December 27, 2006 By Blake Harris
Just what is a digital community? That is a question we have been discussing for more than a year.
There are of course glib, easy answers -- ones we've used to explain what the Digital Communities program is all about. We have said that, in a digital community, people are connected 24/7 -- anytime, anywhere -- which brings wireless Internet technologies to the fore. This, we have noted, would dramatically change how people live, work and play.
We have also repeated a common assertion that ubiquitous wireless Internet connectivity, along with a convergence of media, would bring forth a host of new applications that are not yet on the radar screen.
And although these are both certainly true enough, neither actually defines the digital community in terms that give communities an inkling of the road map ahead -- at least not one that extends much beyond basic wireless connectivity with a few mobile worker and public safety applications.
Yet having at least a partial road map seems rather prudent for initiatives that involve building out community-oriented wireless infrastructure or investing public money in applications and services designed to improve the efficiency of the government work force, as well as encourage digital inclusion and economic development.
A good definition of a digital community should provide a vision for the reinvention of our communities for the 21st century. And it should certainly embrace much more than anywhere, anytime connectivity or improved efficiencies for mobile workers.
If digital communities are the communities of the future, if technology is being harnessed to deliver its full potential in a community context, then the obvious goal must be the improved health, vitality, prosperity and sustainability of our communities.
At its core, the vision of digital communities should be about: reinvigorating communities that falter; healing communities that are troubled or in turmoil; fostering involvement rather than alienation or cynicism; making communities safer; and extending the ability and right of all citizens to participate in economic, political and social activities that are increasingly tied to the Internet.
Much of this boils down to access to 21st-century communication tools, yet it is more than that. As many have observed, digital inclusion programs aren't just about Internet access, but also what one can do with it.
In recent years we have begun to talk about digital literacy. This goes beyond the traditional ability to read and write, and now includes a set of new core competencies, including the ability to find needed information and critically evaluate what is found in cyber-space.
Digital literacy is just one of many factors that constitute a true digital community. In many ways, the question of what a digital community embodies is, as much as anything, about what emerging technologies can do for a community. Certainly there are economic, educational and social elements to this, as well as great efficiencies to be gained by anywhere, anytime connectivity. But if we step back and take a broader view, drilling down to the very fundamental notions of community and sustainability, we also get a slightly different take on all this.
The Essence of Community
Once we thought of communities largely as location based. Today we talk about virtual communities and communities of interest that span the globe. But no matter its raison d'être, the underlying essence of community is found in all of these. Members have something in common as part of a shared environment. This leads in some way to a sense of community as well as what social scientists have been calling "social capital."
According to Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, and a leading exponent of the concept, social capital refers to the collective value