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I spent an interesting evening last night in the Grand Committee Room in Westminster Hall, listening to a debate on whether technology or policy would determine the outcome of this year’s general election.  The debate was organised by Delib and the panel of speakers including Rory Cellan-Jones of the BBC, Bruce Anderson (The Independent), Rishi Saha (Conservatives), Kerry McCarthy MP (Labour) and Julie Meyer.

For me it was Rory Cellan-Jones whose contribution to the debate was the most telling.  While pointing out that this year’s election would be the first in which twitter, facebook et al would be a feature, he said that the televised debates between the party leaders was the innovation which would have the greater impact.  This point chimed with a later one by Rishi Saha who pointed out that most of the money which the Obama campaign raised through on-line donations was used to fund TV adverts.  TV remains the crucial medium for getting your message across as a politician.  The political bloggers and tweeters are merely new players in a minority sport, so far at least, virtual settlers in the Westminster village, Rory Cellan-Jones suggested.

Bruce Anderson questioned the significance of election campaigns on the outcome.  True, he said, Barak Obama ran an effective campaign but would the Democrats have won anyway?  He suggested that 1992 aside, all of the UK election results since 1979 were not determined by the parties’ election campaigns.  The Tories big advantage in 2010, he argued, was that there was a pervasive public feeling that it is ‘time for a change’.

Rishi Saha emphasised how the barriers to entry in the political debate have been lowered by new technology.  We can all be Nick Robinsons now and for the political parties, social media enables them to mobilise their supporters much more cheaply.

In a contribution from the floor, Lord Harris, suggested that the key issue was how will politicians respond to social media, to the speed of response, which is something new.  Citizen journalists have changed the accountability framework – it’s a change in the way the game is played, he said, but not a change in the game.

It was an interesting discussion but less interesting to me than a debate about real policy issues.  It is easy to become wide-eyed about new technology and the way it is changing how we lead our lives.  But we shouldn’t forget it’s a tool with which to make something.  You have to know what it is you’re trying to build and why.

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Amongst the latest blogs to be posted at the bloggers’ circle, I was particularly interested in a piece by Blog for Prestolee on social intimacy and twitter. Prestolee outlines how the intimacy of regular contacts between ordinary people has been eroded in today’s increasingly dislocated society and as a consequence, the quality of our daily lives has been diminished. How far, Prestolee, asks can Twitter go in re-introducing intimacy?

My gut instinct is to say, not very far. The relationship between social media and real-life face-to-face interaction is an issue highlighted in the excellent Us Now film which explores a number of web 2.0 innovations. One example – Directionless Enquiries – seemed to me to encapsulate the problem. Directionless Enquiries connects lost people looking for help with knowledgeable locals who would like to help, using mobile phones. Nothing wrong in that. Except, would it not be better if you could just ask a passer-by? Do we want the kind of communities where we co-operate through web-based interactions or spontaneous face-to-face contact? Do things like Twitter and Directionless Enquiries make us feel more or less isolated in the long run?

I’m conscious that there is a danger in over-stating the contrast between the way we interact and the way we’ve interacted in the past. Is Twitter simply the modern equivalent of sending telegrams? We are social creatures, we have always wanted to communicate and our lives have always been a mixture of first and second-hand experiences.

The Victorian postal service was in its way a precursor of the web. In London, it’s said, you could mail an invite in the morning, receive a response in the afternoon and still have time to make preparations for dinner that same evening. The postal service enabled Charles Darwin from his home in Kent to maintain a dialogue with scientists and naturalists from all over Britain and further afield. That flow of information and ideas helped him develop his theory of natural selection. Would Darwin have developed his ideas without the first-hand stimulus of his journey on the Beagle? Probably not, but even still we shouldn’t under-estimate the part played by remote collaboration.

There’s another aspect to all this that interests me. Does our seemingly insatiable need to be connected say something about us? In public spaces people are more and more enclosed in their private worlds of mobiles and ipods (but, again, is that different from having your head in a book?) In Herzog, Saul Bellow’s eponymous protagonist is a neurotic who is constantly composing unsent letters to the great and good of past and present times. When Stephen Fry tweets to his 55,000 followers about England’s win at Lords (Joy. Bliss. Divinity. Excellence. Radiant effulgence. Rapture. Content. Yards and yards of fine, fresh, fragrant happiness. All is good) I wonder if we’ve somehow entered the fun but mad world of Herzog’s compulsive letter writing with the one difference being that that we all now have send and receive buttons.

By the end of the novel when Herzog finds a measure of equilibrium, we are told that ‘at this time he had no messages for anyone.’  Today, most of us always seem to have a text or a tweet or a blog up our sleeves.

The last word on all this, at least for the moment, should go I think to Rohan Gunatillake of NESTA who has coined the phrase, ‘ungeeking’ to describe what happens when behaviours developed online make their way into areas of our lives independent of the technology through which we learnt them. He suggests that the great prize is the ungeeking of social networking – in other words to translate the radical connectivity between individuals and the communities of shared interest being developed on-line into increased social glue in our towns and cities. That seems to me a worthy aspiration.  In the meantime you can follow Rohan on Twitter.

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Social media is playing a real and surprising role in complementing traditional methods of communications to help people develop and retain their contacts at work.  That is the conclusion of a Work Foundation report, The Changing World of Work, published last month. The report, produced in association with BT, is based upon a survey of 1,240 employees in businesses employing more than 500 people,

Its five headline findings are:

1. Working relationships matter (strong social relationships mean people feel trusted and that builds job satisfaction)

2. New technologies are not supplanted traditional ways of communicating but creating new ways to interact with people

3. People prefer to work for places characterised by strong working relationships and a focus on outputs rather than processes

4. People with access to new technologies are more likely to characterise their organisations as having a culture of mutual trust

5. Managers need to think innovatively about what tools to use to develop and sustain different relationships.

While 85% of those surveyed say their organisation is based on formal rules and policies, only 6% say they prefer to work in this type of organisation.  It’s an interesting conondrum and a challenge for public sector organisations like councils.  For very sound reasons, we tend to be rule-bound organisations but it’s a culture that perhaps doesn’t chime with encouraging innovation and risk taking.

People who have access to newer technologies like instant messaging, wikis, professional networking (IDeA communities of practice being a shining example), social networking, blogs and integrated voicemail/email, are more likely to characterise their organisations as being committed to innovation and development and focused on achievement.

The report found that the older you are, the more likely you are to dislike technology.  That doesn’t mean older people don’t use it but from this survey at least, older people are more likely to feel uncomfortable or wary about using technology than those who are younger.

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