Internet, Democratization & Prosocial Change: I Could Really Use Your Help

I’ve been asked by a colleague to speak to students in the Graduate course, “Social Justice and Globalization from an Educational Perspective.” These are the two general questions I’ve been asked to address:

1) Is the Internet a democratizing agent?
2) How does/can technology be an tool for prosocial change?

While I have many ideas, trying to come up with answers to these questions by myself wouldn’t make much sense. I would really love to see what kind of responses I can get to these questions from my network. Please, if you have a few minutes, let’s attempt to get something going here. I’d love to show the group how powerful the network can be. Through the content of your responses, and in the very act of responding, I’d like to bring an authentic demonstration of the power of these connections and the strength of weak ties.

I hope to hear from you, many of you.

19 thoughts on “Internet, Democratization & Prosocial Change: I Could Really Use Your Help

  1. Chapter 2 of Lessig’s Free Culture has some ideas (especially toward the end in reference to blogging). And now it appears he is putting much of his energy into this very idea. He believes (and soundly so) that the Internet could prove to be a valuable tool in fighting corruption by laying bare facts and preventing public servants from running and hiding. Trent Lott’s resignation is an early example of this.

    The Internet makes “power” a more meritorious concept. It’s very much related to the free/open source development model. Somewhere in between total chaos and top-down hierarchies. Joe Blow can say something wise and influence the thoughts of numerous people through the net while traditional media doesn’t allow such participation.

    We could go on and on. This is one of those topics that deserves an entire face-to-face evening with, perhaps, a bottle of spirits. :)

  2. Alec,

    This may just be an impression and not fact, but I believe that you can see many example of the Internet being used for grassroots purposes (organizing, political fund raising, information sharing). I’m trying to remember who said, “The power of the press belongs to those who own the press.” While Comcast and organizations who filter may believe otherwise, the press that is the Internet, is controlled by those who write, share, read, converse, etc.

  3. 1. I don’t think Internet access is widespread enough to consider it a democratizing agent yet. Much like the voting system in the US, there exists a significant portion of the population who lack access to the Internet due to any number of reasons (homelessness, poverty, etc.). Of course, if we’re willing to overlook this (as we often do in our elections), then the argument for it being democratizing swings a little more toward the positive.

    2. Mass dissemination of information, primarily. Organization, “rallying the troops”, etc. We can reach far more people through the Internet than we ever could before, and faster, too (see Peter’s comment re: Trent Lott above).

    Of course, both instances rely on there being an informed, actively searching populace. The information is there, but how many people actively seek it out (e.g., the only people who are going to get a “voice” in your question are those who read your blog, or who hear about it from those who do. How can you make the information more widely available)? I really don’t know the answer to that question, but I think it’s an important aspect to consider.

  4. PS – Just some additional linkage:

    Internet Access in America: Who’s Got It, Who Needs It? (from a PEWInternet study)

    America/World Internet Penetration:

    According to the second link, it seems that only 19% of the planet’s population has Internet access (about 1.2 million). Of those, I wish I knew how many had hi-speed access from relatively modern machines/OSs. That’s a lot of folks disconnected from the network entirely, and I don’t think accounts for the folks stuck behind gov’t-sponsored firewalls.

    What was your colleague’s intended scale when s/he asked about democratization -Canadian? North American? First World? Global?

  5. Damian is correct. There’s a long way to go. Access is key. Net neutrality is an issue weighing upon the minds of many in nations with connectivity. Other nations simply can’t afford the cost of infrastructure while the rich are only beginning to look at this problem. And then there is the issue of oppression. Some countries are actively blocking citizens from the net altogether (or key parts of it).

    Breaking down these barriers is important. Free, globally ubiquitous broadband and free software are key.

  6. 1. I look at the potential proliferation of technology into the third world, and I am beginning to wonder if we are ready for the third world and what it means when they step onto the world stage. The OLPC project is a philanthropic endeavor that has great intentions, but consider the population that will be serviced by this program is susceptible (especially in South Asia and Sub-Sahara Africa) to the spread of radical Islam. Al Qaeda and like groups are doing a fantastic job going underground on the Internet. There are now potential madrases in villages throughout the third world (not just children, but whole families who could use the machines). These people already are suffering from a lack of education, making the messages of radical Islam that much more dangerous. So where there is potential for the spread of democratic ideals, there is an equal potential for the spread of radical ideals.

    With that said, the situation in Burma could have been very different if families could use their technology to broadcast and blog the uprisings there. The Burmese government even shutdown their Internet trunks to stop the flow of information to the outside world. The OLPC project allows machines to automatically build mesh networks, which if machines were appropriately placed, could have continued to broadcast to the outside, and at least internally. Who knows? Today the junta that controls that country might not be in power today.

