Experiments in Netizenship

Again, I am getting blog-inspiration from one of Kevin’s posts the other day about community news on the web replacing newspaper local sections. I agree with him that there is much potential for online communities built around real-world neighborhood communities. I hate clicking through classifieds searching for those close to where I live. Last week, I bought a mulcher for the backyard. It took me a number of weeks to find a used one that was selling nearby where I wouldn’t have to pay for shipping (the thing weighs damn near 150 lbs). I finally got lucky on craigslist.org, as far as I know, the only user friendly ‘community’ site I look at from time to time.

Last year, there were a number of burglaries in our extended neighborhood. In fact, our house was the last in a series that was hit and seemed to be the last drop in the bucket that set of a bit of neighborhood revolt. From then on, we regularly received flyers informing us on the steps taken towards neighbood crime watch, and meetings with the city and police on how to be vigilant and protect ourselves. Eventually, someone set up a page at i-neighbors.org that, frankly, I haven’t looked at once and probably should.

There is no doubt the internet has changed how we communicate, how we shop, how we do business, our expectations for what’s possible etc. but that is just the beginning. I think many new technologies such as cell phones, ipods, laptops have and will continue to change the way we go about our daily business, i.e. the way we live our lives. But none of these will impact us in the long run as will the internet because the internet is about accessing information, and the future is all about the use, the access, the ownership, the availability, the accuracy, and validity of information. Sounds like a truism ? It is. But just because I’ve heard it in a million places doesn’t mean I really understand it.

It’s a fine thought that you might go online to check out what’s happening in your neighborhood. It seems you have a right to know. One aspect of democracy on which the internet has bestowed a never before imagined potential is this right-to-know. Here is one example: The Right To Know Network, a website I used to look at that provides access to government environmental databases that have been maintained for many years but that before the rise of the internet were only accessible if you actually went to some office and either dug through the files or used the onsite computers. A democracy that prides itself in government transparency (frankly, not something we’ve seen much in recent years) and free flow of information should provide access to this information to citizens who pay taxes and would like to know.

But their are two sides to this issue. Too much information, I think, may be harmful. Not simply because we might drown in too much IRS, HUD, DOD, or whatever data but because some of the information we have access to might lead us to make irrational decisions. What in particular comes to mind here is all the fuss and fear about registered sex offenders. When we were shopping for a house 2 years ago, it never occurred to me to check the neighborhood for sex offenders till someone suggested it. I then somewhat reluctantly did. But does this knowledge make me and my family safer or does it simply create fear? It’s hard to argue that -now that the genie’s out of the bottle – this information that’s collected by the government and, I guess, has always been public (if you were willing to go to the courthouse and look it up) should be kept at the courthouse. But I wonder if people’s flight from sex offender infested neighborhoods will eventually create more economic and community problems than are prevented by easy access to this information.

Let me just throw another example out there. I think that Google Earth rocks ! When they come out 1-inch resolution sattelite imagery, I will be there because I think it’s neat. And when they have the live feed from the satellite with 24-hour coverage, we all will be able to watch for traffic congestion on our way to work or how full the parking lot is at the mall… but what about your neighbor looking into your backyard ? It’s great to have access to all this information. But it’s so easy to misuse it, too.

On a different note, I do think that too much information, however well intended can be harmful. I recently made a post about reading labels on food products and ingredients lists on cosmetics. If you do go through all the trouble of looking up all those chemicals, because you want to make that you and your family aren’t poisoining themselves, you quickly find yourself overwhelmed and wishing that you had a PhD in chemistry to make sense of it all. Without calling for the creation of another government agency, wouldn’t it make sense that if government mandates the publication of these ingredients, that it also mandates something like a manual on how to make sense of it… Okay, I am rambling. It’s like I said: in the age of information, power and influence will be in the hands of those who best manage the information. So if you don’t want to be stranded, you should know how to handle the information. And if you want to have secure job prospects, think information, information, information !

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