A Cell to Action
CT 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
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