Monday, 29 June 2009

Reflections on 'mindless vandalism' A couple of years ago I posted about the pinfold in Bishopthorpe, a restored medieval pound now a simple village meeting and resting place. It's also a neat example of public property that is community-owned. But community-ownership is not always easy., the local site set up by my friend former resident Martin Dudley, unhappily reports vandalism to the pinfold. Three quick thoughts occurred to me as I read the post and comments. First, it's seems unfortunate how quickly the unquestioned assumption is made that young people are to blame. Many of us have probably seen grown men (or women, less likely) do considerably more damage in no time at all in a variety of contexts, with or without the influence of alcohol. There may be justification for the assumption that there are no such adults in the vicinity of Bishopthorpe, I don't know. Secondly, there are parts of the country where this level of damage in one day or night, and no stabbings, would be regarded as a stunning result for the policing and anti-social behaviour teams. But let us not fall into the trap of therefore dismissing its impact in this context. Disorder in the local environment can have rapidly accumulating negative effects, and people are right I think both to remain sensitive to levels of order around them, and to take pride in the way they have collectively restored their heritage. Thirdly, it's reassuring to think that issues like this can and do get aired openly, and views considered and refined, in an online space. Just a pity that young people don't seem to be occupying much of that online space, because it might be a good place to be hearing their views.
Conversational democracy and neighbourhood online networks Nesta have organised a substantial event in London next Monday called Reboot Britain, which is about how we can 'punch through the gloom and take advantage of the radically networked digital world we now live in to help revive our economy, rebuild our democratic structures and improve public services.' Paul Evans has organised a stream of sessions on political innovation. I'm speaking at one of these, alongside Nick Booth, William Perrin and Edward Welsh, which is on the broad-enough topic of Locality: Councillors, Journalists, 'active citizens', community websites and local government communications. I think I'll focus on the ‘active citizenship’ part of the topic, keep the tech at a respectful distance, and ask ‘What's needed to stimulate active citizenship at local level?’ It'll need a rough distinction between informal and social participation on the one hand, and formal civic and political participation on the other. We need the former in order to stimulate the latter. (Well I know some people do political participation without doing social participation: I've even met folk who voted for them, but we won't have time on monday for the nuances). To my mind, it doesn't work to suppose that people can be prodded and coerced into civic or political participatory roles when their experience of social participation is impoverished. So it would help if we can develop a thriving communication ecology at neighbourhood level, and get some conversational democracy we can depend on. In the nick of time, with local democracy gagged and tied to the tracks and the train of public spending cuts thundering down the line, along come gallant dynamic al-action neighbourhood online networks. Hurrah. Let's get out of this metaphor and ask a few questions: Does the economic logic of these nets imply a more appropriate geographic scale for democratic involvement than currently exists? (Consider, for example, how much difficulty some authorities have in trying to establish meaningful area forums). Does the inbuilt interactivity imply more conversation? Does online conversation stimulate offline activity? Should local authorities be enabling the development of these networks? (Dunh?)

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