Internet “not so hot” at motivating action

nader

Social activist Ralph Nader suggests that the Internet “doesn’t do a very good job of motivating action” in a recent speech.

In a great review of a recent Ralph Nader speech over at, Ars Technica, long time social activist Ralph Nader suggests that, while excellent for gathering information, use of the web as a social activism tool may be limited.

The Internet has become more of an extension of market life than civic culture, he warned, the latter dwarfed by the shopping mall. Nader asked the students to indicate by a show of hands how many had ever been to a city council meeting or a court trial as an observer. Then, he queried, how many had been to Wal-Mart or McDonalds? The audience was understandably reluctant to cooperate with this rhetorical set-up, but everybody got the point.

“In fact, it’s worse now than ever,” he scolded the students. “You spend six times longer listening to music than we did when we were your age. And last I knew there were only 24 hours in the day. And you’re always on the [at this point Nader mimicked a cell phone] ‘Where are you? Two blocks away?’ Massive trivialization of communications.”

Sure, Nader conceded, there’s moveon.org. “They generate a lot of e-mails. But then it goes down fast after that, in terms of anything else.” And then there was the Obama online victory. But “they’re wondering why their 13 million e-mail list isn’t translating into a power force on Congress, to get his agenda through.”

The problem, Nader warned, is that whatever benefits the Internet offers, “it’s a huge consumption of trivial time. That’s the real negative. You can just lose yourself.”

He challenged the young crowd to project themselves years into the future, talking to their grandchildren. “What are you going to say to them?” he rhetorically asked.

“You know. The world is melting down. They’re nine years old. They’re sitting on your lap. They’ve just become aware of things that are wrong in the world: starvation, poverty, whatever. And they ask you, what were you doing when all this was happening: Grandma? Grandpa? That you were too busy updating your profile on Facebook?””

“Are big corporations afraid of the public use of the Internet? Does Congress fear the civic use of the Internet? Does the Pentagon fear the civic use of the Internet? Those are the questions you want to ask,” Ralph Nader told an auditorium of college students in Washington, DC on Monday. “My tentative conclusion,” he continued, “is that the Internet doesn’t do a very good job of motivating action.”

Commentary

This is an interesting counter trend to the “Twitter is Salvation” crowd, which I’ve found echoed in many places recently.

For example, at a recent futures workshop for consultancy outsights, Vinay Gupta suggested that the web was useful for organising people around some kinds of problems, some of the time.  It was suggested that problems requiring extensive, drawn-out collaboration between large groups tended not to work on the Internet, where problems requiring short, quick intervention do.  See the recent success of flashmobs or crowd sourced fundraising for some examples of successful mass collaborations empowered by the web.

But are these really collaborations?  What about the really difficult, contentious things?  Research has found that the web actually tends to fragment political dialogue more than unite it.

Does the web actually promote collective social action around difficult, collaboration, negotiation intensive problems?  Or does it just facilitate the quick and easy wins, leading to ever greater political and social fragmentation?

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