    2. Again, with prosocial change, you look at the situation in Burma, but at the same time why are we not seeing the prosocial change in China? You look at the proliferation of cell phones and the Internet throughout China, and yet people are not rising up against an oppressive regime that destroys the environment, allows lax standards with regards to mining and factory production, and does not allow its citizenry to choose their own leaders. As a boy watching Tianamen Square on CNN, you would have thought the Chi-Com regime would have folded years ago. However, a recent report (and I cannot find the story now) shows that the people in China are, for the most part, happy despite their government. Why is that? The story stated there was happiness because of what was available to them in the ways of stuff (food, technology, cars, etc.) which were not available en masse 20 years ago.

    So, in short, technology by itself does not promote prosocial change. In the case of China, it is hindering such change.

    … if someone can find that story, I would appreciate it.

  7. I’m inclined to agree with Heather on both points. There’s obviously huge potential for democratization on the web, but ultimately it’s up to people to take advantage of it, and frankly I’m pessimistic about that. There was a time when television could be heralded as a force for positive social change. Yes, the web has already given voice to some, connected others, been a useful organizing tool and had a positive impact in a few instances. It has also empowered a lot of creeps. I’m also struck by the anti-historical sense that pervades internet discourse, an almost perpetual amnesia… we flit like lemmings from one cause celebre to the next.

    And worst of all, working the web all too often gives the appearance of engagement while accomplishing nothing in the real world. Is there any more anemic and ineffectual form of protest than a Facebook petition? The practice seems to be solely about a form of preening self-indulgence: “look at me,” the Facebook activist is proclaiming, “I care.” It reduces political and social engagement to a form of self-branding, no more or less significant that the lists of favorite movies, bands, silly quotations and virtual hugs and SuperPokes.

    I don’t want to dismiss the positive potential of the web… but ultimately it is an amplifier of both the noble and atrocious elements of humankind.

  8. Brian, I think we saw a prime example of the “atrocious elements of humankind” in the topic of Alec’s post yesterday. Virtual worlds like Second Life are being used for education and community building, but also by the dregs of humanity. The same, of course can be said about other social networking and media sharing sites and tools.

    Damian, I do agree that access is key. This is true for those who have no access, but want and need it and those who have access and don’t make use of it for worthwhile endeavors. The same, of course, could be said of voting.

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  10. While we’re not there yet and there are many concerns regarding a digital divide, there are many examples of it indeed leading social change. My favourite examples include:

    The Water Buffalo Movie

    We are not afraid

    I think ultimately the internet while may not bring democracy at world levels since really people are people and we’ll always see good and bad but I’m more inclined as an educator to point out the positive. After all, that’s my job.

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  12. Can you say what you mean by “prosocial change”?

    I understand “social change” but ‘prosocial change” seems to mean something very specific. A Google search on the term wasn’t helpful – your question and responses dominated the results.

  13. Hey Stephen,

    Yeah… i wondered about that too and decided to dodge the issue because I can’t imagine an answer that anyone would be happy with. Once you begin to debate the meaning of ‘social justice’ or ‘pro’ social change things are going to get bogged down.
    Henry Drummond: I don’t swear for the hell of it. Language is a poor enough means of communication. We’ve got to use all the words we’ve got. Besides, there are damn few words anybody understands.

  14. Stephen, as you probably guessed, the term wasn’t mine, it was one given to me to discuss. My assumption is that it means a condition where altruistic responses to human problems are normalized and that people are supporting one another for reasons other than perceived, reciprocal gain. Combined, these acts and processes serve to “create a better world” (there’s that argumentative phrase, efforts focused toward people that are marginalized and/or powerless. I’ve heard the term quite a bit lately, usually paired with social justice, another term I believe to be problematic (and it seems Dave agrees).

    However, please don’t l et the semantics deter you from the conversation, Stephen. I’d really love to hear from you, even it is to only debate issues of terminology. I think you could contribute much here.

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  16. I believe there is a huge potential for democratization via the web, and in our country at least, that there will continue to be a trend in that direction. Given that younger people are increasingly getting their information via non-traditional media (they watch newscasts and read papers less and less) there is much potential for improved information flow and hopefully, increased democracy as a result.

    Forces operating against this trend include at least some attempts by commercial interests to influence and assert control over Web 2.0, especially via the insertion of advertising into such sites). Such interests have HUGE resources at their disposal and, in my pessimistic moments, I feel they are gaining the upper hand.

    Still, I don’t believe commercial interests will prevail. I find hope in the fact that issues like the environment keep returning to the top of the agenda, despite all the crises that pull our attentions in other directions.


  17. As pointed out by Heather and Brian, democracy is only useful or even desirable if it’s actually exercised effectively by the citizens. We have theoretical democracies here in North America, with a surprisingly high fraction of the population opting not to participate. The internet provides some of the means for every individual to participate as an effective and valued contributor and producer (not just a consumer) of media, but without some radical shifts in how people perceive media, all the technical democratic tools in the world are useless. Or worse – they’ll be picked up by only those who are comfortable with them, and we wind up with a giant echo chamber where we are all preaching to the converted while the vast majority are unaffected. In this case, it is only the perception of democracy, and not a true democracy in any real sense. Technocracy, oligarchy. The real power of the internet is that it is the first platform that offers to effectively harness anarchy – not a lack of order, but order directed at, by and for the individual.

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