Tangled in the webby Paul Hilder / April 7, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Last year was Year One of the west’s political revolution—our 1989. Just as statues of Lenin were toppled from plinths when the Iron Curtain collapsed, today the pillars of our own system are crumbling everywhere: from a failing European Union and free trade lobby to old media and calcified political parties. Despite the events of 1989 and 2016 being decades in the making, they managed to catch experts unawares. After the Berlin Wall came down, western cosmopolitans and technocrats raced to claim victory. Yet beneath the euphoria of the New World Order, our own contradictions were festering—stagnant wages, gaping inequality and a feeling that most people had no real control over their lives. Another quarter of a century passed before the other shoe finally dropped. Only in 2016 did citizens in the west finally become agents of revolutionary change—for better or for worse.
The rules of politics have been upended, in no small part, by new communication technologies. Liberals who resent the Brexit vote and the election of President Donald Trump point the finger at social media, seeing in it an echo chamber that entrenched false ideas (Cass Sunstein’s #republic, which takes exactly this line is reviewed in this issue). I understand their growing alarm about how costly and sophisticated data analytics enable some plutocrats to buy influence from the shadows. But I am resolute that technology’s power to connect citizens, transform access to information and move them to action will ultimately prove to be an instrument of enlightenment and positive change. The self-styled “progressive” establishment, which talks the talk on empowering citizens, has only itself to blame for its failure to keep pace with the disruptive implications of the smartphone age.
Much as I wish this moment had arrived differently, I saw it coming long before the last 18 months, during which I’ve spent time behind the scenes with winning insurgent campaigns from Brexit to the US and beyond. After dedicating the first years of this century to work around Middle East peace, democracy and Europe’s doomed Constitutional Convention, I came to see that our whole way of doing politics was broken. A growing band of us started harnessing technology to reconnect people with power. I had the privilege to work on campaigns engaging tens of millions of people around the world. I helped to build the global civic activism online network Avaaz, co-founded the British campaigning community 38 Degrees and led the global growth of Change.org.