When more than 3 million voters under age 30 turned out for recent caucuses and primaries, they staked a claim as a major force shaping this historic presidential election. Because so many leave college with, on average, $20,000 in debt during a recession economy and are entering a job market with fewer opportunities to earn a decent living, energized young Americans are yearning to help solve America's problems, address the mounting issues of income disparity, and contribute to the health and well-being of their communities. At the same time, a call for enhanced national public service is part of the presidential candidates' campaign platforms.
Thus, this is a singular moment in which to demand a larger and bolder vision to propel all Americans, across generations, fully into the 21st century. It's time for a Digital New Deal.
Even though we inhabit a technologically saturated environment, America is not keeping pace in its capacity as a technological world leader. In the array of studies comparing Internet infrastructures across nations, the highest America ranks in any of them is 4th - in network readiness to compete globally - but 24th among industrialized nations in broadband penetration to U.S. households. These rankings show that America has a ways to go to remain competitive in the dynamic global economy, not to mention protecting itself from cyber-terrorism and other Internet high jinks.
Our next president can help reconstruct America's fragmented and relatively weak public communications infrastructure by using the most effective tool our youth wield - the power and depth of their digital fluency.
This eager, highly knowledgeable, connected and multitasking first generation of digital natives - "millennials" coming of age now who have used computers and the Internet since childhood - can be put to work in a WPA-inspired Digital New Deal to build out a networked national public commons that bolsters our international competitiveness.
Free of commercial data-mining and the ultra-marketing of social networks like MySpace and Facebook, this new online public sphere would evolve into a robust multitude of open channels and spaces where people could safely share ideas, experiment with innovative design, and debate issues and policies. The talents and organizing skills of the millennial generation, whose numbers now exceed their Baby Boomer parents, can be harnessed to connect citizens across online communities and amplify America's independent media voices and visions globally. As a benefit, these Digital New Deal-makers will earn a living wage, be able to retire college debt and develop a lifelong commitment to the public good.
What will this work look like? Youth-driven teams will design tools, social networks and online environments that bolster and stimulate community-building and citizen participation. They would work with information technology specialists to democratize the next generation of broadband access. And they can creatively partner with nonprofits, public schools and communities to build technological and networking capacity that will help us address challenges such as climate change, lack of health care and economic hardship.
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The Digital New Deal will also foster a much-needed intergenerational knowledge exchange. Professional development goes both ways - young people showing their elders how to take advantage of Web 2.0 while public sector leaders and educators pass on the experience and wisdom they have gained working as organization builders. The expertise and enthusiasm of millennials and Boomers are complementary and can transform America's public communications sphere - if we make this knowledge exchange a priority.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt put millions of Americans to work designing, building and repairing our country's roads, parks, buildings and schools, they were beautifully constructed for generations to use and enjoy. The construction of a widely accessible broadband digital network now ranks as equally important with that of President Roosevelt's public works infrastructure expansion in the last century.
Like other moments in American history when far-reaching public works initiatives were implemented, there will be cynicism and disdain along with relentless fear-mongering to bring down this "activist" government program. But the benefits of a Digital New Deal are vast and cannot be underestimated.
Creative potential will be unleashed through new media and social networking pathways in ways we have never experienced, influencing where we live and how we work. Young people will be able to acquire entrepreneurial and leadership skills needed for a 21st century workforce, and the public sector will be recharged and better prepared to handle problems of our time.
As the economy falters and technological innovation slows, the Digital New Deal can translate into trillions of dollars for a U.S. economy wired for the online demands of the 21st century. It will create new skill sets and jobs for people who are now struggling, and bring new participants into the information economy. Without a large-scale public sector agenda, private enterprise will simply not provide this on its own.
Imagine after the 2008 election, a swarm of arts and culture leaders, public interest and policy advocates, energetic young software developers, philanthropists, media reformers and forward-thinking politicians banding together in a broad coalition to construct this Digital New Deal. How this investment in our future would be implemented- including public and private partnerships - is a debate well worth having.
Helen De Michiel is the national co-director of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC), based in San Francisco.
© 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle