Reflections on “Digitally Enabled Social Change – Activism in the Internet Age”

We created PetitionOnline in 1999 as an experiment in the social ecology of online interaction.  The experiment worked in that amazing way that sometimes happens on the web, and over ten years, the site went on to host more than 50,000 petitions, several with over a million signatures, collecting some 92 million signatures overall by the summer of 2011, when we passed stewardship of the site on to Change.org.

The PetitionOnline Experience

Our experience of operating what Earl and Kimport term a “warehouse site” for online activism went far beyond the numbers.  Petitioning is inherently a tool of the underdog, a last resort attempt to claim  recognition and drive change, simply by the moral weight of combined voices, when all the regular channels seem to have failed.

We received hundreds of petition success stories. The petitions helped grassroots activists around the world capture the attention of communities and authorities.  The sense of empowerment felt by unassuming people who gained the support of many others through the device of the web-base petition resounds through these stories.

Sometimes the outcome was directly as desired.  Even when it wasn’t, petition authors often reported to us that indirect effects were very meaningful to them, from self-actualization to the sense of a significant community of common perspective.

Repeatedly, petition authors wrote to say that the petition experience had been one of the most meaningful in their lives ― that we should feel our own lives fulfilled, for having made such a positive difference to their lives. People who felt powerless found a collective voice.  Injustices were redressed.  And it’s documented that many, many millions of dollars were saved for consumers, by the redress of corporate exploitations.

From Experience to Framework

Digitally Enabled Social Change (DESC) takes the tactical behaviors my team and I experienced first-hand, anecdotally and viscerally, and combines them statistically with behaviors at other sites of similar and differing kind, to build an overall framework for furthering the understanding of contemporary online activism.

As Earl and Kimport apply a new level of rigor to the sampling and analysis of this new generation of tools for activism, interesting findings emerge.  As the authors detail in DESC, the virtual elimination of activation barriers and marginal costs of participation – for organizars and participants alike – as well as elimination of the need for co-presence to achieve collective action, allows online actions to scale in ways that can, at times, result in operations qualitatively as well as quantitively outside the scope of traditional social movement tactics.

These newly recognized affordances are critical to releasing a new flood of active involvement and participation. It is useful, for instance, to better understand how a single activist, using appropriate e-tactics effectively, may catalyze collective expression that brings a corporate giant, or a wayward parliament, to heel.

I have no doubt that the findings in DESC will assist sociologists and political scientists who study various movement components of both the Arab Spring phenomena, and the Occupy protests.

For me, the theoretically rigorous work in DESC makes a crucial downpayment on a much bigger future dividend.

Modern science provides a means for determining certain kinds of fact with a new kind of accuracy and precision, across time and distance.  And in the physical realm, implemented through industrial technologies, this has made possible an accelerating material accumulation, as well as the virtual magic of the interactive devices and networks on which digital activism operates – alongside other communications, commerce, and entertainment.

Reveling in these opportunities, we have overdrawn on ecosystems services around the world to the point where we will now either figure out how to have human prosperity without perpetual economic growth… Or we will simply not have human prosperity.

To stabilize earth’s biosphere, we now need to reduce our collective environmental footprint by about 50% in about the next twenty years.

Unlocking Creative Interdependence

Yet this scale of response to the reality of our situation is beyond the scope of a U.S. and world establishment oriented to and invested in business as usual.

And I sense that, like the distinction made through DESC between supersize and theory 2.0 effects, we need something rather more than just the organizing might to win a series of political battles.

Of course, we can get started right now with what we have.  And we are. From LEED-certification of buildings and new EPA mileage standards, to pipeline-stopping and dam removals, e-tactics, conventional organizing, and individual and organizational leadership at many levels are already helping to start turning the ocean liner.

The long-term solutions to remaking everything from our economic system and transportation system to our personal expectations of prosperity, however – of reducing our global environmental footprint by 50% in the next twenty years, and then by another 75% or more in the following 20 years – will require inspired creative groupwork on an entirely unprecedented scale.

In the U.S. today, we are seeing something that looks like a breakdown of bipolar governance, as bluntly self-serving, surficially-irrational obstructionism renders the world’s arguably richest and most technically innvoative nation effectively ungovernable.

In the face of a breakdown of sustainability which covers not just an isolated island, or even a continent, but the whole planet, we are in the midst of failing badly to adapt. And behind the obvious basic dysfunctionality of current political polarization in the U.S., may be deep and potentially-fundamental problems with binary governance in the age of science.  (More on that another time.)

From New Activism to New Governance

Understanding the affordances of the new e-tactics, as part of an open theoretical framework of interactive possibilities, helps us build toward future systems of interaction that may take us beyond the structural limitations of majority rule, to a realm of true consensus building.

Understanding what is essential about the new and emerging “repertoire of contention” is part of the fundamental science that will support the collective invention of a new repertoire of constructive politics.

We are past the point at which we can get where we need to go together primarily by compromise, by splitting the baby in half, or by coin-flipping legislative charades to generate semi-arbitrary but timely outcomes.

The challenges we face of increasing both efficiency and unrepressive interdependence, probably for the rest of this century and beyond, will require continuous invention and implementation of win-win, both-and, out-of-the-box creative solutions, that are also technically precise and accurate, and widely supported.

I take the analysis in DESC as evidence of how, in very concrete, functional, practical, operational ways, we are groping toward a new synthesis of how to live together ― building that new science, brick by brick. To tame, refine, and redirect the industrial-economic monster our physical science has already enabled ― to help us truly collaborate for the long term common good ― we need this additional social science.

New systems of empowerment that upgrade the “consent of the governed” to an informed “consensus of the governed,” from an abstraction to a tangible practice, are building trust where the exercise of power has left injury. In the process, such systems suggest the possibility of establishing conditions necessary for the subtle and profound rebalancing of public and private that our world so badly needs.

Collective action at no marginal cost, without co-presence, as delineated in DESC, is a likely cornerstone of the platform on which we will build future cooperative and collaborative e-tactics. These are part of a nascent, emerging repertoire that will ultimately enable deeper, more effective democracy:  large-scale creative consensus governance among willing, self-actualized people, distributed in time and space.

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Filed under Digital Media in Activism, Essay Dialogues

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