On Massive Social Change (MSC!!)

I posted the following on the Technology and Social Change wiki that I am developing at:

http://technologyandsocialchange.wetpaint.com

So what is this wiki all about? This wiki is for those that believe that the internet can be used for socially beneficial purposes!

What makes this particular wiki unique?
Simply that it has a very specific focus – to aggregate information and ideas that lie at the intersection technological innovation and Massive Social Change (MSC!!)?

What is Massive Social Change
(MSC!!)? Good question! The idea that technology, and most specifically the internet, contributes to social change is not news. Obviously it is transforming our environment in immeasurable ways. What is not being discussed is the role that the internet can play in creating the sort of change that can positively transform the world on a massive scale – the sort of social change that is revolutionary in nature.

That sounds grand, but why bother with Massive Social Change? Well, are you concerned about issues like climate change, poverty, famine, war etc? If those sorts of Global Problems are to be resolved, they will require Massive Social Change.

Do you seriously believe that those sorts of problems can be resolved? Yes I do. I do not believe that it is intrinsic to our nature that we must kill each other, destroy our environment and so on.

If it is not intrinsic to our nature, then why is conflict and misery the story of human history? Things have been as they are due to the fact that the human race has evolved in a very specific way – with specific groups evolving in isolation from each other.

What does the particular pattern of the evolution of human history have to do with the current state of affairs in the world?
It is simply a fact that, for example, the hunter-gather tribes in Africa evolved separately from other hunter gather tribes in the Northern hemisphere. As a result of this, they evolved different value systems, customs etc. What is important to note is that the value systems and norms that they evolved were unique to their particular community. The point is that different communities evolved because people were spread out in different parts of the world and therefore had no contact with each other.

So even if it is true that different communities evolved because, historically, people were geographically dispersed across the globe, what does that have to do with the current problems in the world? It is my view that conflict, and the inability to develop solutions that account for all people, is due to perceived differences between communities, people etc. Perceived differences, in turn, are the result of the fact that communities have evolved independently and therefore have formed their own values, customs, religious paradigms and so on. It is this sort of heterogeneity that is an impediment to the formation of the sorts of consensus that are necessary for the resolution of global problems.

If, for example, we want to come together to address the issue of climate change, the underlying ethos must the our commonality not our differences. We must see each other as brothers.

A good example of this idea is played out in science fiction movies like Independence Day, where the threat of annihilation by an alien species causes the world to come together to ward off the enemy. What is interesting in this sort of narrative is there is a collective consciousness of our commonality in the face of something that clearly stands distinct from us. Furthermore, with the collective consciousness of our commonality we are able to do great things!

My contention (at least my hope) is that external threats are not necessary for us to have the sense of our commonality. What is necessary is that we recognize that the differences that we perceive are contingent realities that are the result of the evolution of the species and could have been different. For example, we can certainly imagine that the world consisted of only one small tribe in one location that expanded over time. We can reasonably assume that, if this were the case, we may only speak one language, have one religion etc. I fully recognize that this is an oversimplification, but the overall idea should be clear.

OK, so what does the internet have to do with solving the sorts of problems that you say are the result of the evolution of human history, but could have been otherwise? The answer has been hinted at in the conversation that we have been having. To the extent that the problems are the result of perceived differences, and perceived differences are the result of the formation of different communities, the answer lies in the formation of a singular Global Community.

The idea of a Global Village is not new, but it does not seem to be contributing to the solution. Many people would argue that globalization is part of the problem. It’s important to understand that the notion of a global village is still in its infancy. Keep in mind that the birth of the internet as we know it is less than two decades in the making!! What we need to do is to be able to think outside the box and envision how, as the technological infrastructure evolves, the changes that take place will fundamentally impact our lives. We must look further into the future to understand the sorts of things that are possible and then once we can envision the possibilities, we must work towards making them a reality.

