A look back in time helps clarify what's happening with the ongoing evolution of the Net. The societal ramifications are far more important than the technology.
The Internet – that is to say, organized mass network communications -- started around 1450 with this guy, Johannes Gutenberg. The tech languished until a blogger, Martin Luther, created the first killer app, the Reformation. Luther made an informal "store-and-forward" network of churchmen, piggybacking on the Vatican network much as the modern Net piggybacked on the old phone network. During the Reformation, power flowed from small groups of people to slightly larger small groups of people.
During the 1600s, William of Orange sought the throne of England and prepared for that using the Net. Specifically, he utilized a network of bloggers, particularly John Locke, and distributed the blogs as pamphlets via a router network of coffee houses. John Locke et al, created a new killer app, modern representative democracy, with checks and balances.
William took power via the Glorious Revolution of 1688, so-called since it was relatively bloodless. During this transformation, power flowed from small groups of people to slightly larger small groups of people.
In the following century, the colonists in the America sought to redistribute power in a more explicitly democratic manner. Bloggers like Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine set the moral and political tone for the American revolution. Power was gained by even greater numbers of people.
However, the costs of printing and distribution, or of television, were too high for most people -- those ordinary people who are trustworthy and moderate. The expense limited mass Net communications to the already powerful, or those deemed newsworthy, often extremists. Warfare and terrorism were more telegenic than actual political discourse. Jon Stewart remarks that we hear more from extremists than moderates, because moderates have stuff to do.
The modern Internet, however, is everyone's printing press, particularly using those tools that require little or no technical knowledge to publish. Ordinary people are using the Net to work together to effect change. That is, the voice of the powerful and that of extremists is being replaced by the combined voice of moderates.
For examples, we used to say that history was written by the victors in war. However, Wikipedia is now the history of our time, written not by the powerful, but by the knowledgeable. While the powerful and others still attempt disinformation, ordinary people are building methods and technology to defeat that.
Similarly, in the presidential election of 2004, the powerful successfully used disinformation campaigns (including the Swiftboaters) using that term both literally and figuratively. However, moderates worked together in 2006 to counter disinformation effectively.
Also, the Howard Dean campaign used the Net to help moderates self-organize and to raise funds. This effort itself was premature, but influenced the elections.
With 2008 elections nearing, all serious presidential contenders are using the Net. A few are using self-organizing methods where supporters have considerable influence on the campaign. Both the Ron Paul and Barack Obama teams are using these methods well.
The folks at OneVoice provide a platform for uniting moderates in Palestine and Israel, with dramatic results. They've asked thousands of people what they want, and for the most part, people on both sides want a deal, but don't trust the other side. OneVoice gives everyone involved a voice, and they've become a mass movement.
Continuing a historical trend, moderates are gaining a collective voice to overpower the voices of extremism and abusive power, doing it via the Net. It's about the people, not the technology. And the Net brings people together in other areas, magnifying what people of good will can do together.
A number of organizations have been influenced by the microfinance work of Muhammad Yunus at the Grameen Bank. More than 7 million people have received small loans, which they've used to build small businesses. It's the fulfillment of the cliche about teaching a man to fish, rather than feeding him for a day.
Many people are participating in similar activities via the Net, for example through kiva.org or prosper.com, which provide loans for people with little or no collateral, and a high rate of payback. As loans are repaid, Kiva makes new loans to people in need.
In a sense, microfinance is the new Marshall Plan, an echo of the efforts that allowed Europeans the ability to rebuild industry and infrastructure after World War II.
Internet-based tools are also allowing people to better understand how their governments work, and how to hold them accountable.
For example, the Sunlight Foundation promotes the creation of simple databases, which document flows of money and contracts within the U.S. government. Such tools draw from difficult existing databases that show lobbyist contributions to politicians... and what legislation results.
Sunlight and related groups also helped write recent ethics reform legislation... and they are helping fix remaining problems.
Finally, researchers are using the Net to collaborate, via early and broad publication of results in their respective fields. This accelerates research in a number of vital fields, particularly in the molecular biology of disease. AIDS research has occured much faster than expected, and possible epidemics, including SARS, can be investigated much more quickly than in the past.
People are using the Net to change the whole direction of human history. All these efforts might just be combining to form a really big tipping point.
— Craig Newmark, Customer service rep and founder of craigslist.org