One of the main themes at TEDGlobal this year was a lively debate between optimistic and pessimistic voices on the social potential (or doom) of the web. This outlook was somewhat more somber than I expected at a TED conference, perhaps – as some attendees suspected – due to the cultural differences between Long Beach and Oxford. There was definitely a palpable sense of enlightened skepticism at the conference, a distinctly European tone that serves as welcome counterweight to the Californian brand of optimism that TED is often associated with (just read this amusingly British commentary in the Times of London).
One of the most vocal and polemic representatives of this kind of socio-techno-skepticism was Internet researcher Evgeny Morozov. Arguing that the web impedes democratization, he chastised social web apostles for naively believing that the medium is the action and scoffed at the phenomenon of “slacktivism” (saving the world one click at a time through Facebook Causes). Morozov coined some catchy terms such as “iPod liberalism” and “Spinternet: (Spin + Internet) to expose what he considers a rather one-sided view of online activism and in fact a delusional assumption about the social power of global, collective voices on the web. Morozov's biting sarcasm (“There was a time when governments had to torture people to get intelligence. Now they just need to go to their Facebook pages.”) was refreshing and welcome amidst the usual choir of politics 2.0 cheerleaders, however, he failed to provide much evidence for his heretical claims. He might indeed underestimate the smartness and agility of digital natives, especially when he questioned the role of Twitter during the Iranian protests. Sure, each new technology comes with Faustian ambivalence, but even though the Twitter protesters may not have lead to any substantial change (yet), I’d argue that the worldwide attention (and sympathy) for the cause of the Iranian people was significantly enhanced through the hundreds of thousands of Twitterers who used #iranelection (especially given #CNNfail). Was this ad-hoc Twitter community a political movement? Maybe not. But it politicized and generated social power that can instigate political change. Or does Morozov really think Obama won the election because of TV commercials and townhall meetings?
Anthropologist Stefana Broadbent added some more nuances to the discussion: She drew from research she conducted and presented some interesting numbers that prove what she calls the “democratization intimacy” – the observation that most social web users communicate with a nucleus of 1-5 people and cultivate strong ties rather than adding weak ones to their networks. In other words: They aren't expanding their circle of friends but strengthening their most important relationships. And they do this at work: According to a recent Pew study, more than 50% of office workers in the US use email and messaging services for private communications. Broadbent concluded that we are witnessing a “re-appropriation of the personal sphere:” “Through their communication channels, people are breaking an imposed isolation that institutions are imposing on them.”
Jonathan Zittrain had begun the session with a general state-of-the-web analysis that was a real shock-and-awe fireworks. It says something about the unstoppable momentum of the Internet if talks like his consist mainly of screenshots of goofy web sites like “Cats that Look Like Hitler,” social phenomena like couchsurfing, and other Internet memorabilia. Apparently, the Web is much wilder than theorists can make it. Indeed, the Internet does not have a business model, as Zittrain poignantly remarked, and yes, it is a verb not a noun. Consequently, he ended his talk with a simple: “Let’s march.”
Speaking of verbs and nouns (and marching), Aza Raskin from the Mozilla Foundation wants to bring language back into the user experience in order to turn a functional task management paradigm into what he calls “you-centric computing” – putting the user in charge, making computing human(e). And yet, as rain followed sun in Oxford this week, idealism was immediately juxtaposed with a rather melancholic interlude: a short film titled “Real Human Interface,” starring a human, imprisoned in a small (in and out)box, nurtured by a constant flow of mundane communication and tasks. A sad and lonely tale of OK Computer happiness and the 21st century answer to what Alain de Botton calls the quintessential 21st century question:
“What do you do?” – Interfacing.