I spent the summer toiling away on updating How Change Happens. Luckily the weather was pretty rubbish, so I didn’t resent it too much. Most of the chapter updates were just that – adding more recent stats, a few new references, a generally more sombre take, given that the first edition appeared just months before Brexit and Trump. But there is one new chapter on digital activism, and the final chapter is a complete rewrite, so I thought I would put both of these up on the blog and ask for your comments (did this for the first edition, and they were invaluable). Tight deadline though – need comments/suggestions by 3rd October please.
Conscious of my (numerous) limitations, I asked my LSE colleague (and digital native) Tom Kirk to write the digital chapter. Here’s his intro:
‘In 1967, Buffalo Springfield released ‘For What It’s Worth’. It quickly became one of the most famous anti-war protest songs for a generation of Americans incensed by their country’s actions in Vietnam. Yet, it was inspired by a series of clashes the year before between Hollywood police and young people demonstrating against recently passed loitering laws that threatened to end the Sunset Strip’s liberal night-time economy. The memorable tune opened with the lines:
There’s something happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear / There’s a man with a gun over there / Telling me I got to beware / I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound / Everybody look what’s going down
Those words were never far from my thoughts over the course of the early 2010s. Only the word ‘gun’ was replaced with ‘mobile phone’, and I was watching huge protests unfold, on- and off-line, in places and over issues that many had mistakenly written-off as stagnant, unspeakable, or oppressed. I also had a sense that by sharing content, changing my profile picture, signing emailed petitions, and debating developments with friends and acquaintances in chat groups that I was somehow part of them. This is despite being thousands of miles away, unfamiliar with the lives of the people on the ground, and with little in the way of certainty about what their overall goals or endgames were.
This period was marked by techno-optimism. It centred around the growing belief that new information and communications technologies (ICTs), specifically the internet, were eroding old bastions of power and presenting new possibilities for those trying to create change. At the forefront were giant social media platforms owned and operated by well-known companies such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook. With instantly recognisable logos and zeitgeisty mottos such as ‘Don’t be Evil’, ‘What’s happening’ (Twitter, now X), and, albeit internally, ‘Move fast and break things’ (Facebook, now Meta), they promised new ways of connecting, sharing information and acting upon it.
Writing in 2023, this optimism has largely dissipated. Elites in countries that experienced waves of protests during the 2010s have been able to return to power in different guises, governments routinely shut down the internet, opponents go online to hound activists and particular identities, and it is increasingly difficult to verify the veracity of digital content or even who its real authors are. As people increasingly live their lives online, there is also growing pessimism that their digital footprints are making them easier to track and control across all facets of existence. Others argue that persistent digital divides – gaps between those with access to and the capabilities to benefit from ICTs – limit the potential of digitally mediated activism, making it a pastime of the privileged. And AI may accelerate these trends in the coming years.’
Lovely writing, here’s the full chapter for you to comment on.
As for my new concluding chapter, here’s the rationale for the rewrite:
‘When this book came out in 2016, I was very reluctant to provide too much direction – I wanted activists to understand the importance of power and systems and the limits to their ability to change them, but also to show that by learning to dance with such systems, they can contribute to some of the wonderful changes going on in the world (and help defend against the dark stuff).
Since the book was published, I have worked with hundreds of brilliant LSE students and senior aid sector leaders to discuss and refine these ideas, and I am now prepared to be a bit more propositional. Working with people from around the world trying to bring about change in the most difficult of circumstances, I think we have some useful ideas on how to bring about intentional change. Deep breath, here goes.’
At which point, the chapter takes readers through a sequence of exercises to explore problems and power, identify ‘points of entry’ for influencing, and then analyse stakeholders and what might persuade them to support, or at least stop blocking, the campaign in question. See what you think.
The book should be out in Spring 2024 – don’t worry, I’ll let you know!