is space out there that is not dominated by adults, the Web. Today children's unsupervised domain is the Web. Granted limitations need to be made over which sites are visited but some of these sites provide children with the opportunity to learn through interaction with others.  They can create fictional characters in these online games and learn how to negotiate and trade goods to develop points allowing greater privileges in the game. They can learn who to trust and what it means to break trust. They can learn how their desire to be successful is often tied to others and to external cooperation. These are the skills, attitudes and perceptions that might help them when their own self interest calls them into the broader realm of civic life.

Now not all games provide this potential for civic learning but why couldn't we try to promote such games.  Why can't we use the opportunities of the Web to enable students to hear different perspectives and to learn different uses of language to express the world in ways unfamiliar to them? The technology is there and student motivation is there.  We need only to promote the uses of these technologies toward a better end, an end that is not limited solely to entertainment.

Of course, the creation of virtual communities and learning through electronic forms of communication is limited.  In the online world, one can change identity, use inappropriate language, and have no stake in civility.  It is only in the face-to-face world where consequences for behavior, good or bad, take place.  It is only within a physically interactive social context that any moral order can be determined through a process of defining and redefining our norms.  It is only in this context that children learn the harder lessons of difference and the importance of negotiating these differences in good faith.  It is only in this environment that behavior can lead to real tangible benefits as well as punishments.

In the end however, it may be the ability to connect these two worlds that hold the greatest potential for building community and developing the skills that can be used when and if civic life knocks on the door.  In online classes, it always seems that students are willing to say more and to reveal themselves, blemishes and all. In the online world we can reach beyond our neighborhood, our geographical community, and what we think we know.  In these spaces we can seek out those with whom we share some commonality. While these are important to the development of who we are as human beings, they are not sufficient.  It is still the genuine idea of community in which real consequences occur for what we do or fail to do and in which we can properly define ourselves that ultimately leads us to our role in the civic enterprise.

Peter Sawyer, Guest Blogger