"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.