Panel: The Social Impact of the Web, 2017

This Friday [May 25, 2007] I am speaking on a panel at the RSA Conference The Social Impact of the Web: Society, Government and the Internet in London. I will be on the panel with Bronwyn Kunhardt, co-founder of Social Media Consensus and Polecat Ltd, and former Director of Citizenship at Microsoft UK, and M T Rainey, creator of Horse’s Mouth and Demos board member [dead], and founder of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe.


The key points of the (draft) statement for the panel follows with my draft response:

In the late 90s as the internet became an everyday part of our lives many of its pioneers foresaw the web transforming the way we do democracy and promising a flowering of new forms of community activism. While it would be unfair to say there has been no progress or innovation, these early hopes remain largely unfulfilled… There is good practice in local government but even here the buzz of expectation that the web would revivify local democracy and spur a new wave of community activism has subsided… Social behaviour strategy needs to revive the idealism and pioneering spirit of a decade ago. With the emergence of ‘Web 2.0’ comes many new possibilities… The emergence of new on-line tools for decision making and social mobilisation will be one sign of that the idea of social behaviour taking root… But if social behaviour is really to change the day to day ways that we think about social change it will almost certainly require much wider institutional reform [and we will] need to re-imagine new more participative and adaptive institutions and processes.

My remarks

Contrary to the widely held view, technologies in general, and the Web in particular, do not transform society. Society transforms society, and it develops, consciously or unconsciously, tools such as the Web to effect changes, which themselves may be conscious or unconscious. The Web was not developed to transform democracy. It was developed to share scientific research. While many earlier proponents of networked hypertext systems may have had more high-flown hopes for such tools, Tim Berners-Lee had quite pragmatic objectives. 


The Social Impact of the Web: Society, Government and the Internet The RSA, 8 John Adam Street, London, WC2N 6EZ Friday 25th May 1pm – 5pm

Ironically, many of the people behind the development of the personal computer and the Internet were in some ways in retreat from the more high-flown ambitions of their 60s contemporaries and were looking to computing as a means of improving humanity’s lot in a more practical and immediate fashion.

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, Inc. expressed this categorically when he noted “I’m one of those people who think that Thomas Edison and the light bulb changed the world a lot more than Karl Marx ever did. And we have this incredible chance to do that again in the next five years.” (Quotes in Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything, Steven Levy, Penguin Books, 2000.) Or take a character such as John Gage, who went from being a Berkeley student radical to Chief Researcher and Director of the Science Office for Sun Microsystems.

So, transformative politics and activists were in retreat long before the computer and the Internet became tools available to the masses of the developed world. Their retreat was not a product of the lack of access to these potentially democracy-enhancing tools. Their retreat was a result of political failure. That failure cannot be rectified by technical means, though if we create a politics that is coherent, rational and inspiring these tools will undoubtedly help advance it.

What we are seeing at present is people with solutions looking for problems: they believe that in some ways computing and the Internet were almost consciously created as appropriate solutions to the lack of democratic and civic engagement. This won’t work, and this instrumentalist approach will tend to undermine the perception of the real value of these tools by ordinary people, as they see these projects (such as e-voting and e-democracy) fail.

The discussion about Web 1.0 vs Web 2.0 is also suspect. There is no such distinction to be made as both terms are meaningless. Web 2.0 means all things to all men (user-generated content, citizen journalism, social networking, information sharing, reputation management and recommendations, AJAX interfaces, Web services, etc). ‘Web 2.0’-type projects tend to be even more playful and less engaged in the real, physical world than Web 1.0 businesses. At least in the first instance, people built warehouses (even factories) and logistics and billing networks – even if they hoped to live on venture capital rather as much as they hoped to build a business. Today ‘Web 2.0’ businesses are often ‘built to flip’: created with few resources in the hope that the idea and some talent will be bought out by companies who cannot innovate internally.

That doesn’t mean that what is developed is not good or innovative. There are some lovely tools and services being created, but they are often about reinforcing existing social groups and elites and feel almost anti-democratic. For instance, Twitter, which I like very much, is used to reinforce bonds between people who already know, or know of, each other. Ironically, we are not exploiting the full potential of these tools, for instance for knowledge sharing, as we are not as serious as we might be about making a difference in the real world.

Of course, it is true that social behaviour is changing, unconsciously and in unintended and unexpected ways, as a result of the tools we have created. (“We shape our buildings: thereafter they shape us” as Winston Churchill rightly observed in a 1960 issue of Time magazine. ) And institutions will need to adapt to these changes and exploit the associated tools. But this will only be useful if they institutions have been reformed on the basis of a political perspective that understands the reasons they are failing – and failure to use ‘Web 2.0’ tools effectively won’t be one of the reasons!


Shane McCracken usefully reviewed and reflected on the whole conference in a post on his business blog, Gallomanor, entitled When twitter can save your life, and challenged my arguments about technology and agency, to which I responded, as did another conference speaker, Tom Steinberg.

Also and originally published at

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