America has lots of problems: unemployment, poverty, obesity, urban violence. But there’s actually a more pressing problem. It’s the “us versus them” mindset that permeates our country and our politics.
Our communities of concern have become too narrow
Before the Occupy Movement even launched, I heard Robert Reich speak at Google’s Zeitgeist 11 Conference. In a brilliant talk he clarified how our communities of concern are shrinking. We don’t do everything as a country to solve unemployment because those in power don’t really care. Why? Because they are college graduates. And the unemployment rate, while 35 percent for high school dropouts, hovers at a mere five percent for college graduates. High school dropouts are not in the community that matters.
Reich extended his argument to rationalize why the poverty rate for senior citizens in America has been reduced significantly (from 20 percent to five percent) while poverty rates for families with small children has sky rocketed (an appalling 37 percent of US families with small children now live in poverty). The former reside comfortably in the community that congressmen care about (powerful voting block; closer in age) while the latter sits outside it.
Whether his assessment is right or not, two facts emerges as crystal clear. Each of us – blue, red, old, young, urban, rural, black, white, gay, straight – tends to care disproportionately about those with whom we share empathy and interdependency. And as our country becomes more fragmented rather than unified, our communities of concern get narrower. In fact, even the Occupy Movement, which has effectively called attention to the most obvious “us and them” gap, has been criticized for its lack of diversity, particularly in southern cities where there are large African American populations.
This is ironic in an age of social media when we have remarkable tools to connect us to each other. But what do we use them for? To find more people just like us. Take a look at your Facebook friends, your Twitter followers, your Google + circles. Chances are they are a mirror reflection of your upbringing, your background and your profession. When I went to college, 30-plus years ago, even unimaginative housing administrators worked hard to match you up with someone from a different background. Now our kids use Facebook to find roommates whose tastes match theirs, reinforcing a tendency for both parties to stay in their mutual comfort zone.
As I thought about Reich’s argument, something else struck me. There are two places where we create “communities” that do work — juries and military service. Granted in the case of the latter, people’s lives depend on one another. But think about juries.* We stick 12 strangers in a room, present them with a very serious responsibility, and in most cases they fulfill their duty with the utmost of diligence.
So here’s my idea for saving America in case the Occupy Movement doesn’t work. It’s an idea that could help us increase empathy. It takes full advantage of social media’s true potential. It’s a program that steals from the military and juries — practices that do work — when it comes to creating interdependency.
Mandatory social media service
- We require every 18-year-old in America to participate in mandatory social media service as part of a daily or weekly routine for one year.
- We assign our young adults to a racially diverse online social group comprised of 12 people from different regions, backgrounds, income brackets. (Google+ is a potential platform.)
- We present each group with a social challenge – obesity, jobs, poverty, high cost of education, even the problem of young men getting their sex education from watching online porn – and we ask them to solve the problem.
- We give them benchmarks, goals, and require an outcome in the form of an idea, a program, a new policy or maybe just a video.
- Finally we aggregate all of the solutions on one public website where the press, our legislatures, businesses and educators can access, rate and maybe even implement the ideas.
No doubt there are details to work out. Does each group have an official moderator, someone to coach and keep track? What happens when partisan differences challenge collaboration? How do we make technology and Internet access available to everyone? Is there translation software good enough to serve multi-lingual users? But these are all solvable through trial and error in the course of developing the program.
More importantly, we’re not asking anyone to give up an entire year of his or her life or make a significant sacrifice. We’re simply asking them to work together, as a community of concern, to find some kind of common ground that might yield a solution to a problem or an idea worth pursuing further.
Will a group of strangers on a social platform really solve big issues like unemployment, poverty, obesity, and urban violence? Maybe not. But as a society, we might solve our most pressing problem. The need to create greater empathy and understanding between and among people who are different but share a vested interest in America.
Think this idea has potential? Send a link to this post to your congressman or woman. Got a better idea? Please share.
Photograph courtesy of: Konstantin Sergeyev, who has some great images of the Occupy Movement on his Flickr page.
* A thought put in my head when Esther Dyson asked Sandra Day O’Connor a question about their effectiveness.