Leaders and change-makers working at the intersection of technology, media and politics gathered yesterday for the Guardian's first Activate Summit in New York. The Summit was a more intimate version of events like TED, PdF and SXSW Interactive -- increasingly popular gatherings where experts attempt to siphon meaning from a blur of innovation. The Guardian's Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger embraced the usually idealistic bent of such idea-buffets by framing the day with a simple question: "How can we use technology to make the world a better place?"
The day-long conversation touched on the practical and the philosophical with a few ideas taking hold in the stairwell during coffee breaks and crowding the twitter hashtag #activatenyc. The most resonant thoughts among the eighty or so innovators who gathered at the Paley Center for Media were not specific prescriptions for changing the world, but powerful ways to reframe political, technological and social discourse. Here are the four ideas that stood above the rest:
1. Youth today find privacy online not by limiting access to content, but by limiting access to meaning. Danah Boyd, a social media researcher at Microsoft Research who specializes in the habits of youth, believes that teenagers might be a step ahead of the rest when it comes to strategies for maintaining privacy without foregoing participation in public forums like Twitter and Facebook. Social media has created a situation where it is often more difficult to keep information private than to make it public. Instead of laboring to keep conversations secret, teenagers have retained privacy by stripping their digital conversations of meaning, so that the public content holds no value for outsiders. (Think of a sentence with only pronouns, where only insiders privy to the context can decode its meaning. Or how listening to government bureaucrats carry on a conversation chock-full of acronyms like WHO, DNFSB, MINUSTAH, JCS, etc... would sound like gibberish to most people.) Former social media director at HuffPost, Josh Young (@jny), fittingly observed over Twitter that this privacy-protecting language is a shibboleth of today's youth.
2. There's no progress so long as private funds drive public elections. Campaign finance reform, though nothing new, looks more appealing than the rumored iPhone 6 and holds the indisputable moral imperative akin to carrying an elderly woman's groceries to her car when presented by PowerPoint Jedi and Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig. Lessig, the founder of Fix Congress First, framed his argument with the following quote from Henry David Thoreau: "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." Lessig implores us to become "rootstrikers" by tackling the one issue that makes it impossible to expect good legislation on all other political issues (including net-neutrality), the corrupting force of money in politics.
3. "For the first time it's as important for us [the US Department of State] to listen to what a [foreign] citizen is saying as to what a foreign minister says." This unflinchingly utopian take on how social media has shifted geopolitics comes from Farah Pandith, Special Representative to Muslim Communities at the State Department. The idea carries additional import when considering autocratic states, where it was once nearly impossible for foreign governments to hear the voices of citizens gagged by their leaders. On Wednesday, Palestinian journalist Rula Jabreal gave a more tempered voice to the same global shift at the PEN World Voices panel on Arab Revolutionaries. Jabreal believes that the US and other Western nations will no longer have the luxury of dealing with Arab dictators while ignoring Arab citizens, a new power dynamic that she considers the most inspiring result of the Arab Spring for the future of Arab countries. Both Pandith and Jabrael rightly marvel at the ability for anyone from a street vender in Tripoli to a student in Cairo to interact with political leaders and journalists around the world via Twitter.
4. A "finishable" app. In the same way that a newspaper can be finished. Chris Thorpe integrated this great idea into his cultural flight recorder of an app called ArtFinder. This is one of the rare apps that helps its user become the person he aspires to be. ArtFinder allows you to keep an ongoing diary of your existential art gallery moments by recording the pieces of art that you have particularly enjoyed and allowing you to view them in super-high definition at any time on your phone. It then suggests other galleries and museums based on your taste, encourages you to redecorate the living room by purchasing posters of your favorite art directly through the app, and generally helps you stay cultured. While ArtFinder is Thorpe's meta app, he has also developed smaller, "finishable" apps that specialize on a single artists or genre with just enough content to fill a weekend instead of a lifetime.
(It's worth mentioning that the Summit's speakers also touted specific innovations that are actually, not just conceptually, changing the world for the better. Here are a handful worth knowing: One Laptop per Child, Global Pulse, Question Box, Senseable City Lab, and Mendeley.):
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