As an English graduate student studying the teaching of writing and literature, the last thing I expected to develop was an interest in new media and technology. Yet, after only one semester of teaching a course on introductory writing and research to college freshman, I was convinced of the impossibility of teaching a subject—any subject—without also considering how modern communication technology had changed a once stable set of social practices.
While most of my fellow instructors provided illegible and inefficient feedback jammed into the margins of student essays, I utilized Google Docs, podcasts, and MSWord software to foster an evaluation process that was collaborative, efficient, and egalitarian. Rather than chiding my students for their research “laziness” (a frequent charge leveled at writing students by their teachers), I held tutorial sessions on a variety of modern research methods, including the proper use of Wikipedia in an academic setting. When teaching the basics of grammar and research, I took great pains in selecting materials, supplementing traditional texts with a variety of media forms to account for different styles and preferences for learning and information consumption. My changes were far from perfect, yet if the unanimously positive evaluations from my students and advisors were to be believed, my efforts were successful. In my modern classroom environment students felt capable, knowledgeable and respected.
While the comparison is admittedly a stretch, there are parallels between my experiences as an English teacher and the experience of e-government in America. As a seemingly infinite number of communicaiton scholars suggest, technological developments in communication have dramatically altered how individuals and institutions organize, procure services, manage information, and maintain social networks. While I am cautious to embrace the technological utopianism underpinning many of these arguments, I agree with their implicit claims that governments must restructure their practices to account for the impact of technology on broader society. As was the case in my experience as a teacher, it is clear that standard practices of the past are no longer sufficient to meet the demands of the present; because of developments in technology, dramatic social change has already occurred; a responsible government is one that keeps up with that change for the benefit of its citizens.
As a Brookings Report on the status of e-government by Darrell M. West published in 2008 shows, by comparison, the United States is doing a better job than most governments at keeping up with those responsibilities. While West suggests that the U.S. is falling behind, it is important to keep in mind that there are still a sizeable number of Americans who do not use the Internet on a regular basis and therefore, do not—directly at least—seem to benefit from technological change in general and in government specifically. According to a recent Pew Report, 26%of Americans still do not regularly access the Internet. An even larger number (40%) do not use broadband at home. These users tend to be older, less educated, and less affluent. While there are many important steps the U.S. government can take to improve efficiency and access, a complete transformation of government services that ignores the needs of the unwired members population may be perceived as unproductive, unequal, and inefficient.
What is needed in the present, then, is a sensible, graduated plan for e-government transformation that takes into account current citizen needs while also preparing for the inevitability of a completely networked future. As technological development restructures foundational civic, commercial, community, and individual social practices outside of government, individuals will increasingly expect governments to keep pace with the rest of society. Just as the telephone rendered the telegraph obsolete in less than a generation, the Internet is having a similarly profound social impact.
As I was able to do in my writing classroom (with a tremendous amount of support and leadership from the Director of my program and the University itself), it is my hope that governments meet this challenge head on. In the long run, the benefits will be a better relationship forged between citizens and their government. To foster this environment, steps should be taken now to prepare for an era where the Internet is as pervasive and common place as the (cell?) telephone. With the hiring of the nation’s first ever Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra (and, perhaps, first-ever Presidential tweet by President Obama this week) the Obama administration seems poised to meet this challenge. Let’s hope these initiatives continue in our challenging political and economic climate.