So, give me an example of something that we should be thinking about that is not getting the attention that it deserves. Consider the utilization of social networks like Facebook. In most major North American cities and, in particular, in universities, the penetration rates are very high – ranging in some cases to the 75% range. Currently Facebook is used largely to keep in touch with friends, to organize social calendars, to exchange information about music interests and so on. In short, it is used to manage our social processes. The reason that Facebook has exploded in the way that it has is because it provides the best architecture and user experience for those that want to manage their social processes (there is more to be said about this and I have said more in The Concept of Facebook).

The important point is that what is important for the younger generation are their social processes, therefore the success of Facebook can, at least in part, be attributed to solving an important problem for those that are in high school and university. The point is that, for those, that are roughly 15 – 30 years old, there is nothing that a technology platform can do that is more important for them than to provide them with a means to meet people, keep in touch with friends, express themselves to friends etc.

Therefore, first and foremost, the success of social networks is that they solve the problem that people have regarding social contact.

The question that I believe needs to reflected on is: what happens when the user base of social networks gets older, they have families, have careers etc. and making more friends is not their first priority. What then?

Will social networks like Facebook evolve to account for the fact that peoples’ priorities in life change?

Will social networks evolve to provide applications that will assist people in making a contribution to their communities when contributing to their communities is more important than making more friends?

This is all very interesting, but it seems that we are digressing. We were talking about the creation of a Global Village for the purpose of resolving global problems. How does the internet contribute to this? In short, the internet changes three things; the Space between each other, the Patterns of Communication between each other, and the structure of Knowledge. It is in understanding these ideas and their interdependence that the solution will reveal itself.

It is not the place to go into this in detail, but if you are interested in more details, please visit my personal blog at suresfernando.wordpress.com. I will, however, give you a few thoughts on these ideas:

Space and Presence: We can think about Space intuitively. If we are both sitting in the same room, then we are both sitting in the same space. But what is it that makes it the same space? The fact that we are Present in relation to each other, where to be present in relation to each other means that there exists the possibility for us to be conscious of each other as a result of the sensory stimuli that we receive from each other. In short we can see and hear each other. In the olden days, in order to be present in relation to each other, we needed to be physically in the same space with each other. Nowadays, presence applications like Twitter make it possible to be present in relation to each other differently and therefore the nature of the space that exists between each other is changing.

The important point is that our presence in relation to each other is now not dependent upon physical proximity!

Communication: Communications technology is introducing a whole new range of possibilities for how we communicate with each other. Traditionally, the most common form of communication happened face to face, which is synchronous (exchange). Once could also send letters, which is an asynchronous exchange. In both cases, we were limited to communicating either to a single person or to a larger group that was confined to a space of restricted size (say a large hall). It is now possible, in theory, to communicate simultaneously with millions of people! It should be apparent that this has implications for the possibility of Massive Mobilization (MM!!).

The important point is that the scope for communication is now not limited by physical constraints.

Knowledge: The evolution of databasing technology, search engines, RSS, spiders etc. have had a huge impact on our capacity to interact with and form knowledge. What is important to note is that, historically, knowledge was something that was created either in isolation, or in small groups. For example, Mozart worked on his compositions alone. At best a team of a few scientists might have worked together on a project. It is now possible to create knowledge collectively like never before and what we must consider are the possibilities for community formation that arise from collective knowledge formation. In other words, we can now create projects that involve millions of people. Consider the implications that this has for bringing people together!!

The important point is that collective enterprise is not limited by physical (or geographic) or temporal constraints.

It is the constraints that I have identified (and that the internet mitigates) that have, over the course of the evolution of history, contributed to the development of community specific ideologies and therefore to the perception of difference.

Well, this is all very interesting and I wish you the best of luck in mobilizing people and resources around this project!!

Thanks very much!! Please circulate information about this project to anyone that you think might be interested.

On Massive Mobilization (MM!!)

What is Massive Mobilization? Real social change requires Massive Mobilization, which, simply put, is the deployment of a massive amount of resources around single projects. By massive amounts of resources I refer to primarily to labour and intellectual capital.

