On Thursday, President Obama gave a speech to a group of bank executives who collectively make up one of the world’s most powerful economic groups. He was there to scold them for the “failure of responsibility” that precipitated the financial crisis. That day was also Earth Day. Though scarcely recognized, it is meant as a reminder of the unsustainability of much of what constitutes modern life, and the degradation of earth, sea, and air that results. At first glance, these two events might seem unrelated, but they are part of the same nagging voice, telling us in different ways on a daily basis that we need to change the structure of our global society.
The idea that we need to change how the world operates is so daunting that the natural reaction is to deny that it is true. I am not speaking of true denial, of those who say that global warming is a hoax or new financial regulation is unnecessary. I do not think there are many people who believe that anymore. I am talking about denying that the change we need is systemic. I am talking about the desire to believe that we can fix these problems piecemeal, with small reforms here and there, with new oversight bodies, by driving hybrid cars. One reason we cling to these easy answer to answers that maintain the current patterns of our lives is because we do not believe that we can create a truly better world.
Yet to change the world, we need to change one thing: power. Not a transfer of power from one institution to another, or one leader to another, or one party to another, but the dissemination of power among the world’s citizens such that the divide between the most and least powerful is narrowed and no one can act with impunity. This is not a new idea. We have various institutions – such as one man/one vote and equality under the law – that try to enshrine this idea of equality of power, though it has not yet been achieved.
To lessen the power divide in our global society the path is not through the doors of current institutions, which are structured on historic power dynamics. We must instead look at the ground on which those institutions stand and see how the infrastructure beneath them could be made to shift such that the institutions would have no choice but to change. When examining this infrastructure, we should pay close attention to that which is new, which is different, which presents innovative modes of power distribution and creation.
In this day and age, a natural place to look for this new kind of infrastructure is the global digital network that connects ever more of the world’s citizens through the Internet and mobile phones. Here we have an infrastructure that really is new, where anyone on the network can create and publish to a mass audience, where the cost of mass publication approaches zero, where communication is no longer centralized, where people can not only broadcast to their peers on a mass scale, but also coordinate and mobilize interactively, where influence travels among peers through consent, rather than from authority figures through the monopoly of force.
There are many uses of this new infrastructure. Repressive governments are using it to monitor their citizens and businesses are using it to inundate us with increasing levels of advertising. The point is not that this new infrastructure can be used is old ways of course it can. The question is: in what new way can it be used? How can we leverage this low-cost, decentralized, and peer-based infrastructure to challenge the economically-striated, centralized, and hierarchical infrastructure that determines the power dynamic of our modern world?
Digital activism offers the practical means of testing the capacities of this new digital infrastructure to change the global power dynamic. Each campaign, each mobilization, each “wiki leak” reveals more of what is possible. The struggle against unequal power is older than history itself. The digital network is just the most recent tool in conquering it. It is also the most powerful such tool we have ever had. Because so much is at stake, it matters that we get digital activism right. It is with the historic importance of digital activism’s role in mind that the Meta-Activism Project carries on its work.
image: Flickr/kevin dooley