I had lunch today with Sanjay Khanna, a fellow Vancouverite who shares my interest in the social and political impact of information technology. We had a mind-blowing conversation that stimulated a whole bunch of new ideas about the relationship between technology and citizenship.

Sanjay noted that technology isn’t something that simply serves our goals as citizens, but also shapes our experience and notions of citizenship. He mentioned the example of the Amish, who Donald Kraybill says first ask

‘Will a certain technology help us to be a better, stronger, healthier community, or will it hurt our community, injure our families, and bring in harmful influences?’”

The problem with asking that question of the larger (non-Amish) world is that we have to grapple with the reality of a world in which most technologies are introduced based on commercial, entertainment or efficiency considerations, rather than according to social criteria. It’s only after a technology starts to have adverse effects — like TV’s impact on social capital, to use Putnam’s widely-cited example — that we start to develop social strategies for dealing with it.

The work I’m now doing through Dialogue Networks is all about finding ways to use the technologies we are already living with — like TV, telephones, and especially, the Internet — in order to not only restore but actually extend our civic capacity. And when I say “civic capacity” I don’t just mean our effectiveness as citizens of government but also as citizens of business, churches, unions and all the other organizations that shape our lives.

“Citizens of business” — was that a typo? Nope, it’s another offshoot of my conversation with Sanjay. He likes using the word citizen in other contexts, because it helps to reframe our relationship to business, NGOs, etc. If we think about ourselves as “citizens” of businesses, rather than as customers or investors, how does that affect our expectations for consultation and participation in business decision-making?