Smart Collective Action in the Digital Age

The darker side of digital technology is dominating the headlines these days but is it really all bad news? Clive Thompson doesn't think so.
By: /
November 18, 2013
Global Journalism Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto

When Canadian science and technology writer Clive Thompson first started reporting on the Internet, he predicted that it would have a terrible impact: that “we would be drowned in gossip and trivia [… and] constant political fighting.” Now Thompson,a columnist for Wired and contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, has written a book that takes a decidedly different view of communications technologies and human progress. In a time of increasing suspicion about the power of digital technology,Smarter Than You Thinkis making waves for its optimistic take on the Internet age.

OpenCanada Reporter Alia Dharssi spoke with Thompson about how and why technology is making us smarter – not stupider – by transforming the ways in which we interact and coordinate social action. This is the first interview in a special OpenCanada series featuring leading Canadian thinkers working internationally.

I’d like to start off by talking about the parts of your book that deal with how technology is influencing collective action and surveillance.

Two things that are completely entwined in a really tricky way, as we’re discovering.

How so?

Well, one of the things that I think is most interesting and most powerful about our modern communications environment is the way it’s transforming how we communicate. It is possible now for people to communicate one-to-many – that’s one person sending a message to millions of people via a television station or publisher. We’ve also had technologies that let people communicate one-to-one, like the mail, written notes, and the phone, for a long time. The thing that’s really curious and powerful about the present environment are the new tools for communicating one-to-a-few or a-few-to-a-few.

Before the internet, people who weren’t scholars, journalists or writers rarely communicated their thoughts in a written, published format to others. There’s been a transition from when people walked around with most of their thoughts locked up in their head. When you choose to communicate your ideas to someone else, a really significant transformation takes place because in order to do this, you have to think much more seriously about your perspective.

For example, while writing my book I would occasionally stand over someone’s shoulder while they tweeted.  It’s kind of funny to watch because people often spend a huge amount of time composing a single tweet.

What is so subtle and ill-understood about modern collective thinking and collective action online is that it begins with these daily acts of what I call “public thinking.” Through these acts, groups of people can establish a collective awareness of what they’re thinking and wondering about. And that’s when another transformation happens – people suddenly become aware of others who are interested in or wondering about the same thing.

What sort of groups are we talking about here?

It could be as simple as a local community group. Parents in my neighbourhood set up a Google group and then suddenly there was thirty families in the Google group.  When one of the younger kids comes home with an amount of homework that seems ridiculous to my neighbour or I, we might ask the group whether kids need this much homework because we're wondering, 'is this really bad for them?' And before you know it, within 24 hours we've developed this fascinating sense of group awareness that, ‘yeah, this homework thing is actually something that’s annoying a lot of us.’ And then on a civic level, we can try to do something about it. Little things like this are happening all the time now. 

They happen on a much larger scale as well, of course, as we’ve seen over and over again. Protests these days often begin with the dispelling of what sociologists call pluralistic ignorance, which captures the idea that when you’re unaware of what other people are thinking, it can be hard to get social consensus about changing some aspect of your community or government.

For years, of course, that’s what political or community organizers did – they would go around and talk to people, then tell other people what they were hearing from other people, and try to get a larger group to realize what was going on. They played a critical role in consciousness-raising, something which has always been the precursor to social change. Now we live in a world where people engage in much more habitual communication of their thoughts and feelings, which creates much larger potential for social change.

This is really an interesting evolution in social change. It’s an extension of what we’ve always been doing but in interesting – and I think productively weird – new ways.

Sounds like a pretty promising development in terms of getting results from collective action.

It’s great, but there are definitely downsides. It’s becoming clear that while ambient technologies for becoming aware of each other’s thoughts are powerful at dispelling pluralistic ignorance, they aren’t necessarily as useful – and they may even be counterproductive –  in architecting the next phase of change. They are great at helping us identify what’s wrong, but they may not be as good at helping us identify how to fix it. For that, you still need leadership. You still need political processes. In the case of the Arab Spring countries, scholars are concluding that the lack of public trust in their respective political processes is making reconstruction in most cases incredibly hard. This is exactly what terrified Edmund Burke about the French Revolution; that if you sweep aside the longstanding institutions of a society, however incomplete and trouble-plagued those institutions might be, you sweep away the mechanisms by which new things might be built.

Where does the surveillance piece fit in?

Public thinking is providing an enormous amount of material for state leviathans to scoop up and scrutinize. We saw that in the uprisings in the Middle East. Right after the Iranian protests of 2009, the authorities used photos posted online by protesters to detain protesters. Also when the Egyptian police targeted Wael Ghonim, who was the organizer of the main Facebook page for the pro-democracy protests. The goal in that case was to try to get his passwords out of him so that they could get at the several hundred thousand people who had signed on to the Facebook page.

And in the U.S., of course, we have the revelations of Edward Snowden. Public thinking today is being conducted on for-profit, corporate centralized servers which have suddenly become one-stop shops for government surveillance. But our talking to each other this way online – through massive corporate intermediaries – isn’t a foregone conclusion. The code behind Twitter and Facebook isn't rocket science. And there are a lot of people working on redesigning internet protocols and services so that they are far less amenable to this sort of surveillance. 

Lets talk a bit more about ambient awareness. How does it differ from other ways of engaging with the world around us?

