April 23, 2009

causewiredA while back I wrote a post titled Letters> email> facebook, which was inspired by the book CauseWired by Tom Watson.  I have now finally finished reading it – the delay being related to the amount of time I have for reading and my reading priorities rather than book itself.  It is in fact a very readable book, and an excellent introduction to the world of online causes and digital philanthropy.  The text is littered with example of organisations and groups using the Internet in unique and exciting ways, and I have used more of my thesis work time looking these up online than I probably should have!  The discussion is also enlivened by  Watson’s long experience in the sector and the fact that he knows, or has met, many of the personalities involved.  This means he is able to bring a personal face to the topic and to the, and is well placed to bring an engaging insider perspective.

That said, I found the book to be highly uncritical of the changes it discussed -with the problems of distributing the causewired future relegated to a few pages at the end of the book.  While acknowledging that this is not meant to be an academic book (and I also admit I am now well immersed in the academic genre), I found the book to be over-enthusiastic in many places.  Watson is quite rightly, very enthusiastic about the potential of online social networks to bring about social change.  But while he has written a book about activism and philanthropy and saving the world, he has missed arguably the most important voice of all – that of the recipients of this attention, the poor and disconnected.  

Actually, that is not entirely true. Watson argues that the peer-to-peer nature of wired causes and digital philanthropy has the potential to reduce the distance between the donors and activists, and the communities and people they are trying to help.  This means that donors can choose who thier money goes to (the Kiva model for example), or get up-to-the minute micro-reports on projects they support.  This could well be true, and a is almost certainly a step in the right direction.  However I am concerned that Watson does not examine the potential pitfalls of the causewired revolution, for example the underlying power issues inherant in donor – recipient relationships, the issues of access to technology (in both developed and developing countries those that have access to technology – or to an organisation that has – have power, those that don’t are further marginalised), and the potential problems created when a recipient community or organisation does not have the capacity to use the increased funds and resources appropriately.  Maybe he’s leaving all that to an academic, but I think these are all issues Western donors and activists need to be aware of, and shouldn’t be relegated to dry academic books.

The last sentence in the book is perhaps the most profound for me.  After all the hype over wired causes, Watson quotes William Gibson – “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed”.  As with all proposed solutions for global poverty and injustice, the lack of change is probably related not to the lack of good ideas, but to underlying issues of inequality and power that mean the solutions never actually fulfil their potential.  As Watson argues, it is still early days for the causewired movement.  While it is almost certainly raising awareness of global issues and inspiring a new generation of social entrepreneurs and philanthropists, only time will tell if the peer-to-peer model and long reach of the digital medium will lead to any significant change in the lives of the poor and disempowered.


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