I am slightly amused when reviewers call my book Now You See It “optimistic.” What I tried to do in writing it was spend time with people who identified real problems and found clear, practical solutions. Is that really optimism? (I guess that’s a rhetorical question). In any case: I learned from teachers, technology innovators, designers, business leaders, researchers, scientists, professors, parents, physical therapists, dancers, and artists. Some are famous, most are not. All are “activists” in the sense that they are not afraid to change the world they live in. They have no nostalgia for the present.
Nostalgia for the present is a fearful anticipation of the implications for change that make one long (already negatively anticipating the outcome of one’s attempt at change) for the status quo. It’s a sad circle of despair fuelled by fear. I’m not so much an optimist as someone who is inspired by people who find a way out of that self-defeating cycle. The people who inspired me and taught me when I was researching Now You See It all identify a problem in the status quo and risk finding and implementing a solution, however imperfect it may be. To me, that is moving to pragmatism, realism, innovation, and activism. It is the opposite of techno-determinism: It’s not saying “the Internet makes us dumber” or “the Internet makes us smarter.” It is saying, “here is a tool that we can take charge of in a specific way in order to improve this particular aspects of our lives.” I wrote about these people because I learned so much from them and I hope others can learn from their stories too. I believe we need models, now, of how to make constructive, practical, workable change because, if we don’t have real examples of how people use the Internet and the World Wide Web, the phenomenal tools at our disposal, we risk losing the potential for change that the Internet and the World Wide Web offer us. Worse, if we do not fight for the best features of the Internet and the Web, then we risk giving over the very features that make them so potentially beneficial to the forces of the status quo–or worse.
There are many, many reasons why we need Internet activism now. Here are seven good ones. You can add your own. These are basically what Howard Rheingold has called “twenty-first century literacies” transformed into activist principles with some real-world examples:
(1) Privacy. The daily changes in Facebook and Google aren’t just format changes but greater and greater invasions of our privacy and we do not know to what end. All we know is that a lot of what used to be private is now “downloadable,” including by commercial and political and governmental agents. We need to understand how this is possible, we need to be educated or we are vulnerable.
(2) Intellectual Property. Every publisher and every author knows how ironic it is that in this time of information avalanche, the laws for intellectual property become more and more constrained so that more and more time, energy, and money is needed to secure permission to use images. Creative Commons is fighting valiantly but we all need to understand the importance of this or we will lose the freedom to use, remix, mod, reblog, and publish work that should be a lot more open and free than it is.
(3) Openness. Every new Amazon and Apple product, shiny and appealing as they are, seems to move us further into the realm where the code that powers our devices is in a lock box that not only separates us from the code but separates that single commercial object from others. We love these devices, don’t get me wrong (i.e. I, of all people, would be a hypocrite to pretend otherwise: a chapter of Now You See It tells the controversy and the learning explosion of our ‘free iPod’ experiment at Duke, while I was VP for Interdisciplinary Studies). But, but . . . can’t our toys play more nicely together? And can’t they let us in to play along side? Try to edit a Google Doc lately on an iPad and you know what I mean. If we do not instruct one another in the importance of interconnectivity and interoperability, in the importance of open source code, these will be left to preoccupy idealistic geeks and not their gift to the rest of us.
(4) Peer-learning. Our educational system is broken. We need to re-invigorate education and support educators who, against odds, are trying to inspire their students, inside the classroom and beyond. No Child Left Behind, passed in 2002, is leaving so many children behind—and their teachers too. There is a dis-incentive to learn built into the extremely expensive systems of evaluating “standards” for kids today, and an increasing narrowing of what passes intellectual muster as “normal” and a gaping area of so-called “learning disabilities,” that, as a bona fide and proud dyslexic, are, to my mind, diagnostics of a failed system not a true measure of the kids failing our system. (For an excellent retelling of the story of dyslexia from a dyslexic point of view, see: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/09/dyslexic-advantage/). From the peer-learning and open web collaborative development happening on line, we have models of what motivated, challenging, diverse, differently skilled, uncredentialed and yet skilled, and other variations there might be on open, connected, peer, and participatory learning. HASTAC was formed to take these lessons of peer-learning and use them to spur and inspire reform of our institutions of learning. Peer learning also offers good alternatives not only to the university system that is simply too expensive for many to afford but, even more, to the overpriced for-profit institutions that take tax payers money in the form of Pell Grants to students, 75% of whom drop out of many for-profit institututions. Our taxes are paying for an education no one is receiving. We have free, open, peer-driven and better ways of learning and teaching that can inspire work within institutions too. (NB: we also have to fight for a return to free or inexpensive publicly-sponsored university education. These are continuous, not opposites in my book.)
