Civic engagement in the US falls toward two poles. Individuals vote, tweet, like, and petition, making a minor commitment of low-fidelity engagement. Or, large groups protest, march, and revolt, deeply investing time, identity, and bodies of high-friction engagement. On poth poles, people aim to facilitate communication between individuals, society, and government, but fall short due to fidelity or friction.
In between these two poles, there’s an opportunity for more dynamic, pervasive and persistent engagement and communication. Ambient or integrative civic activity can address the shortfalls of representative democracy in a networked society.
Change.org steps toward this direction, but does not change the nature of engagement. They aim to increase the frequency of low-fi engagement, or clicks, through a social experience. The inputs and outputs accelerate, but remain unchanged. A click is representative and one-dimensional. In aggregate, they are merely data, glued later by narrative, heard or ignored by people who can make change. The growing plentitude of clicks further deflates their value and capacity for impact.
We can move toward activity as communication between people and government. Protests, in two ways, have reduced the friction of this medium as message. Some protests are family-friendly Sunday afternoon walks coordinated with the police to make the experience safer and easier for broad participation. Marches reduced the potency of the experience weakening the narrative link. The Occupy occupations launched to great effect. To sustain a movement, however, it evolved into a sort of protest-by-proxy, occupiers serving as self-selected representatives of the 99%. Occupy eventually seemed to diverge, between the occupiers and the 99%, the representatives and the people essential to the potency of this movement’s narrative.
We can move toward everyday activity and experience as a medium for communication between people and government. Look outside of civics, and we can find other forms and models to consider.
Nest is a sensor driven, learning thermostat. Rather than setting timers to control your’s temperature and energy use, Nest observes when people are home and learns when they are likely to leave and return. This example of calm technology demonstrates how complex information can seamlessly integrate with our routines without bells and blinks, points and clicks.*
Could there be a calm or ambient or integrative form civic engagement? What are the attributes of this form? How can we observe and foster this as a medium for communication? How could this framework be applied to complex issues such as rent control, public health, and urban congestion?
* Note on Nest: if we designed for better passive heating and cooling, we wouldn’t need Nest. What are the analogous implications in the social sphere?