(This post is a response to a group blogging event organized by Meeting of the Minds and Tumml.)

How is technology impacting social and economic divisions in cities?

Fundamentally, new tools and technologies reinforce existing behaviors and tendencies. A group or strata of society that has a tendency to isolate itself from other parts of society will likely use technologies to reinforce this isolation or insulation. Despite these tendencies, however, the nature of new connection technologies and social media trends is too create a more integrated network of communication, with an inevitable end result of increased transparency across socioeconomic groups. As a result, groups seeking to hide illegal, unjust, or immoral behaviors are likely to face increased obstacles to keeping such activity secret, with a proportional (or even exponential) increase in likely exposure as the number of individuals negatively affected grows. Conversely, behavior or initiatives that positively impact society through expanded social discourse and inclusive policies are likely to find that improved connection technologies will result in dramatic growth in the opportunities for exposure and dissemination of their message.

Naysayers who are skeptical about the ability of marginalized groups (e.g. the homeless, youth, the elderly, and poor or isolated populations in developing economies) often point to a lack of willingness, access, or resources for these groups to participate in open dialogue about the issues that contribute to their isolation or lack of opportunity for engagement. Relatively simple cellular technologies, including SMS text messaging and expanding access to wireless networks are rapidly improving the capacity of marginalized groups to benefit from trends towards increased transparency. One simple example is the expanded use of cell phone technology to help homeless populations streamline the daily process of finding a bed in a shelter for the night. These trends towards improved access are supporting:

  • The democratization of decision making through the development of basic technology tools for election monitoring and the reporting of political corruption;
  • Improved mechanisms for supporting environmental protection through expanded education, monitoring, and polluter reporting;
  • Expanded accountability for human rights abuses afforded from exposure on social media platforms and the global dissemination of information about offenders through photos and videos on the internet;
  • Public outreach and participation in the municipal, regional, and federal decision making process through internet outreach.

There is no question that some groups and elements of established power structures will try to use new technology to consolidate power and marginalize disenfranchised parts of society. But expanded access to these technologies will ultimately favor tendencies towards increased transparency and open dialogue.

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