It’s going to be a busy Thursday - RSA

It’s going to be a busy Thursday

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"In the years roughly coincidental with the Netscape IPO, humans began animating inert objects with tiny slivers of intelligence, connecting them into a global field, and linking their own minds into a single thing. This will be recognized as the largest, most complex, and most surprising event on the planet. Weaving nerves out of glass and radio waves, our species began wiring up all regions, all processes, all facts and notions into a grand network" (Kevin Kelly: Wired)

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to complain about it.” (quoted by Slugger O’Toole)

Thursday is a busy day for the RSA. As well as unveiling the long-awaited report of our Drugs Commission we will be hosting a major conference on the social impacts of the internet. Speakers include George Osborne MP, shadow chancellor who seems to be the leading politician with the best grasp of this issue; Mick Fealty, the aforementioned Slugger O’Toole; and Brian Appleyard, author and journalist. The quotations above define for me the big question. Why is it that the web which has been so transformative in so many parts of our lives has done so little to strengthen democracy and civic society?

For some this is inherent in the technology. Generating content and browsing the internet is the individualistic act of one person sitting at one computer. Why would we expect it to be suited to the collective tasks of deliberation and community action? But in fact while there has been an explosion of sites like MySpace which allow people to celebrate their individuality, there have also been innovations like the 'wiki' and complex virtual worlds which only work because people collaborate on a shared system and outcome.

For others the fault lies in the political system which has simply failed to understand or respond to potential of the web. From this perspective things like the Downing Street website and e-petitions or David Cameron’s weblog are superficial and tokenistic; politics must be willing to go through the kind of re-engineering that has been experienced by the entertainment or travel industries.

I am dismayed by the passive aggressive tone of most political blogs, and wonder why the web seems so much better as a tool to mobilise protest rather than action. But I suspect the answer lies not in wishing people were different but in innovation which can tap into people’s latent desire to shape their own collective futures. While Web 1.0 may have simply reinforced 'us and them' political discourse, Web 2.0 offers huge scope for new forms of ‘us and us’ engagement. The wiki has huge potential as a policy deliberation tool but we need good applications (the RSA is working to develop one for our Fellows).

So, on Thursday, as well as discussing where we are now, I hope we give time to think about how the next wave of web innovation could help us work together to make our world a better place.

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  • Thanks for your hospitality today (and the wifi ;-). I enjoyed being pushed in the debate, although most of the good questions I would have enjoyed answering publicly were posed afterwards in hushed tones.

    I think education of kids and of adults, too, is key to helping people engage. I sincerely believe that kids are interested in politics but don't see how they can engage. We're certainly not doing a very good job of using their tools to engage them.

    I blogged some thoughts today. Your thoughts would be welcome.

  • In response to the question: "Why is it that the web which has been so transformative in so many parts of our lives has done so little to strengthen democracy and civic society?"

    Could this not be because so many people are excluded from the internet? To a large extent, this is because of the technology - because large parts of the population do simply not have it.
    How many older, disabled people have access to the internet? A lot will not be excluded by choice, but because they can not afford the technology or do not have access to suitable and affordable training. And how many low income families have a broadband-connected computer? How many rural communities do not have broadband? It is time we take measures to include everyone if we are serious about making the web a truely democratic space - we have to get everyone in the UK online first, and then we can start an online revolution.

  • I'm not sure that most political blogs are as negative as you think, Matthew. Certainly there are those that wouldn't know how to formulate a positive thought however hard you pressed them, and some of those are amongst the most popular political blogs out there.

    But having been reading political blogs for the last 5 years I think the spectrum is pretty wide. Take someone like Paul of Never Trust a Hippy who has been using his blog to explore how we reinforce representative democracy, or Chris of Stumbling and Mumbling who uses his economics background to great effect. Indeed take a look at almost all of the output aggregated on any given day by Bloggers 4 Labour and I'd argue you will get a better idea of where political debate is being taken by blogging than any of the A list political gossip sites.


  • From my perspective, my involvement in blogging has massively increased my involvement in democracy. I would suggest that the political network I have developed over the last year is similar to what I could achieve in a decade off-line and that's without me being in the UK most of the time. I have worked on maybe several campaigns (involving some degree of action) most of which could be called successful. Are you sure you have a full understanding of what's going on? Also, can you give a few specifics on what you mean by passive aggressive?

  • Your comments about the history of the web are pretty ignorant.

    See this as just one example of how the web has been used for many years to organise and change the world:

    The web hasn't suddenly evolved into web 2.0, it's just building on it's history, and anyone thinking policy on that basis should learn a bit more history.

    Paul Canning

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