So. We need to talk about the web.
Disclaimer: I spent the early part of April living the Very Best of the Web. I’d doubted, frankly, that “best of the web” was a phrase I’d be likely to use again, but…life is funny.
“We need to talk about the web,” I’d say, and I’d launch into a rat-a-tat battery of images depicting digital spaces in our present: the weaponization of attention. Monetization. Quantification. Algorithmic-decision-making. Surveillance. The enclosure of commons by totalizing technical systems. Basically, THIS:
I’m fun at parties.
But the conversations in the hallways and the restaurants and pubs and hotel spaces – and, yep, online – after each of those talks actually reminded me what the web can DO. Because I would not have been in any of those rooms if it weren’t for the web.
The participatory web, originally – the old-skool Web 2.0 where readers were also writers and contributors and people were tied together by blog comments – but even Twitter. Even Facebook. Together, these have networked me into some of the most important conversations and relationships of my life.
And at each stop on my trip, ties made online brought forth hopeful, meaningful human exchanges, and real intellectual and emotional connection to other human beings in spite of geographic distance between our day-to-day lives. Moments of shared purpose and learning and capacity-building. Even in 2019.
This is the the Very Best of what the web makes possible. It was a mini-version what Jim Luke called, in his #OER19 reflection, “technology in the service of people.”
I was basically living the paradox that I was flying around trying to talk about: THE SYSTEMS WE ARE EMBEDDED IN ARE TOXIC. BUT THEY ARE ALSO AN IMPORTANT INFRASTRUCTURE ENABLING US TO WORK TOGETHER.
We *do* need to talk about the web. But not just so we can all opt out and go home. Those of us who are already there, and for whom the web is more than just Google and a garbage fire, need to talk about it differently.
We need to make the participatory web visible again, in our small human corners of it…even amidst the sea of bots and surveillance and polarization.
NOT because we can drown all that out. So that we are not drowned by it. So we can help others struggling against the current. So we can build rafts, together…until we figure out how many rafts it takes to make a dam, perhaps.
Obviously, the toxicity doesn’t stop with digital systems.
It was Earth Day yesterday. I need to stop flying around. I need to work towards the fundamental, drastic changes that will mean my kids have the possibility of a long-term future on this planet. I gotta go deeper than the “one-car family with a hybrid car” schtick and actually change.
I’m reading pieces like Monbiot’s Only Rebellion Will Prevent an Economic Collapse. I signed up for notifications re Extinction Rebellion protests in my area. I note my area does not have an Extinction Rebellion Coordinator.
That kind of work is hard: change work, drastic non-status-quo work. I didn’t even know what a Community Organizer *was* until Obama came to prominence and people started throwing the term around in a loaded way.
When the next US President got elected, though, and terms like “fake news” started to be tossed around like grenades, there was a hot second where I thought maybe *I* could coordinate something. My professional background is part media literacy and part adult ed, and late one night I rambled my way to the idea that maybe we could model off the 20th century Antigonish Movement – an extraordinary Eastern Canadian legacy that brought people together to learn, and to fight The Company Store.
I thought an Antigonish 2.0 for community, citizenship, and information literacy might be a way to address some of the yawning literacy gaps of our own time.
A LOT of people signed up.
I found an amazing ally based in Antigonish, and we started writing grants and spreading the word in places like Educause and via DavidsonNow’s #engageMOOC.
And then we hit a wall. And realized that – whoopsie! – a lot of models of coordination and community organization require a structural position of power within whatever community you’re trying to organize. The #Antigonish2 model needed universities as its centre layer, in addition to networks and communities.
As precarious staff at our respective universities, my ally & I could hustle up a network and publish and write grants on our own time and plan community events and even generate *some* institutional support, but ultimately we did not fit funders’ models for Principal Investigators and we did not fit our institutions’ ideas of the package Strategic Change should come in.
You cannot leverage an institution when you have no real foothold IN the institution.
So. Ultimately I uprooted my family from the Maritimes, and #Antigonish2 lay low for the better part of a year. Until I got an invitation – thanks to the networked and institutional roots my ally had laid down – to go TO Antigonish and deliver a keynote for THATCampX in April.
That keynote is here. Its ending is probably more radical than its opening…but it posits that datafication and AI are the new Company Store. And it suggests that resisting the technocratic systems encroaching on our institutions and our lives means – in part, for those of us already online – bringing back the participatory web.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. It is, however, a call to action…and a way of returning the #Antigonish2 name to its rightful home while building next steps for the network who were keen and generous enough to sign on. It’s rooted in what Dave & I have been calling “the #prosocialweb:” an invitation to think and write and build together.
The idea of the #prosocialweb assumes that our small social worlds matter.
Few decision-makers have lived the Best of The Web. What if those of us who have were able to make it visible? To counter the Company Store mythology of capital data solutions that’s gone viral among our leadership strata?
If our contemporary information ecosystem has taught us anything, it should be that that humans are VERY vulnerable to social contagion. All the systems we’ve accepted are neither natural nor inevitable.
And the system I am positioned to make a difference in – at the coordinating level – is networks…so the web and this idea of the #prosocialweb is where I’ll take the subversive hope that underpinned #Antigonish2, for now. To try to counter misinformation, yes. But also to try to push for change, and for a more pro-social and humane digital space through three key ideas: complexity, cooperation, and contribution. To try to foreground the “ethic of care” that Kate Bowles called for at #OER19, quoting Giroux:
“Hope is not a pipe dream, it is the most important resource we have. It is the heartbeat of our politics.”
If no one believes there are alternatives to this inexorable march towards The Company Store of datafication and automation and extinction that we seem to be on…there won’t be.
But the people I’ve met through the participatory web keep me believing in alternatives. And believing I am not alone.