A brief examination of critical points in history where meaningful social change has taken place will reveal that this social change was the result of the collective will of many people. This is what a revolution is! It is only if there is a collective will towards change that change will take place?

But isn’t there a collective will to solve global problems like poverty, climate, famine etc? You raise an interesting point… I would say that there is a certainly a will to resolve global problems of the sort that you mention and that will (or intention is a better word) is held by many people. What is missing is the collective part. What is missing is the mechanism to bring people together in a manner that will force the sorts of change that many people want, and that are necessary.

Why is financial capital not just as important? It is not that financial capital is unimportant, it is only that there is no shortage of financial capital, nor is there a shortage of those with financial capital that are in search of worthy projects. Once the underlying organizational and mobilization mechanisms are in place the financial capital will follow. Those with the money are shrewd and wise. This is why they have the money! Once they see that there capital will be directly responsible for making the world a better place, they will support the projects.

So what is missing? If you spend as much time online as I do, it will be clear to you that there are many different organizations with good intentions. There are organizations that are focused on particular issues, say youth or poverty. There are those that are more regionally focused; say on Africa or South Asia. There are those that are very small, those that are somewhat larger and so on. There is no shortage of people making an effort to make change.

What is missing is the fact that all of this positive energy is not being effectively deployed. There is a strength in numbers and it just does not make sense for there to be hundreds of small organizations working on alleviating poverty in Africa, for example. Of course, each of those organizations that is working on alleviating poverty is making a positive contribution, but if all of these groups worked together on certain projects, the results would be much more dramatic.

Would the effects of collaboration simply be increases in efficiency? A central part of the message that I want to communicate is that the process of large scale collaboration is more than just about improving process efficiency. Of course, processes would be improved as certain redundancies would be removed. Personnel and volunteer management, for example, could be centralized.

More importantly, large scale collaboration changes the community within which people participate. It extends the community and makes peoples’ activities part of a much larger enterprise. Wouldn’t you prefer to be working for a team of 10,000 people that are focused on solving poverty issues in Africa? Wouldn’t your confidence that meaningful change can actually take place be increased?

What cannot be forgotten is the human element in the social change process. People involve themselves in projects and their community for a number of reasons, and an important one is to be a part of a community that has a purpose. This is what provides them with purpose. Hence creating a community that has real purpose and a sense of collective momentum will improve the lives of those that are participating in it and this, in turn, will serve to generate further momentum.

This is what will make the sorts of change that we dream about a possibility!

So what has to happen to make this vision a reality? It is advances in technology, and the internet specifically, that will make this possible.

How and why this is so is not something that I can explain in detail in a paragraph or two, but is the purpose of this blog (and the wiki that I just started at http:///technologyandsocialchange.wetpaint.com).

I can give you a glimpse of what needs to happen and what will happen as the technology infrastructure evolves and user patterns evolve over time. In the previous entries I have introduced the notion of space and suggested that we need to think deeply about the nature of space and they way that it is changing in the modern world.

My contention is that as the nature of space evolves, it will be possible to extend the dynamics of small group interaction to a larger scale. Small group interaction is typically conducted face to face and in real time. This is what takes place in meetings etc. What technology makes possible is to extend some of the patterns that are at play in these sorts of interactions across physical boundaries.

I will say no more on this topic at the moment, but will treat it in great depth in due course.

The Relation Between Modernity, Space, Consciousness and Massive Social Change

In yesterday’s entry I introduced the notion of Vectors of Consciousness in order to capture sense in which Outside Spatial environments have a ‘collective’ feel. When a number of people are in the same space and are conscious of each other, the way that collection of people stand in relation to each other, and therefore their environment will depend, in part, on the extent to which the Object of which they are Conscious (Locus of Consciousness) is something about which they are all conscious (Intersection of Consciousness). We used the contrast between watching a performer in a concert hall and being present in a shopping mall. In both cases we are in Outside Space, but clearly these are very different environments. The difference that I want to highlight is that in the case of watching a performance, we are collectively focused on the performer. In the case of walking around in a shopping mall, there is a certain randomness to the way that peoples’ attention is focused.

