Digital technology is a blessing and a curse.
The blessing is that it gives us the ability to stay connected with loved ones across the miles. A parent traveling on business can read a book over Skype to a sleepy child at home. Amazing.
But there are pitfalls.
One hazard is that we can filter out voices we don’t want to hear, insulating ourselves in “echo chambers,” connecting only with those with whom we agree. Another hazard is anonymity—online comment sections are littered with unfettered hostility because participants don’t have to own what they say.
We would be wise to remember that digital tools are enhancements, not replacements for the most sophisticated communication tool ever invented: the human body. Emoticons are not emotions; your Facebook page is not your face.
That’s why I’m passionate about our in-person engagement programs like Civil Dialogue, which brings people of all stripes together in the same room, respectfully exchanging views on controversial topics. But we realize that technology is here to stay, so we are also exploring ways to translate the core values of civil in-person communication to civil online communication.
What Edward R. Murrow said about television in 1958 still applies to technology today: “This instrument can teach … illuminate … inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”
Murrow’s “wires and lights” are now microchips, but the challenge remains: It’s not the apps, it’s how we use them that matters.
The Spring 2015 Civil Dialogue Library Series ended on a high note on Wednesday April 22 at Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix. More than 70 people attended and participated in robust dialogues on issues related to homelessness.
Thanks to all who made our inaugural Library Series a success, with a special nod to program coordinator Rosalie Fisher. Civil Dialogue events were well-received by our four hosts - Goodyear Public Library, Tempe Public Library, Mesa Main Library, and Burton Barr - and we hope to have more Civil Dialogue events in libraries in the future.
Our first-ever series of Civil Dialogues in public libraries is going very well. We've been to Gilbert, Tempe, and Mesa so far, and the series concludes at the Burton Barr Library in downtown Phoenix on April 22. The librarians who have seen the program agree that it's a natural fit: civil conversation about difficult topics is an excellent way for communities to take advantage of libraries -- politically neutral sites dedicated to learning. We hope to expand this program in 2015-2016, with the help of newly certified Civil Dialogue facilitators who are taking our first-ever certification course this month. By the time the 2016 election rolls around, which is the time of greatest interest in hot topics, wouldn't it be great if Civil Dialogues were happening all over Arizona?
On Tuesday, Oct. 16, we'll be hosting a Presidential Debate Watch and Civil Dialogue in the First Amendment Forum (great name) at the Cronkite School on ASU's downtown campus. Check the calendar on this website for details. It should be an exciting evening. Will Romney be as assertive as he was in the first debate? Will Obama have more punch? How will they adapt to the town hall format? And what will be the hot topic for post-debate discussion? Join us to find out.
For the 1st Presidential Debate, we co-hosted an event on the ASU campus -- a live debate watch followed by a Civil Dialogue. It was well attended, maybe 100 people, and enthusiasm was high. We introduced a few ground rules about listening, etc., but we happened to have a feed from ABC-TV which included live tweets. The audience was captivated by the tweets, especially about Big Bird, and was laughing along. I felt like it debased a very important event, and I believe that focusing on the tweets made it difficult for people to focus on the substance of the debate. Indeed, the dialogue that followed was focused more on style than substance. Maybe that would have been the case anyway, because it is partially about style. (As Howard Dean says, if you want to know who is going to win, watch without sound.) So, am I grousing about nothing? Do I have to get used to this new world of split focus? Comments?
At Civil Dialogue, we believe in the power of face-to-face communication. In turns out that we had an ally in none other than a visionary leader of the digital realm, Steve Jobs. In the biography, “Steve Jobs,” Walter Isaacson says that Jobs was a strong believer in “face-to-face meetings” and had office buildings designed to “promote encounters and unplanned collaborations.” Isaacson quotes Jobs on page 431: “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,” he said. “That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.” We couldn’t agree more. Technology has its place, but programs like Facebook are no substitute for actual faces!