Digital and/or Social

Fifty-five years ago C.P. Snow gave a lecture, which became famous, about the “Two Cultures.” He argued intellectual life was divided into two separate domains — science and the humanities — and this division was an obstacle in solving the world’s problems. Today, might we say the same about “digital” and “social”?

In Blueprint 2015 — for which betterplace lab served as a research partner — what Lucy Bernholz calls Digital Civil Society (in Europe, often called Digital Social) sometimes feels like it’s divided into two camps. On the one side are the traditional apparatus of promoting social good: foundations, charities, and NGOs; on the other a generation of hackers and techies set on using their IT skills for social good.

So the passages of this year’s Blueprint about “social going digital” vs. “digital going social” rang very true with our experiences and discussions we have in the betterplace lab about what we’re trying to promote and achieve. But one of the things our Lab Around the World research showed us is how much of a gulf exists between the two — more so in many of the developing countries we visited than in the United States.

This is due in part to scepticism in the populations of those countries towards NGOs after six decades of mixed experiences with international aid initiatives. Moreover, in societies with high levels of poverty or those less well served with amenities, there are simply more needs to be served. This, in combination with rapid growth in incomes and access to affordable digital technology, leaves open a wide field for (social) tech businesses with an autonomous entrepreneurial spirit.

For that reason, Lucy’s argument that we should have a broad understanding about what constitutes civil society, and should appreciate the growing importance of the social economy, is all the more important when we’re thinking globally.

And there’s a further interesting question, I think, about this wave of socially-minded techies. At the moment, a certain culture and vocabulary, heavily influenced by Silicon Valley, pervades many (not all) tech communities worldwide. In tech hubs in Accra and San José, Lucy’s “design thinking” buzzwords are spoken fluently; meanwhile entrepreneurs in Nairobi polish their “elevator pitch” for investors.

What is not clear is to what extent, and in which ways, a worldwide social tech community will continue to emerge. People working in tech professions will hopefully be bound together by collaborations and knowledge sharing, also common technologies and data publishing standards. On the other hand, we can expect to see more local adaptations across the board, from organization forms to the technological backbones of projects (incidentally, my submission for a further buzzword: “open hardware”). I’m excited to see how these various centrifugal and centripetal forces play out.

As for us in betterplace lab, we’re thrilled that through this cooperation, Lucy’s analysis has shone new light on our research — and on us. And it’s just in time to include in our current work planning Lab Around the World 2015. 

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