(5) Free speech. When Egypt, Libya, and Iran turned off the cell phone towers to stop protestors from tweeting their location and organize their protests, Americans protested repressive governments for curtainiling freedom and applauded the Arab Spring. When BART transit authoritites, fearing protests in the wake of shootings by transit officials, shut down the cell phone towers in San Francisco this summer, there was barely a peep from ardent champions of free speech in the U.S. Barely a murmur was heard from the right, the left, or the center. Bad enough to shut off cell phones to halt a potential protest but millions of BART riders lost their cell phone use too and almost no one, of any political persuasion, thought that was worth commenting on? I’m baffled. Seriously baffled.
(6) Open media. It took 700 uniformed Continental and United Airline pilots walking in file down Wall Street and the macing of female protestors for traditional media to pay attention to the Occupy Wall Street protests. Really? Twenty-five people turn up at a Tea Party rally and their boisterous views are represented on every news channel. We’ve been brainwashed into thinking the media is open and that, if it has a bias, it is leftist. Or that there is Fox on the right and the New York Times on the left. This is not the case. FCC rules have changed radically over the last two decades and large corporations, supporting the views and interests of those corporations, mediate what is reported on and how. Whatever one thinks about the Occupy Wall Street protests, the lack of coverage in traditional media is shocking, revealing, and cautionary. Even on Twitter, #occupywallstreet is less of a “trending topic” than “thingsmenshouldn’ttexteachother.” That seems hard to believe. Whether one agrees or not with any or many of the diverse points of view represented by this populist Wall Street protest, the lack of media coverage should alarm us all—including the lack of new media, internet-driven, Twitter-led coverage. (Update, Oct 3: Needless to say, now there is plenty of mainstream media coverage but the fact that it took so much and so long whereas other events of minor significance receive constant airplay makes me realize, again, how important it is for all of us to fight for a free and open Internet, what’s left of it. Yahoo’s new deal with ABC News, and other such mergers make open media key.)
(7) Innovation. One of the many remarkable people I interviewed for Now You See It is Dennis Quaintance, a successful developer in the small North Carolina city of Greensboro. Quaintance had contracted to build a $30 million luxury hotel and, looking at his young twins, wondered if he could make this new project not only profitable and sumptuous but also environmentally sustainable, something he had never done in previous projects. He called the sixty people who worked on his previous projects and challenged each of them to use the Internet and one another as resources and relearn their trade from the bottom up as a sustainable, green trade–electricity, plumbing, HVAC, construction, disposal, recycled materials, on and on. He agreed to assume the risk in the sense that, instead of the contractor’s typical “cost plus” contract with penalities for cost overrunns and lateness, if someone tried something sustainable, he would move the “plus” penalty. If they tried something conventional, the old non-green way, they would be accountable to cost-plus penalties. Everyone was skeptical but since there was no risk, they learned together. It was “toilet of the week” club as everyone tried out the new plumbing. The hotel was named Proximity as it was clear that, by employing locals who committed themselves to green building methods, they could stay greener. The Proximity Hotel is gorgeous. It feels like you are at a beach, no toxic chemicals, air wafting through. And it was awarded America’s only LEED PLATINUM distinction.
I tell this inspiring story at length in “The Changing Worker” (Chp 7) of Now You See It and I tell it in this truncated form here because it has a punchline we all need to hear, not to be optimists but to be realistic, pragmatic, which is to say activist. When I asked Dennis Quaintance what he learned from this amazing process and its result, he said, “It wasn’t that hard.” He said that’s a good thing and a bad thing. Good, because sixty well-meaning non-experts in Greensboro set the standard, now, for green building. In the reception, the hotel was fuller than it should have been because everyone wants to try and see how different it is to be in an environmentally and humanly friendly hotel. The workers all have jobs because they are now certified sustainable buildings.
But it is a bad thing because, as Quaintance said, if they could do it, why isn’t everyone else doing it? If it wasn’t that hard, if they were able to do it, why are others so afraid to try the new, to challenge the system, to transform institutions that no longer serve us and that, in fact, are working to tame the possibilities of change inherent in the open, collaborative Web? Why aren’t we using this tool to protect this tool? Why aren’t we seeing what it can do for us, not what we can do for it, and thinking about how and why it can serve us.
It wasn’t that difficult. I believe that. As long as we are afraid to change, we will preserve a flawed future and lose one of the most remarkable resources we have. We are losing bits of it every day. I’ve listed six reasons we need internet activism right now but there are hundreds more. This is not optimism. This is realism. Pragmatism. Activism. Learning the future together. It isn’t that difficult.