Building Social Capital in America

This is the first installment in a series of blog posts on technology and social capital in America. Read parts two and three.

In this and my next several blog posts, I'm going to try to draw out a few ideas, and pull together several disparate strands of thought around what I see as the great promise (and, to some degree, a great threat) of network technologies-- including social media, the internet and, most of all, the mobile phone. The ideas I'll be discussing are not new; rather, they've been described and detailed carefully by men and women much cleverer than I. But I hope to pull some of these strands together in a fresh discourse that will drive toward some kind of an agenda.

This first post will be largely an introduction of the problem, drawing largely on one particularly piece of sociological research... I've been re-reading portions of Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam's seminal sociological chronicle of the decline of "social capital" in America in the past several half-century (up to the book's 2000 copyright date). For the uninitiated, Putnam describes social capital this way:

By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital-- tools and training that enhance individual productivity-- the core idea of social capital theory is that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups.

Putnam draws a dreary picture, illuminating an across-the-board decline among the organizations, associations, and memberships that can illustrate the strength and density of American social capital. Skipping to the end of the tome, Putnam reveals his best sociologist's estimate of the causes behind these dreary trends. Fully half of the decline he attributes to generational change, particularly the aging of the "long civic generation" born in the early part of the last century who were historically notable for their "joining" instincts.

On this particular challenge, NDN Fellows Morley Winograd and Mike Hais offer a lot of reason for optimism in their two books Millennial Makeover and (forthcoming!) Millennial Momentum. I highly encourage you to go read their books and their blog; I'll clumsily paraphrase one of their broader arguments this way: the Millennial generation, born roughly between 1980 and 2000, seems to be a "second civic generation" sharing many joining instincts with their grandparents, the cohort that contributed to the high-water mark of social capital in the 1950s and early 1960s. It's encouraging that history's largest generation seems uniquely predisposed toward civic engagement, and for my purposes, useful to note that they (we) also happen to be the first "digital native" generation.

But if this generation is to rebuild American social capital, it needs fora in which to connect, build bonds, and establish the mutual obligations of social relationships. While the primary causes Putnam points to are immense, historical shifts, the secondary causes can be largely boiled down to the resultant decline of membership in general community organizations: churches, Rotary clubs, PTAs, etc. It's hard to imagine most of these organizations making a powerful comeback among the Millennial generation, and we're left with the question of where, exactly, Millennials will come together to build social bonds.

Another cause Putnam identifies as contributing an additional 10% toward the decline in social capital is "suburbanization, commuting, and sprawl." This trend has reoriented American communities away from the neighborhoods, downtown areas, corner bars, and public squares where social capital was once forged, to a landscape dominated by highways and strip malls where the closest thing to a shared public space can be found in the Caverns of Walmart. And so, in addition to the evaporation of civic groups, our shared physical spaces are also disappearing, and the question of where social capital can be created in the 21st century becomes still more confounding.

As you've no doubt guessed by now (Sorry this took so long. Actually, I'm not sorry at all. Brevity is for cowards.), the point I'm driving toward is this: with the decline of community organizations and associations, and the disappearance of shared public spaces, I look to new network technologies to bridge some of those gaps, and help create the shared public spaces of the 21st century.

In some of my writing earlier this year analyzing the impact of social media in the Arab Spring, I concluded that the great power of these new technologies lies in their ability to create a "second public sphere" in countries where offline speech and assembly are harshly censored. Well, it turns out we need a similar vitalization of our public sphere in America.

To be sure, an online public sphere already does exist in America: on social networks, blogs, and through the myriad connections facilitated by our myriad devices. But the questions I want to answer in the coming blog posts are these: how can new technologies-- mobile, social technologies-- help foster (and not detract from) civic engagement and social connections? How can these technologies enhance a place, or a city, rather than distract from it? How can civic structures around the world be strengthened by new technology?

I hope you'll join me in taking on these questions, and help turn this into an interesting dialogue.  If there are things you think I'm missing or should be reading, please pass your ideas along in the comments or via email!