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As the Web Comes of Age, Will It Herald a New Democratic Era or Just Distract Us From Deepening Crisis?

12/03/2014 14:22 GMT | Updated 11/05/2014 10:59 BST

On 12 March 1989, Tim Berners-Lee delivered a proposal to CERN for the system that would become the World Wide Web. As the Web hits 25 years old, with Snowden and the NSA firmly in the headlines, the discussion about the next 25 years looks set to focus on rights, privacy and protection. Berners-Lee's World Wide Web Foundation is using this moment to launch a campaign focused on the global crowdsourcing of a digital bill of rights.

This is a vital intervention. But to my mind, there is a still deeper question that needs to be asked, and a bigger choice that needs to be made, a crisis of which digital privacy is only one symptom. The choice is this: will we maximise the potential of the World Wide Web to participate in shaping the context of our lives as citizens, or will we sleepwalk into catastrophe as consumers?

This is a root question, which I believe lies at the heart of every one of the major challenges we face as a society, from digital privacy to climate change - and one which we need to ask now, as the Web's coming of age provides us a rare moment when change is possible.

A growing body of evidence from social psychology and other disciplines highlights the fact that the very mention of the word 'consumer' primes us to act as the most selfish, short-term versions of ourselves: in one survey of environmental and social attitudes, the sample was split, with half the respondents answering a 'Consumer Reaction Study', and the other half a 'Citizen Reaction Study'. With only this one word difference in priming, levels of environmental and social motivation were significantly lower among consumers than citizens. The results were replicated using environmental priming - products and advertising - instead of language.

The clear implication is this: to the extent that we tell ourselves that we are consumers, we will make ourselves less likely to tackle the challenges we face.

In the case of climate change, we will focus on our own narrow consumer interest; we will continue to do only at most what will cost us nothing; we will elect representatives who will do the same for our local and national self interest; and the international impasse will continue. For all the talk, nothing will change.

In the case of digital privacy, we will preference the short term consumer benefit of getting stuff for free or cheap over the ownership of our own data, giving our value away to the big beasts and sleepwalking into a dystopia that Web guru Jaron Lanier describes all too powerfully in his book Who Owns The Future?:

You sit at the edge of the ocean, wherever the coast will be after Miami is abandoned to the waves. You are thirsty. Random little clots of dust are full-on robotic interactive devices, since advertising companies long ago released plagues of smart dust upon the world. That means you can always speak and some machine will be listening. 'I'm thirsty, I need water.'

The seagull responds, 'You are not rated as enough of a commercial prospect for any of our sponsors to pay for freshwater for you.' You say, 'But I have a penny.' 'Water costs two pennies.' 'There's an ocean three feet away. Just desalinate some water!' 'Desalinization is licensed to water carriers. You need to subscribe. However, you can enjoy free access to any movie ever made, or pornography, or a simulation of a deceased family member for you to interact with as you die from dehydration. Your social networks will be automatically updated with the news of your death.'

And finally, 'Don't you want to play that last penny at the casino that just repaired your heart? You might win big and be able to enjoy it.'

This is the path we are on, and by default it would be the path we will continue on. But the rise to dominance of a new medium in our society - the World Wide Web - represents an opportunity.

The 1960s media philosopher Marshall Mcluhan, who coined the phrase "the medium is the message", recognised this potential decades before the Web was born. What he meant was that the dominant medium of society actually shapes the structure of that society. Taking this insight, we can understand the emergence of consumerism as a social mode in the age of television, an inherently one-to-many, broadcast medium. As television became the dominant medium, it shaped society in its image, and led to the one-to-many society that we have seen over the last 70 years- a small number of leaders setting the context for society, a mass of consumer followers focused on our own self-interest within this pre-set context and expressing our agency primarily through what we buy.

But as the Web comes of age and replaces television as the dominant medium of society, the potential is there for us all to become active participants in shaping our context. There are many signs that this is starting, at home and abroad. Here, the pioneering NHS Citizen project is an excellent example, with the public participating actively on- and offline in the running of one of our most important institutions - not just through consumer choice, but through civic discussion, debate and participation. Elsewhere the innovations are exploding, from online group decision making tool Loomio in New Zealand (which has just launched a crowdfunding campaign to take its work to the next level, but already has deliberative democracy groups everywhere from the Ukraine to Greece to India to Vietnam) to Argentine political party Partido de la Red (who debate every decision online among the membership before their representatives use their vote), and thousands more examples in between.

This is a vital and exciting future, and to use the Web Foundation's language, is I think the Web We Want. In this future, we can hope to engage actively in the debate about what to do about the big problems, and come to that debate with a willingness to compromise and find the collective civic interest not just the narrow consumer interest. But to inhabit this future we will have to make that choice. By default, the Web will just become an intensification of consumerism - we will become more active, but only as consumers, personalising consumption by choosing the colour of our trainers, not taking a role in shaping the context of our lives. And pretty soon, we'll find ourselves on Lanier's beach, talking to the seagull.