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Talk explores how digital age is changing civic institutions, schools, social interactions


Is digital technology turning us into informed, empowered citizens? Or into zombies? Or perhaps into informed, empowered zombies?

Three panelists will share their thoughts on those questions and others next Tuesday, April 7, when Friends of the Forest Grove Library and Pacific University’s Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation co-sponsor a free “community conversation” titled, “The Future is Now: Citizens and Community in the Digital Age.”

Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, Pacific education teacher and early-childhood specialist Mark Bailey and Willamette Week’s Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nigel Jaquiss will focus on how digital-age technology is changing civic institutions, libraries, schools and social interactions.

To start with, such technology has made government more transparent, accessible and efficient, Brown says. Thanks to the Internet, for example, business owners no longer have to drive to Salem to register their companies, she said. People requesting public records can now get a response in minutes rather than weeks.

And while voluntary online registration has made voting more accessible and secure in Oregon, Brown is now pushing for automatic registration using data from the Department of Motor Vehicles and other state agencies.

Critics of the automatic-registration idea say voting is a citizen’s duty, so why register those who are too indifferent or lazy to do it themselves?

But Brown feels strongly that “there should be no barriers for eligible Oregonians to exercise the right to vote.”

Brown cautions against assuming that senior citizens will all get left behind in a more high-tech world, citing her grandfather, who shared emails regularly until he passed away at 101.

“My sense is that senior citizens who want to enjoy and use technology are doing so, but not everybody wants to,” she said.

Still, Brown is concerned about the the 12 percent of Oregonians (according to Opinion Research Corporation International) who don’t have access to the Internet, whether due to age, income or culture.

“That’s got to change,” she said. Internet access “is instrumental for education, for commerce and for participating in the democratic process.”

It’s also a cause of concern for many parents — sometimes a little too much concern, according to Mark Bailey, an education professor at Pacific University.

High-tech versus high-touch

To those who worry technology will turn their children into screen-absorbed zombies, Bailey says technology has always challenged children — and their parents. Whether the newfangled contraption is a telephone, car or computer, a parent’s task has always been to help children use it responsibly and set reasonable boundaries.

With new social media, for example, parents can help children recognize the social conventions of what’s appropriate and inappropriate in terms of pictures, slang, pejorative terms or even bullying.

When used correctly, social media can actually foster social skills, said Bailey, who suspects tech-savvy children have more contact with their peer groups than ever before. He maintains that children’s social skills are not disappearing, but rather growing more complex as technology demands a new set of skills.

Bailey himself finds high-tech helpful when teaching at Pacific. Instead of pontificating from PowerPoint slides, for example, he sends his students lecture notes before class, so when they sit down, they are ready to share knowledge, ask questions and have a deeper discussion.

Still, Bailey acknowledges, there’s a difference between “high-tech” and “high-touch” interactions, the latter being face-to-face. Humans need a balance of both, Bailey said, along with time outdoors.

“Technology should empower, not disempower” in-person interactions, he said — support, not supplant.

When sharing a pizza together, for example, friends communicate far more — through facial expressions and other body language — than when tapping messages on a keyboard, he said.

“Emotions and human sharing go a lot deeper than an ‘LOL’ or smiley face on a message,” Bailey noted.

At their best, Bailey acknowledged, high-tech offerings such as Skype, email and texting can keep a loved one in touch with a significant other who’s serving overseas, or a parent in touch with an out-of-state child.

Still, he said, “face-to-face interaction is the highest bandwidth.”




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