Monday, October 13, 2008

Joan Hamilton: The Electronic Activist

The Electronic Activist: Can digital organizing work in the real world?
by Joan Hamilton
Orion Magazine

THE MESSAGE on my screen says, “Welcome to the human network. When we’re all connected, great things happen.” On a sunny day in May, I am sitting in a large windowless conference room in Silicon Valley, eager to hobnob with the most computer-literate do-gooders you can imagine. About three hundred individuals from nonprofits, tech firms, and foundations have gathered at round tables. Most of them have plugged a laptop into one of the tables’ power-strip centerpieces and are tapping away. The balding business-suited man on my right looks too engrossed to be bothered with chitchat, as does the artsy woman with big black glasses on my left. Even when speeches begin at the podium, they keep heads bowed, fingers tapping. We are in the room, and we are not. Have I entered a society of cyborgs? This is the annual gathering of NetSquared, and we are all wired—not wired for fun or profit; we’re wired for good.

As a former editor of Sierra magazine and longtime environmental reporter, I once would have been skeptical that Silicon Valley could teach me much about how to make a difference. But today you have to know your way around cyberspace to cover (or practice) environmental politics, because that’s where a good share of the action is. In his book Assault on Reason, Al Gore called the Internet “perhaps the greatest source of hope for re-establishing an open communications environment in which the conversation of democracy can flourish.” That’s expecting a lot from what is, after all, just another communications medium. But some activists have even higher hopes. They see electronic tools as a way to rouse people from their civic slumbers to participate in that democracy. Up until now the Internet has been a Platte River of political organizing in the United States, nurturing human connections a mile wide and an inch deep. What I and many others at NetSquared wanted to know was what would it really take—electronically or otherwise—to strengthen those connections?

THE POPULARITY of the latest “Web 2.0” social-networking sites, where people can do more than just read or listen, has inspired new thinking. “People are looking to make sense of who they are and what role they play in society,” says the tweedy, salt-and-pepper-bearded conference organizer, Daniel Ben-Horin, who is co-CEO of a nonprofit called CompuMentor. “For a long time that meant, ‘I am a Republican or a Democrat or a socialist or a capitalist.’ Now there is a post-ideological idea of collaboration emerging. People are sensing that collaboration and openness, transparency and sharing, should be the guiding principles. People look at the Middle East and say, ‘Us versus them—it hasn’t worked, has it?’ The impulse to share and collaborate would have come along even without the tools, but the tools make it possible to act on that impulse.”

Electronic tools—computers and cell phones—have already helped people work together to tackle tough problems in developing countries. In 2005, Kuwaiti women used BlackBerries beneath their burqas to lobby successfully for the right to vote. Last year in China, construction of a chemical plant was suspended after cell phone and e-mail messages about its dangers spread throughout the 1.5-million-person city of Xiamen. Electronic organizing is said to have played an important role in recent elections in the Philippines and South Korea.

A slender, dark-haired man dressed in a colorful poncho at NetSquared, Jaime Bejar, showcased, which is helping nonprofits in Ecuador set up and improve websites and online networks. “People in countries like ours want to be heard,” Bejar said. As proof, he pointed to Ecuadorians’ use of e-mail and cell phones to foment demonstrations in 2004 that led to the downfall of a president. “The president had to leave,” Bejar said. “The Internet can change the political environment of a country. It’s a powerful tool.”

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