Saturday, October 18, 2008


Like many books about new social phenomena, the basic premise of Tom Watson's CauseWired can be summed up in three sentences;

1. The modern internet allows unprecedented levels of communication.
2. Some people are using this for Good Stuff, not just porn and gossip.
3. Woah!

The rest of the book is a mass of solid supporting evidence. I've been online for about twenty years now, and have been involved in various forms of (admittedly, low-level) online activism all that time, so very little of it came as a surprise to me. There were some new facts, and some interesting anecdotes, but nothing startling.

However, CauseWired did get me thinking about all sorts of things. The first was that we need to change our perception of the younger inhabitants of cyberspace. The Jack Thompsons and tabloid journalists of this world would have us believe that our teenagers do nothing but slob around at home, playing online games, pirating music and movies, surfing for free porn, and babbling away pointlessly on MSN in some incomprehensible argot, while ignoring the bigger issues in life. Sure, they do that some of the time, but they also care. They care passionately. They're actually far more politically and socially active than any previous generation, because technology makes it easy for them and because, believe it or not, it's cool.

Be honest, before the Net, how many of us took the time to write to our MP, put in a written objection to a planning proposal, or complain to an oil company boss about their ethical practices in the Third World? Not many. But teenagers these days think nothing of that, especially if all they have to do is to click a few links and then get kudos by being the one who told their friends first via blogs, Skype, email, or twitter.

Which got me thinking about Tom's second profound, but understated point. Ten years ago, most of us craved anonymity online. That's now completely changed. The modern Net user lives his or her life in public. "Look at me!" they scream. Photos, diaries, itineraries, even candid confessions are all open to everyone. We want people to see who we really are, blending the professional and the personal. Our friends and social networks are part of who we are, and so are the things we believe in. By proclaiming to the world that we, too, support a cause, we get a sense of belonging that both affects our immediate social group and reaches out far beyond it.

That's a huge change, with effects we are only just beginning to understand. It's easy to dismiss mass grass-roots activism as just a rent-a-mob, but that would be a mistake. True, some causes may be just a flash in the pan, but our leaders need to be aware that there are other issues that people - voters - really do give a shit about. I may not be personally affected by starvation in Darfur, by court-sanctioned rape in Pakistan, or be displaced to make room for a huge hydro power station, but I, and literally millions of others, don't want to live in a world where those things happen, and I want those in power to damn well do something about it. When a million, or ten million people all stand up and say, "hey, buddy, this ain't right," they can't help but take notice.

CauseWired isn't a manual.. It won't tell you how to change the world. However, it's an important chronicle of a social upheaval in which the silent majority are being replaced with a vocal majority. If you're already involved in online activism, CauseWired probably won't be much of an eye-opener to you. On the other hand, it does leave you with a comforting feeling that you're not a weirdo. You're part of a fundamental shift in the way our world will be run when we all have the ability to express how we feel about the things that make a difference to us.

Democracy, I think it's called.

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