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Our Digital Green Future

by Mark Peres

May 7,2008

Standing on the bank of the newly uncovered and budding Sugar Creek Greenway beside the rising Metropolitan development on Kenilworth Avenue, looking toward the skyline that is flirtingly within reach, one can see the two great layers of infrastructure that will define our future. We see the beginnings of a green infrastructure that promises a tapestry of open space in and around the city. And we see – less visibly, but equally consequential – a metropolis-area digital communications grid that is shaping what we know, how we know it, what things mean, and the choices we make.

As the first decade of the 21st century moves toward a close, a great digital-green confluence is gaining speed as Internet-based digital communication has moved well past early adoption into mass use and consensus has formed that natural landscapes and sustainability are vital to save the planet (and make our cities competitive).

We can certainly be intentional about a green future.

Here in Charlotte, we can invest in the Carolina Thread Trail, transit-oriented developments, resource conservation, and a host of infrastructure and behavioral initiatives to create a legacy of health and vibrancy. Charlotte is defined by its canopy. Our trees are one reason so many of us are happy here. But we are losing our canopy, and acres of green spaces, at a remarkable rate. That tide may yet slow as counter-efforts gain momentum. In the decade to come, we may well stake a claim as a great American city that turned our surface parking lots and asphalt rooftops to green pocket parks and gardens.

We can also be intentional about our digital future.

How we gain and process information is changing at a rapid clip. Already, the college students I teach prefer not to use desktop computers or laptops. Email – the once almighty killer app – is dying. Students find stationary computers and email cumbersome and slow. Instead, they use smart-phones, text messaging and IM – preferring mobility and the instantaneous. They no longer go to the Internet. Rather, the Internet follows them. Nearly all of them have personal websites on Facebook and MySpace that they use as communication platforms. They are fashioning avatars as alternative digital personalities. They use Twitter to share instant diary notes on otherwise mundane moments that rise to significance in their immediacy. They are downloading vast libraries of music onto gigabytes of memory in their ipods. Their information does not come from single-source providers, but from their personal network that is publishing events as they happen. Their world is fractal and instant.

The days of the majority of us reading the same printed news are behind us. The greater threat is not the segmentation of experience, but the loss of insight and understanding. One scenario is a citizenry devolved into private, personal digital realms unable to converse civically and address complex social issues. Another scenario – equally plausible if we are intentional in creating it – is a citizenry empowered by a human and digital network that shares our best traditions of artistic expression, critical thinking and community engagement.

The issues that we face are profound. Our economic, intellectual and cultural divide is growing, putting our society at fundamental risk. The physical health of the planet is potentially past the point of no return. We are on the cusp of energy wars that will dwarf the spice wars of Dune. The creativity and engagement of our citizens offer our best chance at solving our deepest issues.

As we look out on our skyline and consider the macro trends of this new century, we can choose. We can see cars and concrete and carbon asphyxiation, or we can see multiple modes of transit and greenways and clean air. We can see a small number of overwhelmed civic leaders and a mass of disengaged, disenfranchised residents, or we can see a growing number of citizen leaders and an expanding mass of residents seeking first to understand. If we leverage smartly the positive elements of the great green and digital waves underway, it well within us to create a region of remarkable capacity.

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