A Cell to Action

Rhea KellyCT Managing Ed Rhea Kelly takes a turn in this month’s editorial, with a look at mobile technology in world politics.

Sometimes, our technology cues come from unexpected places. A recent article in The Economist declared that “mobile phones are changing world politics faster than academics can follow,” and noted that last August in violence-plagued Burundi, Africa, residents used cell phones to report fresh corpses seen in local rivers —allowing UN soldiers to investigate before crocodiles could consume the evidence. Killers could no longer rely on inaction to cover their traces.

The story references Howard Rheingold’s theory of the “smart mob,” a group of people that behaves intelligently and efficiently via its use of evolving communication technologies. In Burundi, cell phones empowered some of the world’s poorest and most conflict-ridden individuals to band together and become more effective as a smart mob. Here at CT, we often point to mobile devices as tools for learning, communication, even community building—but political empowerment? Now that’s a new one.

What strikes me about smart mobs is that their use of technology seems to counteract the bystander effect: a psychological phenomenon in which an individual is less likely to act (e.g., come to a victim’s aid) when he is part of a crowd, than when he’s the only guy around. When responsibility is diffused among a group of observers, no one feels personally compelled to act. A classic example: the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder. Genovese was stabbed to death in front of her New York City apartment building while 30-some neighbors failed to intervene, though many heard or saw her half-hour-long struggle. Later, witnesses reported that while Genovese clearly needed help, they assumed others would call the police. Yet, how different would the outcome have been if those neighbors could have textmessaged each other to action?

Turning bystanders into a smart mob; moving apathy to action—that sounds like the mission of every educator facing a classroom of unengaged students. In fact, though the behavior of murder witnesses might seem far removed from academia, Georgia Tech researchers James Hudson and Amy Bruckman published a 2004 study using the bystander effect as a framework for interpreting patterns of participation in learning environments. They found that in foreign language learning, moving a conversation from the classroom to an online chat environment helped increase student participation; the change was attributed to the way technology overcame various psychological components of the bystander effect.

However, Hudson and Bruckman noted that previous research on other learning environments has indicated that technology d'es not guarantee a positive effect. If it were that easy for technology to influence complex social mechanisms, I suppose every college and university would be piloting academic use of smart phones, internet chat, and other forms of mediated interaction.

Still, if mobile devices are managing to starve crocodiles and influence politics in central Africa, that’s a power worth our attention. Harnessing it effectively in the classroom is our challenge.

Rhea Kelly, Managing Editor

What have you seen and heard? Send to: kgrayson@1105media.com.

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