Today I want to introduce a few more concepts that will give us further tools to understand the sense in which the spaces that we operate in are different. After introducing the concepts I will say a few words about how these ideas are relevant to the wired world that we are living in today.

Size: Defined as the distance required to establish the spatial boundary. This is to be understood in its intuitive sense in that, for example, a concert hall is a large space, whereas a coffee shop is a smaller space.

At first glance we might think of this boundary as being defined by the physical facts involved – that, for example, the walls of the concert hall and the coffee shop define the size of the space. I would like you to think of Size differently, however, as the area within which we can be phenomenally conscious[1] of objects within the space. Since consciousness of objects requires that they are phenomenally present for us, the size of a space defines the boundary within which we can receive meaningful phenomenal stimuli. The walls of the coffee shop define the space because when we are inside the walls, we are not able to be conscious of things outside of the walls.[2] In the case of the piano recital, we are very conscious of being quiet and this is because we know that the slightest sound can be heard by all others in the room (as well as the performer!).

If the space that I am in is defined by the boundary that encompasses the set of possible Objects of which I can be conscious and you also happen to present in the same space, then it follows that it is possible for us to be conscious of each other; their exists the possibility for Reciprocal Consciousness.

One more point needs to be emphasized. Not only is there the possibility for Reciprocal Consciousness, we note that the consciousness is Simultaneously Reciprocal. This is important because not all cases of Reciprocal Consciousness need to be simultaneous. We all, for example, have a consciousness of our friends and family members but this does not mean that when I am thinking about my mother that she is necessary, at that moment, thinking about me. The possibility for Reciprocal Consciousness is simultaneous because it is a form of consciousness that arises from phenomenal stimuli.

If I am able to see/hear you at the same time that you are able to hear/see me then there exists the possibility for Simultaneously Reciprocal Consciousness and we are thus in the same Space.

Stability of Locus of Consciousness: Defined as the predisposition for the Locus of Consciousness to remain constant, across the group, over a period of time. For example, in the case of the performer at the recital, we can expect that he/she remains the Object of Consciousness for the vast majority of those in the hall for the vast majority of the time. We would therefore say that, in this case, the Locus of Consciousness is stable.

Spatial Stability of the Locus of Consciousness: Defined as the relationship between the Locus of Consciousness and the physical characteristics of the Space. If the relation between the Locus of Consciousness and the physical environment remains constant then we can say that the Locus of Conscious is spatially stable. If the performer stays seated on her piano stool, then she represents a spatially stable locus of consciousness for those in the audience. In contrast, we can imagine a pop star dancing around the stage with great enthusiasm. In this case, the performer is the Object of Consciousness to no lesser a degree than the concert pianist (all eyes are trained on both!). Yet in the case of the pop star, the physical facts of the situation are different.

Practically speaking this is pretty obvious. In the case of watching a piano recital we are likely to be fixed in our seats. It is the kind of environment that requires that we constrain ourselves physically etc. A pop concert marks a strong contrast with not only the performer, but the audience free to move around, All of these sorts of variables bring to bear on the nature of how we are conscious of ourselves and others in the spaces that we inhabit.

You can now think about the sorts of spaces that you inhabit, who/what the Locus’ of Consciousness are in the spaces that you inhabit, and the extent to which these spaces are stable.

So what does all of this have to do with anything you ask!

It should be pretty clear that the notion of spatial size has less meaning in the modern world. This is not to say that large rooms aren’t still large rooms! What it means is that the range of possible objects about which we can be conscious do not have to be physically proximal in the same way that they had to be in the olden days. In the days of the Hunter Gatherer communities, people lived in close proximity to each other and the people that they were conscious of were those that they could see, hear and touch. It is literally the case that our ancestors in Africa would not have had the slightest idea that others on different continents even existed.

