I often share a quote from Neil Postman, a noted author and media critic, who had serious doubts about how technology was affecting our modern ability to think and communicate.
In a 1998 speech, Postman suggested that there is a basic question, “What will a new technology do?” that is no more important than the question, “What will a new technology undo?” And in the context of public engagement and, specifically, within the world of transportation communication, I think Postman’s question is worth considering.
Recently at the 2012 Transportation Research Board annual meeting I saw a lot of discussion and several presentations on the use of social media tools in public engagement. I really enjoyed the presentation by representatives from Open Plans and their client, the New York City Department of Transportation. Their work in my opinion is quite remarkable. They are building platforms that are allowing the public to visualize something different from what exists. The New York City Department of Transportation uses Open Plans to power “transportation feedback portals,” which are being used to help people suggest where to locate bike-sharing stations.
I love this stuff and think it is absolutely amazing. Yet at the end of the day, Postman’s warning is there for us to stumble over like an old root in the trail.
I think Postman might suggest that as we increasingly use technology in public engagement, we have to acknowledge that not everyone can use the technology equally. There is a digital divide between people with certain disabilities, from certain socio-economic and from some cultural perspectives. Age can play a role, too, in determining how people are able to use technology. There is debate about the size of the divide but there is little argument that we all engage differently.
It is clear from my experience, and the experience of many others in the transportation world, that public engagement and communication efforts will continue to evolve. We are going to see more tools like New York’s “transportation feedback portal.” And, if Postman were still alive, I’m sure he would have a smart phone clipped to his hip. He might swear at it grudgingly as it delivered email after email. But the basic reason for the tool – for us, the public engagement – cannot be lost in the love of the tool, especially if our goal, ultimately, is to have a richer dialogue with citizens.
That’s why we need to make an effort to strategically plan, and intentionally deploy a suite of tools – open houses, surveys, charrettes, web pages, Twitter feeds – to reach different audiences, so that together the various voices of our communities can weave together a fully considered vision for what our transportation world can be.