Conference: The Future of Democracy in a Networked World

Hundreds of technologists, activists, educators, politicos, innovators to gather in Chicago Mar. 14-16

(IRVINE, CA) – Is the Internet good for democracy and if so, how? That’s the question hundreds of civic-minded innovators, makers and doers from across the U.S. and around the globe will confront at the “Democratic Futures: Mobilizing Voices and Remixing Youth Participation” conference, Mar. 14-16, in Chicago.

With provocative talks, case studies, demonstrations, ignite-style presentations, panel conversations and mini-festivals featuring global thought leaders, leading practitioners and youth activists, the conference will address how political engagement is changing in the networked age, largely because of the new possibilities for awareness-building, mobilization and activation created by the Internet, social media platforms and digital media production.

The conference, to be held at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers, will bring together a mix of educators, political leaders, designers, activists and researchers to examine how democracy is being impacted and explore questions like:

  • What is the relationship between digital media technologies and the political uprisings currently unfolding in the U.S. and around the world?
  • How are new political actors innovating in ways that remake what it means to be an active and connected citizen in the world today?
  • What kinds of innovative educational programs are needed to foster critical thinking and create engaged citizens?
  • Are we seeing the emergence of participatory politics — interactive, peer-based acts in which individuals and groups form Internet-powered networks exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern?
  • Are youth really as apolitical and disengaged as they are made out to be or are they redefining political participation, using social and new media in little-understood ways?

Produced by the Digital Media & Learning Research Hub based at the University of California, Irvine, the conference will spotlight numerous examples of innovations, including:

  • How a group of high school students from the U.S., China, New Zealand and Norway is using a social network to address climate change.
  • A program that prepares millenials to be a potent force outside of the US election cycle and to directly engage and impact the policymaking process.
  • A website that’s paving the way for teenagers in North America and Asia to role-play historical moments and crises and to explore issues of cultural diversity, ethics, history and politics.
  • An online game created by a 13-year-old from Los Angeles to probe issues of civil liberties, democracy and race through an immersive gaming experience involving Japanese-American WWII internment camps.
  • An effort in Detroit that is reimagining education in the city during a prolonged social crisis.

“Young people’s innovative adoption of social, digital, and mobile media platforms is not only transforming how they socialize, learn, and communicate; it is also expanding the opportunities for new genres of political participation,” said conference chair S. Craig Watkins, a University of Texas professor who studies connected learning, how youth use digital media, and works with schools to design the future of learning.

“Around the world,” Watkins said, “we are witnessing the numerous ways in which social media amplifies the civic voices, aspirations, and actions of young people. Around the world young people are using mobile devices and social media to organize political protests determined to realize more equitable, sustainable, and ethical futures. Their political participation is more robust than ever.”

The keynote address will be delivered by Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab and co-founder of the international blogging community, Global Voices.

The three-day event will also showcase a make-to-learn symposium and mini-festival where Chicago area educators will engage in hands-on maker activities as part of a growing effort to spur a nation of makers in America’s schools; and a science fair sponsored by the Mozilla Foundation featuring youth from Hive Chicago, a network of civic and cultural institutions dedicated to transforming education through connected learning, an approach to learning that is relevant to the realities of the digital age where the demand for learning never stops.

“Social media and digital technology have been key in the recent social and political developments around the world to transform societies and effect change, both in the political landscape and how people participate politically and civically,” said David Theo Goldberg, executive director of the Digital Media & Learning Research Hub and director of the University of California’s systemwide Humanities Research Institute, which houses the DML Hub. “Young people are using these media and technologies in creative and provocative ways not only to mobilize but to gather crucial information, to shape their understanding of the world, and to learn in new ways deeply impacting civic engagement.

“What can we learn from the ‘Arab Spring’ about the role of digital media in political uprisings, democratization, and social change? How does the president’s recent trip to Chicago, which was inspired in part by an online petition created by a group of young residents urging him to address the city’s gun violence crisis, open up new possibilities for engagement and impact?

“This gathering in Chicago,” Goldberg said, “is bringing together teachers, activists, youth, community organizations, and researchers to answer questions like these by exploring exciting ways of learning and doing civics as well as imagining the learning and political possibilities these new developments afford.”

News Media Contact: 

Whitney Burke  

Digital Media & Learning Research Hub

p: (949) 824-4587

About the annual Digital Media & Learning Conference
The conference is produced by the Digital Media & Learning Research Hub. Affiliated with the UC system’s Humanities Research Institute and physically located at UC Irvine, the DML Hub is dedicated to analyzing and interpreting the impact of the Internet and digital media on education and civic engagement. Its primary emphasis is on connected learning and emergent political practices — participatory politics — as well as initiatives such as, make-to-learn, and alternative credentialing (i.e., badges for learning). All of the work of the DML Hub, which includes original research, websites, publications, workshops, and the conference, is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. This year’s conference also received funding from Microsoft Research; Robert R. McCormick Foundation; The Chicago Community Trust; Grable Foundation; S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation; Pearson Foundation; Mozilla Foundation; and the UC Humanities Research Institute.

About the MacArthur Foundation 
The MacArthur Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. In addition to selecting the MacArthur Fellows, the Foundation works to defend human rights, advance global conservation and security, make cities better places, and understand how technology is affecting children and society. More information is at