Therefore, modernity serves to eliminate certain constraints on possible of objects of consciousness.[1]

Intuitively this should be pretty clear to anyone that utilizes the internet. If you are reading this blog, then there is a sense in which you and I are in the same space. It is the precise nature of this change that is taking place that we want to understand.

OK, but then what does Locus of Consciousness and Stability of Locus of Consciousness have to do with anything?

Part of what I will demonstrate is that Modernity gives rise to the possibility of Social Change on a scale, and in a manner, never possible before. I will argue that it is possible to engineer solutions to large scale global problems such as climate change, poverty, famine, war and so on; typically problems that we have thought of as insoluble.

The reason that this is possible is that the evolution in the communications infrastructure allows us to make a Particular Object of Consciousness the Locus of Consciousness for a very large number of people – millions! There is nothing, in the world that we live in today that prevents us from aligning a very large portion of the worlds collective energy on large scale problems and thereby creating collective developed solutions for these sorts of, seemingly intractable, problems!

More on all of this tomorrow!


[1] It’s important to note that it does so in other ways than this which I will discuss as we move forward.


[1] Remember that phenomenal consciousness refers to the sort of consciousness that arises from data that is presented to us via our senses. Photons impinge on my retina and I see your face.

[2] One shouldn’t interpret this absolutely literally. Obviously even when one is sitting inside a coffee shop one can see cars passing by, hear people talking on the sidewalk and so on. This is true, but clearly the availability/accessibility of such stimuli is reduced by the presence of the concrete that separates us from those outside of the coffee shop. One must understand this notion as a matter of degree.

The Concept of Space (Part II) – Vectors of Consciousness

Following from where we left off yesterday… If what we are concerned with when thinking on the nature of Outside Space is the relationship between the consciousnesses of those that are present in the space, we need to introduce a more precise way of thinking about this. In order to do this I need to first define a few terms:

Objects of Consciousness: The question as to what consciousness is, is exceedingly complex to say the least. That said, there is a certain amount of consensus amongst modern day philosophers, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists and so on that in analyzing the nature of consciousness as it brings to bear on how we think and behave it is useful to think of the contents of consciousness as consisting of certain ‘objects’. Objects might include ocurrent thoughts of the form ‘It is raining outside’, standing belief states (such as the fact that you believe in God) that are not present in ones immediate consciousness all the time, the awareness that the apple in my hand is solid and the colour red and so on. It is not important to be overly precise in trying to specify what the class of entities is that we consider mental objects, just to understand that this is a useful way of thinking about the contents of our mind.

Phenomenal Objects of Consciousness: If we think about consciousness as containing objects, then we can acknowledge that a certain subset of these objects will be the result of our sensory experience of the world. As I sit here typing, my visual field is presented with the light and colours of my computer screen, my fingertips feel the texture of the keys on the keyboard, I can see light streaming in from my window from the corner of my eye and so on.

In short, our PRESENCE in space entails PRESENCE in relation to phenomenal stimuli.

Whatever our circumstances, we are receiving sensory (phenomenal) stimuli from the outside world. This stimuli is interpreted and is what constitutes our immediate relation with the world.

Others as Phenomenal Objects of Consciousness: So far so good… Given the above, we can think of Outside Space in terms of the fact that there is a reciprocity of consciousness involving Being (one person) and Others (everyone else) in terms of them being Phenomenal Objects of Consciousness for each other.

So if you are sitting in your living room with friends you are all phenomenal objects for each other. Or in simple terms you can all see and hear each other (which is what makes the consciousness reciprocal).

The question we now need to reflect on is how this reciprocal phenomenal consciousness that people have of each other in outside space can be understood such that it reflects differences in the structure of various Outside Spaces, as this is what will enable us to introduce some notions that can help us to develop a taxonomy of Outside Space.

