Months can go by without encountering a single guru, then before you know it, three come along in a single week (actually there were more, but they were so thick on the ground that some I merely brushed past on staircases, rather than hearing them speak).
Second of the three was Howard Rheingold, famous as the author of Smart Mobs, one of the first accounts of how group behaviour is affected in powerful ways by digital technology. When it came out in 2002, it felt prescient: Rheingold’s expertise was in spotting the signs of a big thing to come and bringing the unfamiliar to life. By instinct, rather than profession, he is an anthropologist: what interests him is what people actually do. By implication, he sees behaviour as an emergent property of human sociability (stretching back to the earliest human tribes) and technological development, rather than as something which can be corralled or directed.
Howard and his jacket each independently has considerable stage presence. He gives a powerful account of what’s going on and why it matters, and has the storyteller’s knack of using examples to illustrate the rate and direction of change. He starts with epiphanies in Tokyo and Helsinki, realising that people are watching their phones, not talking to them, and are sharing what they see and quickly moves on to the overthrow of President Estrela in the Philippines in 2001 – political power mobilised by text message. Curiously, digging out my copy of the book after writing those sentences, epiphany is the word Rheingold himself uses to describe that sudden realisation that something important was new and different. He has some telling one liners: on a school protest by students in Los Angeles, ‘none of these young people joined Myspace in order to co-ordinate political action’. But while he takes a grand sweep through history (and indeed pre-history) to illustrate his assertion that we are humans because we use new media to do interesting things, from the development of language and the transformational power of successive waves of communication technology, he never really moves beyond being a raconteur – at which he is superb – or indeed much beyond the ideas he wrote about in 2002. An approach which was radical and full of insight then felt a bit strange being addressed to an audience which was – in part – itself a form of smart mob, including Joanne Jacob’s liveblog of his presentation.
Only, tantalisingly, in answering a question at the end did Rheingold start to share some new thinking, talking about internet literacy and the vital need for people to develop (or, rather, be taught) skills such as critical discernment. I get the impression that that was a much more central part of his talk at Reboot Britain earlier in the week, which was a session I didn’t get to. According to Roland Harwood, Rheingold talked there about five forms of literacy we should be teaching our children: attention, participation, collaboration, crap detection and network awareness. There is a bootleg-style video of that session available with shaky camera and fuzzy sound. I am waiting a bit in the hope that an ‘official’ version will emerge soon before watching it [now available here].
Third guru of the week was Manuel Castells who is at first sight the almost complete opposite of Howard Rheingold: the soberly-dressed academic, introducing his new scholarly tome, Communication Power which was published this week at a 4iP breakfast. Castells is systematic, rigorous and analytical – but he wears it lightly and in speaking (sometimes more than in writing) makes his thinking very accessible. In one sense, he and Rheingold were covering very similar ground and it says something about their similarities and differences when you realise that when Castells talks about instant communities of political practice he means pretty much the same as what Rheingold means when he talks about smart mobs. But it would be a huge mistake to underestimate Castells as a wordy theorist. Once you start listening, this stuff has real bite.
His starting point is that power and communication are intertwined:
Power is more than communication, and communication is more than power. But power relies on the control of communication, as counterpower depends on breaking through that control. And mass communication, the communication that potentially reaches society at large, is shaped and managed by power relationships, rooted in the business of media and the politics of the state. Communication power is at the heart of the structure and dynamics of society.
Communication Power, p3
He sees two kinds of power – the power to impose and the power to construct meaning; or the power to coerce and the power of influence. What has changed and is changing is how the power of influence works: our current system is based on there only being a small number of influencers (because printing presses and broadcast spectrum are scarce and expensive) and was kept honest only by a small number of professional journalists. That falls apart in a world of 1.6 billion internet users and more than twice as many mobile phones. What that doesn’t, of course, do is change anything (at least directly) about the use of coercive power. Recent events in Iran have been a powerful example of the new opportunities for political organisation and mobilisation created by the internet – but they haven’t had any effect so far on changing anything of substance about the Iranian government. What’s important though is that while governments can, quite literally, shoot the messenger, they cannot kill the message. Castells argues that governments cannot turn the internet off: they can turn off wireless communication, but use of the internet is so completely embedded in how so much gets done that it cannot in practice be turned off, which in turn creates opportunities to route round obvious blocks.
That led Castells to what I think were two distinctions, though sometimes it seemed that they collapsed into each other: between governments and the governed and between younger, networked generations and older, pre-network generations. Governments’ strengths in managing not just the exercise of power but the perception of the exercise of power, and in managing the expression of opinion and influence through political parties starts to collapse: people want to express views about issues, not express choices between parties. Governments will have no incentive to let go of their power readily, so in the end it will have to be taken from them.
A second line of argument then comes in: that governments are anyway too slow and sclerotic to do anything other than inhibit progress. Castells’ advice is to ignore them: ‘If we relied on government for innovation we would still be in the stone age’. The best that can be hoped for from governments is that they provide some funding and do not oppose change; it is too much to hope that they will support it.
I sense that these arguments lead to a conundrum he wasn’t really addressing – and so opens him to the accusation he got from a questioner at the end of being ‘techno-deterministic’. If younger/more net-savvy generations want to take power with the intention of doing different things with it (and even that expression is probably more deterministic than it should be, there is no hive mind at work here) and governments/older generations don’t want to relinquish power, not least because they have no comprehension of what they might be relinquishing it in favour of, resolution can only come either from a fight (possibly quite literally) or from waiting out the generational change. But it’s not in either side’s interest for that to happen, or at least for it to happen abruptly or violently, so the really interesting question is whether change can be better managed, and if so how. I had hoped to have the opportunity to ask that, but didn’t get the chance.
And so to the first guru of the week, left until last because he doesn’t fit the stereotype which in their very different ways Castells and Rheingold embody: Craig Newmark, who spoke at Reboot Britain last Monday.
I have already written a couple of sentences on what he talked about, and there is not much more I want to add. What makes Newmark remarkable and interesting is not what he says but what he has done and what he continues to do. The eponymous Craigslist is phenomenally successful, exceptionally simple (making even google look cluttered and over done), has made a material contribution to the problems of the US newspaper industry by taking a major source of revenue out from under them, and still has its founder doing customer service personally. One of his themes was that the success of Silicon Valley could be directly attributed to the complete acceptance of failure, and that other parts of the US, to say nothing of Europe, struggled because failure was seen as terminal.
It’s tempting at this point to invent some inevitably spurious grand unifying conclusion which attempts to make sense of the coincidence of all three being in London in the same week. It’s a temptation almost certainly better avoided, so instead I will end with some slightly random thoughts which found some echo between these three.
One is the qualitative difference in the nature of current changes compared with earlier transformations. The internet may be no more subversive than the printing press, but its deployment has been compressed into a shorter period and of course, critically, we don’t know how the story turns out
Another is a sense of contempt – or perhaps more weary indifference – about government. It is seen as a set of institutionalised obstacles, clinging to a view of the world which died sometime in the last century. For anyone in government who, pretty much by definition, doesn’t think that government is intrinsically a bad thing, that’s a rather uncomfortable state of affairs.
A third is a sense that there hasn’t been nearly enough change: optimism about the internet as a force for good, offset by a concern that ways of doing things are a long way short of catching up, not least in education.
In short, all good challenging stuff. The thing I would now most like from last week is a transcript of Manuel Castells’ talk. I suspect I am not going to get it, which leaves 500 pages of his book to work through instead. This could take a while.