Empowerment: what is notional and what is real? ~ Abaster

03 April 2008

Empowerment: what is notional and what is real?

I spoke at a conference in Hong Kong on the issue of new roles and rules in the digital age. During the talk I raised the issue of empowerment and wondered what it meant to youth in the age of the Internet, and whether technology was changing the empowerment dynamic. In the past empowerment for youth was time-bound and based upon some very traditional "coming of age" and "assumption of identity" related events such as being of age to vote, to drink, to drive, etc. I asked whether "traditional empowerment" was becoming merely notional in today's technology-driven world where the mobile phone, the Internet, social networking, etc., are giving youth a new sense of identity and purpose in an unprecedented way.

This is not to say that the traditional notions of empowerment are not important, but are they as important as they once were? My hunch is that they are not. Impediments of the past to building identity through social activity such as distance, cost of communications, etc., are no more. Today identity (and therefore empowerment) is real and virtual, built through videos on the web, online gaming guilds, instant messaging, and a myriad of other communications media that allow youth today to have a voice like never before. The young now have society shaping physical tools, such as the mobile phone, that can bring and have brought about social and political change long before the users had the traditionally empowering "right" to vote.

This is a fundamentally new dynamic in societal structure that will have implications for education, social interaction and other forms of community engagement and integration. For example with traditional empowerment came the instilling of responsibility (you have to learn the rules of the road before you can drive); where is that all important factor in this world of "new" empowerment? Is it still relevant or is it also changing? The ways in which coming of age, identity and empowerment are occurring is radically different than in the past - this is not a bad thing but it raises many questions in terms of how this empowerment is used, how it is managed responsibly, and, more than anything else, how it will shape society in the future.