Let me begin by introducing a few terms that will make things clearer:

Vectors of Consciousness: When one is present in Outside Space, we need to think of how the consciousnesses of others are oriented within the spatial context. For example, if we are at piano recital, we can expect the consciousnesses of those that are at the recital to be focused on the performer. If this is the case we can say that the performer is the object of consciousness of those that are watching him. This is not sufficient, however. We need to say more since we must reflect the fact that he is the simultaneous object of consciousness of a number of people in the theatre. In saying this we note this is only so because objects of phenomenal consciousness are objects in physical space and since this is so, they are objects that have a particular physical relation to us. Things can be near to us, far way from us, slightly to the left and so on. Therefore, to capture an important feature of our relation to objects in our sensory/phenomenal field, we need to introduce a notion that captures the spatial relation that we have to these objects. We need to capture the fact that, for example, everyone on the left hand side of the concert hall has to angle their head towards the right in order to see the performer.

We capture the idea that Object of Consciousness have a particular spatial relation to us by introducing the notion of a Vector of Consciousness.

In the world of geometry, a vector is defined by direction and magnitude. The vector, therefore, will capture the idea that the Object of Consciousness is the performer and the direction that the object stands in relation to you is to the right. We can envision times when some people’s consciousness may stray from what is happening on the stage. Maybe someone in the next row sneezes, maybe the person next to you stands up, maybe you don’t like the performer etc. Therefore, it is not necessarily the case that you will maintain your focus on the moment at hand; your consciousness may stray. Therefore, ones vector of consciousness describes the direction of focus of consciousness, and will vary with time. It’s important to note also that it is not my contention that at any particular time consciousness consists of only one vector. What is important is to understand the dynamic nature of the consciousness of objects in its relation to its phenomenal environment.

Intersection of Objects of Consciousness: We now take note of an important fact, which is that in group situations (which, by definition, are in Outside Space) certain phenomenal stimuli will be objects of consciousness for multiple people. The performer on stage is someone of whom everyone (I should hope!) will be conscious. In contrast, if I am holding my program in my left hand I can be certain that, at the most, a few people other than myself will be conscious of the program. The common Objects of Consciousness can be said to Intersect across the consciousnesses of those that are in the hall.

Locus of Consciousness: To the extent to which the performer is the focus of the consciousness of the observers at the recital, we can say that the performer is the Locus of Consciousness at that point in time and space. It is the object within the space that is the focus of the majority of consciousnesses.

It’s important to note that it is possible that the Locus of Consciousness is not defined for a given space. Consider, for example, a super market. There is no single object that is the primary focus of all shoppers.

Spatial Vectors of Consciousness: We might want to think about things from the perspective of the space itself by suggesting that it can be understood as the sum total of all of the individual vectors at a particular point in time. In the event that everyone is focused upon the performer, we can say the vector that represents the entire space is directed at the performer. The precision of this alignment towards the performer then defines the magnitude of the vector. In the event that half the audience is distracted, the vector will not be fully directed at the performer, nor will its magnitude be as great.

This idea captures the sense that we have, for example, when we are part of a crowd that is watching a mesmerizing speech or an amazing artistic performance. Imagine what it might have been like to watch Hitler give a speech. We can imagine that the entire crowd was completely enthralled. That this was so would have resulted in a certain collective sense; a certain commonality to the experience – that of everyone being mesmerized by Hitler! In this scenario, the Spatial Vector of Consciousness would have been very large.

In contrast, if one is at a boring lecture ones mind tends to stray. One starts looking around the room, observing others, thinking about what is for dinner later in the evening and so on. Ones focus of consciousness is not directed at a fixed point in space in the say way. If others feel the same way, the feeling (or maybe we can say ‘energy’) in the room won’t be the same.

The significance of the idea of the Vector of Consciousness is that the magnitude of the Spatial Vector of Consciousness describes the extent to which participants in a particular group at a point in space and time have their collective consciousnesses directed at the Locus of Consciousness. It describes the extent to which the Locus of Consciousness is the collective object of consciousness. We note that the Spatial Vector of Consciousness is a property of the group.