The NGC 3079 Galaxy. Credit: http://quarks.maynau.com/nova/fermi_map.shtml. All rights reserved.
Taking action to change the world has never been easier.
Right now on Change.org you can show support to free Ghoncheh Ghavami, a British-Iranian women arrested for watching a men's volleyball match. On 38 Degrees you can sign a petition to get Westminster to keep their post-referendum promises to Scotland. And via Avaaz you can lobby the White House to get bee-harming pesticides banned in the USA. All it takes is an internet connection and the click of a mouse.
But is such a technologically-oriented approach really the answer to creating a better world?
Author Gary Alexander thinks so. In the recently released second edition of his book eGaia, he describes how global communications technology such as social media and mobile apps could hold the key to building a more peaceful and sustainable society.
“People are connected through social networks and online media,” writes Alexander. “This is our pre-adaptation to what could come. For the first time, there is the possibility of a new stage in evolution: self-awareness and co-ordination on a planetary scale.”
Indeed co-ordination through online activism, or 'clicktivism', has had some notable successes. In 2013 the first successful anti-privatisation campaign for many years prevented the £250m sell-off of England's forests , in part due to a 38 Degrees petition with more than half a million signatures. Change.org has had more than 6,000 victories worldwide including one petition which has helped to ensure that the faces of women remain on British bank notes.
One key factor in this success appears to be access. Alexander believes that information provided by television and radio means that “people everywhere can now identify with the victims of famine and war anywhere.” Since around 40 per cent of the world's population are now connected to the internet, access is getting even more widespread.
But despite the advantages that technology can bring, clicktivism, which has grown to include 'liking' posts or pages on Facebook and sharing information on Twitter, has received criticism from the mainstream media in recent months.
Also known as 'armchair activism' or 'slacktivism', online activism involves minimal cost and effort from participants, leading it to be accused of distracting attention away from other, perhaps more effective forms of action, as well as oversimplifying issues to increase click rates. One Daily Telegraph columnist has claimed that “complex issues that rely on a dedicated campaign involving a co-ordinated effort from multiple agencies are simply too much for clicktivism.”
Some politicians feel they are being 'spammed' by online petitions, while Richard Huzzey, a lecturer in history at the University of Liverpool, told the Independent that clicktivism is “showing off to other people - you might not be sure it'll make any difference, but you want other people to see you doing something for that particular cause.”
Perhaps these limitations are why Alexander looks beyond clicktivism when describing the role that digital communications technology could play in creating a better world. Rather than simply clicking in support of something, people would participate in digital society much more actively.
Based on James Lovelock's Gaia theory, which sees the natural world as one interconnected organism, Alexander believes that to survive, humans need to move from being a “global cancer”—waging wars and over-exploiting the world's natural resources—to a “global nervous system” through which we are closely connected with the Earth and each other.
“If humans are the nerve cells of a global nervous system, then our electronic communication technologies will enable us to connect to each other in a way rich enough to form locally and globally self-organising and self-regulating social structures,” he says. “The result is that it would come to have a coherence and a wholeness it has never had. In that respect it would become like a single, global-scale organism.”
During a fictional chapter depicting a possible “eGaian society,” Alexander vividly describes a world where mobile and internet technology is completely intertwined with daily life, rather than a passive tool to be used in separation from the rest of society.
He proposes that software such as a “global family app” could connect people to services they need, from personal advice to repairs. Other apps could facilitate a sharing economy by keeping track of what an individual receives and gives to the community. Businesses could connect with their customers to keep track of local needs and share their advice for mutual benefit. They could automatically calculate the real costs of their products, including factors such as their carbon footprint.
This approach may come as a surprise to those who see social media and mobile phones as something that disconnect us from each other and from nature, but it could be argued that the current wave of clicktivism is reconnecting people with social and environmental issues, showing signs of what Alexander describes as the “early stages of a global sense of identity.” Organisations such as Change.org, Avaaz and 38 Degrees have no top-down decision making processes, manifestos or central campaign direction, so people are empowered to take action on issues that are important to them locally and globally.
This is reflected in their membership figures. Since forming in 2007, Avaaz has gained more than 40 million members worldwide. 38 Degrees has three million members in the UK, while more than six million people in Britain have signed or started a digital petition on Change.org since 2007. Meanwhile, the membership of organisations that have traditionally been used as agents of change is at an all-time low. Of those eligible to vote in the UK, less than one per cent are members of one of the three main political parties (around 360,000 people), four times less than it was 30 years ago. Only around 6.5 million people in the UK workforce are members of a trade union, half the level of 1979.
Rather than making people lazier, increased online activism could represent a transformation in the way we are dealing with problems in society.
If that is the case we could be heading towards Alexander's vision: a world in which we have traded large-scale industrial farming for smaller-scale agro-ecology, and capitalism for co-operative business and a sharing economy. Alexander admits that eGaia is “unashamedly Utopian” and that there are many factors that would need to change in order for it to become a reality, but underlying it all is the need for better communication, with digital technology as a vital component.
“For a co-operative economy to develop with all the complexity of modern societies, the crucial ingredient will be its information systems, very likely as an extension of today’s online social networks,” writes Alexander. “Social networks, which already link people and local businesses, could be extended to include a co-operative exchange platform. This could include ratings and reviews by customers so that the public reputation of everyone and all businesses is on display.”
Alexander also believes that the increased use of technology, as well as educating children in conflict resolution, could provide a platform for the improvements in communication that are needed to create a more peaceful society, from preventing wars to forming better personal relationships.
“This future society is geared up to resolve conflicts, which it accepts as arising regularly,” he explains. “It uses communication to acknowledge people's concerns and promote mutual understanding.”
However, despite his all-encompassing approach, one important socio-technological barrier he fails to address is the increasing prevalence of cyber-bullying and abusive trolling online. Though this is something that could arguably be dealt with through improved communication and conflict resolution in society as a whole, it is unique in that perpetrators can more easily be anonymous. It is clearly something that would need to be tackled before digital technology could play such a pivotal role in creating a new world.
But overall eGaia is a well-researched and well thought out concept. Alexander is also realistic in recognizing its limitations. Although better use of technology “can enable humanity to function as a global nervous system, should it choose to do so,” it is not the only factor that's needed to make this happen.
Despite the political and social challenges that exist, digital technology is already being used on a small-scale in ways that are similar to those outlined in the book. The model Lily Cole has created a gift economy app; Grassroots Environmental Action Network Palestine is mobilising its global online network to help rebuild Gaza sustainably; and social media has played an important role in organising recent social movements such as Occupy and the Arab Spring.
These are signs that digital technology has the potential be used as something beyond a campaigning tool. It may take more than the click of a mouse, but if we use it wisely, technology could enable humanity to become the global nervous system that Alexander believes it can be.