I have had a strange experience of watching Super Storm Sandy devastate the resilient city that Reboot calls home. As my colleagues and friends faced terrifying waters, set up makeshift offices where power was available, and helped their neighbors dig out from the storm, I have been watching idly by through images mediated by the likes of CNN and the Internet.
My distance from the suffering at home has been surreally conflated with my proximity to a similar, and inarguably greater, tragedy. I’ve spent most of the last few months in or around Nigeria’s Niger Delta region. During this period, the region has experienced the kind of devastation through floods that come once in a hundred years and they have catastrophically destroyed the homes and livelihoods of countless individuals and communities.
Cities have critical information needs.
To reach their potential, communities require efficient information exchange among multiple stakeholders. But with communication channels increasingly fragmented, individual entities struggle to get their information to the right audiences in a timely manner.
This creates a reality where citizens’ expertise, labor, and capital are infrequently used, let alone optimized, in serving the needs of their communities. There are several reasons for this. One is a lack of meaningful opportunities to engage on issues that serve citizens’ self interest — people find it hard to understand how to make a difference in the issues they’re interested in. Even if citizens do try and input on a certain issue, there is often a lack of feedback. Without worthwhile returns on investment, the chances of future civic engagement drop. Finally, there is a lack of information on how to self-organize to solve civic problems, and few resources to turn enthusiasm into meaningful action.
I recently appeared on the Arabic language news network al-Hurra to talk about the role of the media in inter-faith dialogue. With current tensions between American foreign policy and the Muslim world at an all-time high, it’s no surprise that the US government funded network takes an interest in the topic.
There was a common assumption underlying all the questions I was asked. The proposition was that our ever expanding and globally interconnected media ecosystem is fostering inter-faith dialogue and understanding. This is certainly an optimistic pronouncement coming from those with an interest in seeing reality as such. Unfortunately, I feel that our current media have failed to deliver on this promise.
The reality of today is that people often dig deeper into their established and preferred worldview. MoveOn.org co-founder Eli Pariser has coined the term “filter bubbles” to describe our increased tendency to ignore content that challenges our opinions. Using newly possible online filters to block out dissonant views — whether intentionally or not — we are able to stay within our comfortable, bubble-view of the world.