As we creep further into the 21st century, many of the problems that plagued humanity twenty or thirty years ago still exist, many of them worse than ever. What practical solutions do we have in a world where pollution, global stratification, starvation and poverty dominate the majority of the human population? Globalization has come at a great cost. There is no golden path out of these problems, nor is there an easy solution. Those with money and power are often more harmful than helpful. So what are we to do? As social scientists, it's a difficult task asked of us: to attempt to understand the state of the world, and perhaps offer our assistance in any way possible. For all intensive purposes, we are David, looking for one good rock to take down Goliath.
To slay stratification, tyranny, injustice - what an ideal! And maybe, just maybe, the future is looking brighter. Will the 21st century close as a positive chapter in history, will it tell of a mass influx of democratic states, renewable energy, world hunger on the decline? It might, but anyone taking a look at these issues will tell you that the problems are daunting, complex, with no easy solution in sight. This is true. However, we may have to consider one major variable in the equation, one that may work to benefit the growth of a more interdependent, and connected world, reaching places people never before possible. That variable is the internet.
Often, technological inventions, if they are significant enough, bring about major change within a civilization. Particularly in the way information is distributed and how people can organize. The printing press is one such example. Following its invention, and subsequent mass-production, a ripple effect spread across Europe, contributing to a massive influx of decentralized knowledge - books! The Protestant Reformation, a spread of liberal ideals and philosophies (Voltaire, for example) were made possible by this technology.
Today, we have another technology that holds equal, if not greater potential than the printing press. The internet is literally structured like a decentralized web, linking up points across the globe. The more links, the more complex and interconnected the world becomes. If the trend over the past 20 years is any indication of the direction we are going, then expect the internet to become as foundational to communication as the radio, the TV, or yes, the printing press.
The daring idea many folks are considering, particularly Clay Shirky, is this: the internet is going to transform the way people interact, literally linking up and re-structuring our global village.
Many nay-sayers point out that this is hardly the case, that the internet will be shut down if it begins to act as a tool for protest, democracy, or a challenge the status quo. Is this really the case? In a recent video, Clay Shirky analyzes the criticisms and makes a powerful case in favor of the internet being a world-changing instrument, equal to the importance of the printing press. The key to transformative technology lies in its usefulness. Once a piece of technology becomes so common-place, it is no longer talked about, that's when it starts to change things. Or, in other words, once everyone has it and is using it (batteries, cell phones, telephone lines, ignition in your car), it begins to influence the way we interact and think.
What is so unique about the internet? Technologically speaking, it does what all previous forms of communication did, and then something more. It integrates text, images, audio, video, adding a special ingredient: decentralized conversation. No longer are we limited to "broadcasting," or "one-to-many," but now "many-to-many." That's the strength of the web. In the following video, Clay Shirky puts it in perspective: the internet is like a book that comes with a printing press for free.
[Here is the Clay Shirky video, watch at leisure!]
As the internet becomes faster, easier, and more linked up across the globe, it's causing problems for nations unaccustomed to such decentralized forms of communication. In the video, Shirky references the recent earthquake in China. The Chinese government was unable to hush the event, due to the fact that it was being broadcast to the world exactly as it was happening, from multiple sources. The only way to prevent this from happening again, of course, would be to shut down major components of the internet, effectively blacking out communication.
This raises various political issues. For instance, alright, so what if it's harder to track communication? These nations will just shut off the internet, control it, limit it. Problem solved. The elite remain in power. What's so innovative about that? Given, governments may have the power to "black out" their citizens, or severely limit their freedom online (i.e. China), but as modern civilization continues to invest more of its time, money and energy through the internet, it will also become increasingly difficult to control. In effect, nations which isolate themselves from the internet, will also be isolating themselves from the world. There will be tremendous pressure on nations which have too much control over access. Isolation of the 21st century will have little positive effects. This pressure to "link up" with the world, if these ideas are at the very least intuitive, will force the humanity of the 21st century to become ever-closer, ever more inter-connected.
The events in Iran are another example, though somewhat controversial: exactly how much of a role did Twitter really play in the political turmoil and mass protests?
Nevertheless, twitter did at least help the rest of the world see what was going on, in some cases, before major news stations broadcast the information. As we understand the potential to utilize the internet more and more, perhaps journalism of the future will evolve with the times.
Examining the big picture:
Taking a step back, and trying to analyze the internet as a phenomenon, I believe we can see another parallel in history. Towards the end of the middle ages, there were significant trade roots which exposed western civilization to the far east, bringing with them new ideas and new culture. With this exposure, many civilizations were affected. The internet, virtually, is acting in the same way. By linking up parts of the world that were once unable to communicate as instantaneously (or nearly as much), ideas permeate throughout nations, influencing citizens halfway across the world. This permeable, interconnected "global village," is continually saturating the world with more and more communication, information that was not possible before (Wikipedia, new technology and digital education, etc). We are literally having a second renaissance of information explosion, and the means to share it with each other in a decentralized manner.
This networked structure makes it very difficult for any central authority to reign supreme. As newer and easier means for the internet become technologically possible, and profitable, we might observe a massive influx of communication, including in the third world.
This new structure of communication is also a new way of organization. New possibilities, including collaborative research, a weakening demand for bureaucracy, and powerful democratic means to organize and protest may radically shake the foundation of our civilization. Take a quick look at Open Source projects, the Creative Commons or Science Commons for observing these trends in action. For the first time in history, we have a decentralized method for mass organization, and that, more than anything else, is going to create a very different civilization. This is literally re-wiring civilizations from the inside out, as internet communication and technology continues to be used.
The irony is that many of the problems we have today, with globalization, world trade organizations, and so forth, have made it possible for the internet to expand and dominate communication. In a way, they have made the ground fertile, and decentralization is only going to continue to spread like wildfire.
So what are the practical solutions for world problems? How many times have we heard that we must rewire society first, because the way governments and businesses work are never going to be able to handle issues, and only encourage stratification? Well, the means are here: decentralization via the internet. The more the world has it, the more potential there is for transformation and new activism. As the years go by, the internet becomes less and less a separate entity, and more a bedrock of modern civilization. If you're looking for one thread, or underlying pattern across the world, this is it. Follow it to its roots, and you may begin to find effective means for helping it spread. And so it comes down to this; David has found his pragmatic rock to slay Goliath through a simple philosophy: illuminate the world by linking the vast points together.
Note: edited this post a bit to clarify some issues...