Knight Silicon Valley: Communities & Fragmentation

The initial panel was broadly focused on the topic of “unmet community information needs,” and showcased a diverse set of speakers, from local union and community organizers to city strategists, academics and community foundation leaders.

Chava Bustamante, a former SEIU coordinator, opened the discussion with a telling, if informal, experiment to identify where people are from.

“How many of you here were born in another country?” he asked. A handful of hands were raised — his own included.

“Howbout from another state?”

This time the response is overwhelming. Every hand, virtually, is raised.

“Now,” he says, with a bit of a grin, “How many of you are from here, from Mountain View, and went to the local high school?”

Not a hand was raised. Bustamante, a 40-year resident of the area, admitted that he himself was born in Mexico City, and came to America pursuing a dream of a better life.

“We are all strangers,” he said, and despite our individual and collective achievements as resettled natives of other places, his comment makes me wonder: Have we truly become natives of this new place, the San Francisco Bay Area, where we all live together, if we barely know each other?

This theme comes up again and again as all the other speakers take their turn.

There are neighborhoods, there are families, there are subgroups and subcultures and special interests — but what is it that brings us together?

More specifically, how can we engineer a communication infrastructure that can unite the divergent communities of Silicon Valley and the greater Bay Area ?

Emmet Carson of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation spoke frankly on the overabundance of information sources — “too many,” he says — that enables people to pick and choose news and information according to their interests, and in doing so cut themselves off from relevant information outside of their specific “personalized” daily news feed.

“What’s useful to the individual is not always good for the common good and for all of democracy,” he noted.

While he expressed fondness for the an earlier era, when there were fewer, more narrowly focused news sources that spoke to a more broad civic agenda, he acknowledged that the old information economy did systematically exclude so many voices, including women, immigrant communities, etc.

“How do we blend and link all these diverse information channels?” he asked.

Abundant information technology is fine, but it requires us to conceive of new ways to “validate it and create discussions around it.”

He notes that this conversation is not something that takes place solely in the virtual environment, but rather, “it’s a place of personal participation.”

This theme of non-virtual engagement — of people coming together directly, in real life and outside of the technological circuit, and crossing the fragmented boundaries of our self-selecting, self-segregating information society — came up repeatedly.

In other words, what’s needed are physical gathering places to anchor the diverse conversations and inquiries of the many communities that make up a city, a county, a neighborhood, an geographical region.

According to Judy Nadler, one of the Knight panelists and an ethics fellow at Santa Clara University, that gathering place is the public library, which she described as “the new community information center.”

It was a resonant comment that anchored the high-flying ideals of the technological utopians to an earlier ideal of the public sector as a wellspring of civic engagement.

Public libraries embody both local commitment to public participation and access to information, and, thanks to Mr. Andrew Carnegie, are rooted in older American tradition of philanthropy in support of civic engagement and information self-sufficiency.

It’s unlikely, however, that libraries alone can heal the fragmentation between and within our communities — but the panelists have plenty of ideas about what else will be required.

Matt Hammer of People Acting in Community Together (PACT) spoke of the importance of getting “understandable information in the hands of lots of regular people, to help seemingly intractable problems get resolved.”

Kim Walesh, the chief strategist for the City of San Jose, described a variety of innovative municipal programs focused on engaging the “under-35 set” … and “connect the dots between young people and civic issues.”

The conversation turned at one point between media that “pushes” at people — direct mailers, for example, or traditional broadcast — and one can’t help but wonder about the value of some of that push media, which is often focused on advertisements and commerce, rather than civic information needs.

That tension, between “pushing” information at people, and “pulling” them towards civic information they need to see, remains a strategic challenge.

Each speaker presented such a diverse array of needs, methods and ideas about building and serving community, one can’t help but recall Emmet Carson’s dilemma of having too much information in the first place.

How do the threads come together? What is the weave by which we knit together this diverse, divergent democracy of ours?

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