In the past month, I have watched Zoom Communications stock soar and people who I never imagined using video conferences adjusting their screens as they dialed into multiple video calls in a day. It is hard to not think of the irony in this situation: while we are working to configure our social and work spaces to be more isolated, it seems we had all the tools we needed to quarantine ourselves, right?
With last year’s focus on the future of work and movies like Wall-E that dictated our isolated futures, we as a society began to feel more comfortable with the notion of “working remotely”, talking virtually, and even meeting people digitally. Socially, I realized this undercurrent when I began using the phrase, “A pleasure to e-meet you” in email.
It is clear that digital work is no longer an option –it is in fact our social norm and maybe we did not even realize how normal this was. Now, while this social norm is the case for most of us, there is a significant portion of businesses that cannot rely on digital connections. What I am most curious about is the one industry that has the feasibility and perhaps even the budget to utilize more technology —and yet has been the slowest to adopt.
Yes, that is the government.
In the past decade we have seen the rise of urbantech, civictech, and govtech as new emerging fields where technology is deployed specifically for the government. Smart Cities and IOT are areas that are highly discussed with regards to government technologies. But where the conversation is missing the most is in public engagement —the single most critical aspect to our democratic structure. Known as public interest technology, these are digital & tech driven tools that employ human-centered design frameworks to connect the government to people, most importantly communities that are the most vulnerable.
Now as a social scientist, I am always curious about the conditions under which culture begins to evolve or change. Presently, we have a situation in which an action (working from home) is now becoming a social norm (as social distancing) for public health reasons. Journalists and researchers are already starting to state this forced remote work will forever change how people work in the future. Therefore, I must consider under what conditions will digital engagement become a social norm for our government. More importantly, when will our government adapt their existing tools for public engagement to better meet the public where they are —right in the palm of their hands?
Let’s Play A Game of Social Inquiry
In order to understand if or when the government may be able to adapt to these circumstances, we should also understand when remote work started to become a norm for our society. Social distancing may be our new way of life —but have we been slowly building this moment or did it just happen?
Depending on the theorist a social scientist subscribes to, social behaviors can become a norm in any number of ways.
To break this down, I will use the theories of the “fathers of sociology” (note my quotes because these fathers exclude women & black men who also were founding theorists ie W.E.B. DuBois and Anna J. Cooper):
- For Marxists, social changes are always due to conflict, mostly between the rich and the poor.
- For Durkheim followers, social change is in response to “social ruptures”; these are defined as moments where culture is slowly changing and finally comes to a head due to a significant moment.
- For those who follow Weber, social changes organically occur because we live in a system (what Weber identified as an iron cage) that creates and fosters cultural habits that are repeated.
So, if we look at these theorists and their research methods we would see the following analyses:
|Theorist||Research Method||Probable Theory|
|Karl Marx||Historical Analysis (analyzing historical texts)||As a product that provides capital surplus (due to efficiency of production), it will always be in the interest of the private sector to use tech more than the government, therefore the government will not be so likely to adapt.|
|Max Weber||Empirical Research (observation & interviews)||While the government has started using more tech recently and as a result of COVID-19, the full change will happen once new generations become public leaders facilitate the use of tech due to their habits, thereby perpetuating this method of work in generations to come.|
|Emile Durkheim||Social Statistics (quantitative data)||Government will change due to the social rupture that COVID-19 caused by demanding more gov tech services to engage constituents.|
Now, with consideration to this, under which of these conditions is the government most likely to change?
|Max Weber||Empirical Research(observation & interviews)||While the government has started using more tech recently and as a result of COVID-19, the full change will happen once new generations become public leaders and facilitate the use of tech due to their habits, thereby perpetuating this method of work.|
Technology is efficient because it is designed to be so. It becomes habitual, purely because of the amount of capital & resources invested into user research, user data, and understanding people’s behaviors. These investments are funneled into making these tools as habitual as possible.
However, when efficiency meets a system designed for check-and-balances; a system that is in the interest of consensus; a system that is based on the masses —then you cannot employ this change unless the masses call for this change.
Ultimately, in this scenario I would cite the most possible shift in how the government operates to be a change implemented by new public leaders AND by the masses.
But wait, here is the real problem!
According to research from the Pew Research Center:
If your household makes over $100,000 annually or if you have a college degree you are 2X more likely to be civically engaged (vote, sign petitions, attend public meetings).
49.98%, of all income in the US was earned by households with an income over $100,000, the top twenty percent. This indicates half of America’s income is made by households earning over $100,000, but the real median household income in American is $53,000.
If we assume that the top 20% of Americans, earning over $100,000 each year, are the most civically engaged — this means that the top 20% of people in America are the most likely to go vote, be civically engaged, and shape policy for everyone in America.
This led me to the real social question at the root of this problem: are the present tools for civic engagement ideal for the modern American to shape and inform policy? My answer is no. But here is where more research and the development of Public Interest Technology comes into play.
First, we need more diverse tools for public engagement. We need a Yes and approach. Yes to public meetings, petitions, voting….and other means that connect with working people who make up most of America. My answer to this is also co:census, which publicly engages people using SMS text messaging.
Second, we need a significant amount of research on the existing tools of civic engagement in different states that looks at the relationship between engagement, wealth, and income. There is going to be a growing demand for such tools as more public leaders take office who prefer tech. As an answer to this, I will be surmising my two years of research on civic engagement and the wealth gap in a new Medium series, The Civic Gap.
While government is still lagging in terms of the technology it uses to engage the public, It is imperative we continue strive to close this gap. We must employ technology to address the needs of our people living in dire conditions in order to maintain our democracy throughout the 21st century. Outside of the growing civictech movement, social distancing during this crisis serves as a big push for government officials to use tech. We have personally seen this with local elected leaders calling on startups to use their technology in new ways to help those impacted by COVID-19.
However, this should be our norm. After the dust settles on this pandemic, we should not see the access created during this time dissipate to return back into the realm from once we came. This is an opportunity to forge a new path for connecting with people, one in which innovation can be applied to solve drastic inequality issues. As we endure through this challenge together, I hope we uncover more solutions for economic injustices.
Stay up-to-date on my research and Follow The Gap on Medium.