The social web is a Re-imagination Machine

The social web is a Re-imagination Machine. It prods and encourages us to imagine how things could be different. In part, it's about how we collectively reorganize society for different outcomes. But re-imagining the world operates at a deeper level - by shifting the frameworks through which we make sense of reality.

People are starting to seize on the way that social technologies enable us to organize differently, outside the choke hold of established institutions. Books like Charles Leadbeater's We-think and Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody show how the early examples are predictors of mass collaboration, creativity and self-organisation.

And practical initiatives like Social innovation Camp forge more social startups under the rubric 'using the web to help the world organise itself better".

But a symptom of something wider is the way that online modes of organising seem to be seeping offline. Rigid formats for events, office space and leisure time are giving way to barcamps, co-working and flashmobs. In the same way that the term Open Source became a rallying cry for Open everything else, the collaborative and non-hierarchical tendencies of online organisation are being taken offline. A tendency that Rohan Gunatillake calls Ungeeking: "Ungeeking is what happens when behaviours developed online make their way into areas of our lives independent of the technology through which we learnt them."

While the fantasy of the independence of cyberspace has passed, folk like Dougald Hine are realising that the impact of the social web also comes from "the spread of real world spaces which reflect the collaborative values of social media" and are applying it to the crunchiest of problems (see Social Media vs the Recession?)

I'm intrigued by the way these new modes echo forgotten models from the past such as the cooperatives of the nineteenth century or the medieval Guilds. One reason why the chance to disturb the present means having a deeper sense of history that you can get from the latest web hype.

But there's more to it than history. History itself is really a shorthand for 'seeing things differently' and social history isn't a straight line but a strange attractor of different patterns that ebb and flow depending on the era. The problem, as neatly stated by the otherwise bitter-seeming Nick Carr, is that the practitioners of the social web upheaval and the people with the ideas to give it a body are generally separate; "As we move deeper into the shallows, so to speak, we naturally seek a guide. Contemporaries offer little help. Those that know the technology cannot see beyond it, and those that don't know the technology cannot see into it. Both end up trafficking in absurdity. So we look to the past for our prophet. McLuhan is the natural candidate, but it turns out his vision only extended to 1990, and even then he was half-blind."

So we need new frameworks, and there are some likely-looking ones to hand in the ideas of the postmodernists. Carr looks to Baudrillard, as does digital practitioner Simon Collister whereas social media educationlist Josie Fraser invokes Barthes, Foucoult & Derrida. This is the inevitable effect of a remix culture in a post-deferential era where it's common to think that online readers compose their own beginning middle end and in order to exist online we must write ourselves into being.

The point isn't to argue over which post-structuralist predicted Bebo, but to grok that digital tectonics requires us to re-imagine the future at a fundamental level. If the point is not just to undertand the world but to change it, then there's partial roadmap in the Causal Layered Analysis developed by the futurist Sohail Inayatullah to help think about circumstances in which values and underlying metaphors are a significant part of possible social change. It's based on the assumption that the way in which one frames a problem changes the policy solution and the actors responsible for creating change. (See Appendix 1 of the Carnegie UK Trust's Scenarios for civil society). The social impact of social media is usually interpreted at the level he calls litany - "quantitative trends, problems, often exaggerated, sometimes used for political purposes and usually presented by the news media", or possibly at the level of social causes - "economic, cultural, political and historical factors where interpretation is given to quantitative data. This type of analysis is frequently articulated by policy institutes". But Inayatullah adds levels of worldview (how discourse helps to constitute an issue not just to cause it) and metaphor & myth (the collective archetypes, the unconscious dimensions of the problem or the paradox).

So Erik Davies did us all a favour by making the utopian side of all tech innovation visible in Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information. The social web and it's siblings are starting to stir ideas at the level of Imagination and we should pile in behind that. At a time when the global scenario is a literal mashup of financial and environmental crisis, we can't afford to simply reorganise the deck-chairs on the deck of the Titanic. The interesting thing is how much the new thinking and new doing are linked; how much the practice of social innovation with digital tools might help us to think differently about the better world that we imagine. And that's why, invoking my own preferred postmodernist thought-gangsters Deleuze & Guattari, I'm betting that the social web can be our Re-imagination Machine.

utopia