Last Friday, Andrew Leonard delivered a very thoughtful, measured response to my consideration of Tesla and civil society. After carefully going through my argument, and linking it to a series of similarly-minded, worthy analyses of Silicon Valley, Leonard recognized that “There is merit to this critique, though it has always seemed to me that the real villain here is unregulated capitalism, rather than Silicon Valley,” because “Globalization has hit the middle class as hard as anything dreamed up on Sand Hill Road in Palo Alto.”
On that he will have no argument from me. While Leonard is right that Silicon Valley often draws criticism to itself for the lofty utopian futurism that seemingly infects its every press release, the economic forces that concern me are just as embodied in a company like Wal-Mart as Tesla, if not more so. Sam Walton was certainly free to build his business as he saw fit, and he built it well by most evaluations. But the communities that invited his superstores may now be asking themselves just what virtue it is for things to be so cheap; this applies doubly to Amazon’s new same-day delivery program.
Leonard then brought a chiding reminder that “The Internet did not sweep the world because it was a hype job foisted upon us by a 20-something wunderkind from Harvard. … We found it to be incredibly useful.” For all the hand-wringing often done by me and mine regarding the disruptive digital age, Leonard holds open the possibility that at least some of the new tools and services can serve us well, and either uphold civil society or, at the least, mitigate direct disturbances.
Leonard offers Etsy as a model of commerce that could “nurtur[e] an entirely new middle class, populated by artisans embedded in their local communities”; he sees rating services as a way to popularize institutions with strong local ties, Kickstarter as an alternative to supplicating the monied class for support, and even the possibility of social media to step “in[to] regions where traditional media is censored or cowardly — see Turkey” and support the breaking down of authoritarian regimes.
As Douglas Rushkoff discussed yesterday at the New America Foundation, there will be new modes and orders to come as the empowerment of directness continues, and they certainly don’t have to be dystopian, or tragically worse than what we have now. But in order to have our better future, we need to be clear-headed about the challenges it faces.
Let’s take one popular example where digital triumphalism often trumpets the internet’s virtues the loudest: social media and political protest. The past several years have seen tremendous amounts of political disruption at home and abroad, which have paralleled the growth of social media and mobile devices. Tea Partiers and Occupiers alike used online organizing tools to both vent their frustrations online and organize to vent them offline. More significantly, the Muslim world has been rocked by the “Arab Spring” as dictators began toppling beneath waves of mass protests, organized in large part with social media. Egypt in particular has been held forth as a shining example of what can be accomplished when you give a people communication technologies; they topple dictators and proclaim pro-Western, secularist mantras.
However, a digital revolution may end up being too direct, and too effective at immediate mobilization to have real, lasting political power. As “revolutionary” candidates struggled among themselves to develop platforms and organize campaign structures, the power vacuum was filled by the old regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Arab Spring “secularist” protests were in no small part enabled and supported by the teeming masses of well-organized supporters that the Muslim Brotherhood could bring to bear. Little surprise, then, that the organization to come out of the tumult with the power was the well-organized, coherent, experienced political operators who had come of age in a pre-digital time.
Prior to the age of digitally crowdsourced politics, revolutionaries and change agents had to develop the skills and institutions to move masses. When politics becomes aggregations of atomized protestors, it lacks the scaffolding necessary to be robust enough to exceed Leonard’s admitted possibility that “The civil society we build online may turn out to be as evanescent as the pixels and packets deployed during the construction.” For digital politics, digital commerce, and digital philanthropy to truly steward the inheritance that our ever evolving society passes down to them, they need to do more than directly connect us. We need to learn how to create social architectures that embrace intermediation, and both recognize and support the “places between” where real civil society can develop.