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Howard Rheingold on Congress, Digital Literacy, and Making Political Movements

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, May 24 2012

From Congress to the classroom, digital literacy is a key skill that's often sorely lacking, Howard Rheingold, author of the new book "Net Smart: How to Thrive Online," said on Thursday's Personal Democracy Plus call — but there are ways to change that.

Rheingold derided "the degree of technological ignorance" in government and in particular Congress. "It's worse than ignorance," he said. "It's know-nothingness ... it's so endemic." During the fight over the Stop Online Piracy Act, members of Congress could often be heard pleading their ignorance of the Internet and its inner workings even as debating legislation that some said would alter the structure of the global communications network.

The call, moderated by TechPresident editorial director Micah Sifry, was recorded and is available online here.

Rheingold said it was troubling that a person has to be a "technology geek" to understand issues such as net neutrality. And he added Congress did not always continue on in ignorance.

There used to be a bipartisan Office of Technology assessment with the purpose of informing Congress about technological issues, he said, but it lost its funding during the "Gingrich Congress" and hasn’t been replaced. At the time, the "person who really knew anything was Al Gore," Rheingold said. "It's discouraging to see him so mocked for it, he did know what he was talking about."

He criticized the degree to which government officials would only listen to lobbyists on technology-related issues. "There's no institution for people to talk to [Congress] about the broader implications of technology, it's a huge hole in the roadmap to our future," he said.

But he also said that it was legitimate to criticize activities like signing petitions or liking politically themed Facebook pages as "slacktivism." The larger issue with activists, whether it be the Occupy movement or the opposition to SOPA and PIPA, is turning a demonstration into a movement, he said.

"Getting people to call Congress, to join a demonstration, it's not an ongoing activity," he said. " Lobbyists are singleminded and well-funded ... [they] are an ongoing movement."