Persistent contact gives people an almost ESP-like connection to the people they’re following. If you follow someone’s status updates for a few days, their feed seems like a bunch of random trivia. If you follow it for months, you begin to realize ‘Oh, they’re always sort of talking about this.’ Follow them for a year and you feel like you know exactly what’s going on in this person’s life. The ‘overheard-in-a-bar’ quality of this kind of communication is unbelievably valuable in tapping you into what’s going on in the world around you.  Subtle access to the thoughts of others provides a new layer of awareness that can broaden your views. People are now identifying patterns of common grievance in a way that they could not before.

The second thing is that modes other than text are really important parts of developing this awareness. Photography and video have become a very powerful ambient signal, particularly when it comes to deep political change. When you look back at a lot of the major social movements that have erupted in the last four to five years – the big protests, the moments when a population decided that they were sick of a particular governing style or a law or a policy – they’re often rooted in a shared picture or video.

That was certainly the case with the Arab Spring and the image of the Tunisian merchant and the Facebook page of the young Egyptian boy who was beaten and killed by the state police, as well as with the protestors in Turkey, where the tiny park in Taksim grew visually the more people saw what was happening. And it was certainly true in the U.S. during Occupy Wall Street. That whole movement was fading until the police started pepper-spraying young women in spring dresses. It was the worst visual imaginable and it catalyzed opinion around the world.

The ability to see snippets of life through each others' eyes is deeply catalytic. I think this is the reason why something like Instagram, which seems trivial on the surface, exploded so quickly. It’s because it’s fun to follow people’s utterances, the things they say and look at. There’s something magnetic and emotionally effective about getting a glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes. Such images have a rawness to them that is different from the formal media we’re accustomed to.

Does the way in which people’s growing awareness via new communications technologies vary among countries?

One thing I learned while researching this book is that the way people use the internet is very different from one country to another. Let’s take a look at a really interesting example – China. You have a government that has become astonishingly adept at working with the Internet to maintain its hold on power – they have the great firewall of China and can filter out the parts of the internet that they don’t want their citizens to see. At the same time, though, the government allows an enormous amount of public thinking about things that don’t speak to ending one-party rule and democracy. So, if you want to talk about the economy, say whatever the heck you want. If you want to talk about local corruption, that’s probably okay. Do you want to talk about your personal life? Totally fine. Culture? Totally fine. There’s only a few things that are really off-limits. 

The environment is where things get super interesting. It’s become an Achilles heel for the party; they know that development is wrecking things, and they also know they can’t lie about it. The environment has always been something about which shared grievances can emerge in the ambient way because we’re all exposed to the same environment. When there’s a major environmental catastrophe, the volume of utterances on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, is so fast and furious and intense that the government can’t quite keep a lid on it. And there may be an extent to which they regard things like Weibo as useful in knowing what the heck is going on. In a country that vast you need to be able to figure out what’s happening all over the place. In the absence of democratic structures to channel feedback, things like public utterances can be quite valuable.

In my book, I talk about a huge protest against the construction of a power plant in a Chinese town.  Initially, the local party bosses were like ‘We’re crushing this. We’re sending in the water cannons. And we’re sending in the dogs and the police officers.’ Then visuals of their response – these striking images of women covered in blood from beatings by police – started going viral. And even if they got yanked down, millions of people were seeing them. It just got so big that even the party couldn’t deny it was happening. In the end, construction of the plant didn’t go ahead.

So, the Chinese internet is not like the internet in Europe, India or Canada, in that it’s highly controlled. But, at the same time, the volume of utterances has become so big that we are seeing this interesting dance evolve between the internet and the government. 

That’s a really interesting point. And it suggests there is reason to be optimistic. Overall, I found your account of the impact of technology to be very optimistic, is that a fair assessment?

Yes, it is. I’m of the opinion that the record of history shows that communication is generally a very good thing for a society.

And how do you respond to more pessimistic perspectives? Evgeny Morozov, for example, has called the Internet the “ultimate panopticon.” Should we be worried that authoritarian regimes are also becoming smarter?

Don’t forget my book is about intelligence. It’s not about ethics or morality. If you take an evil despot and make him or her more intelligent, you’ve created a better despot, right? But the truth is, the large governmental forces in democracies, as in despotic regimes, have had such an edge over their citizens historically when it comes to communication and organizing that the benefits now accruing to citizens are probably greater than for authority figures. The difference between the powers that citizens and organizers have now compared to what they had twenty years ago is much bigger than what authorities have now compared to twenty years ago. Organizers today clearly have to deal with the issues created by the new powers governments have, but their new powers are even greater.

So we’re not only ‘Smarter Than We Think’, we’re also more powerful than we think.

You know, if you’d asked me twenty years ago when I first started reporting on the internet, is this going to be bad or good, I would have said this was going to be terrible. But every time something new would come along, from Hotmail to Instant Messenger, I would go out and report it. And people just kept surprising me with the clever, creative, brilliant, silly and profound things that they were doing with these communication tools. Over and over again, what I was reporting contradicted my thesis. There is a sea of ridiculous and idiotic stuff online,  but I think the internet has just made this behaviour more visible. The upside of public thinking is that we’re exposed to people’s thoughts; the downside is that we’re aware of how much time they spend thinking about Justin Bieber – and most of the matter online is Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. But the minority is quite rich, and quite powerful.