01/31/2011 04:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Revelation of Relevance

"From now on," the State Department's Alec Ross said last week in the Washington Post, "any and all dissent movements will have technology as a core component." Of course, by technology he meant ubiquitous, reliable, and inexpensive access to the Internet, so that like-minded people can connect with one another by short text or voice. Like water permeating seemingly imperious rock and freezing, rigid control as a governance model is doomed: isolation barely works in a world that is warm and wet, and fails miserably in the cooler climes of cyber. In fact, rigid control of anything is about to face the sunset.

In our previous essay, the Revolution of Relevance, we described the scientific and societal case for the sustained and, we believe, permanent benefits of an Internet connected global society. From the physiology of mirror neurons to the detection of weak signals, or voices, we explained how the mobile Internet has literally expanded our world view from static words and color photographs to billions of smart phones that can post videos to Facebook in real time. The sensational, salacious and unsettled now compete head on with professional pundits and credentialed reports, their low-res "production values" are plenty sufficient to connect the hundreds of millions of eyes, and brains, they reach quickly, effectively, and essentially cost free.

Don Tapscott has written persuasively about the mechanism and culture of collaboration, and even produced a wonderful video on the notion of weak -- even unintelligent -- signals that result in glorious patterns of starling murmuration. His transcendent question, and ours, is what happens when we add scientific insight, operational planning, economic incentive, and societal compassion to the nodes of a network that is accessible, reliable, cheap, and everywhere. Clay Shirky, Alec Ross, Craig Newmark, Beth Noveck, and dozens of others are exploring, even colonizing, these boundaries.

A recent editorial posted on the China Post two days after a lethal automobile violation resulted in a kind of Internet-born kangaroo traffic court made a reasoned plea for proportional justice based on laws, not sensation. In doing so, it raised a crucial question about the use, and misuse, of social media. "The idea that anyone can now be a reporter and commentator, revealing the injustices of society and demanding change is gaining currency," they said, and concluded by asserting "[but] it is better for people to use the advantages of modern technology to watch out for each other instead of merely watching each other's possible wrongs."


If you are reading this article, then you are (at least) passively participating in the inflection made possible and mediated by electronic connection. Probably you have enjoyed, or even profited, from the benefits of Internet collaboration. But if the Revolution of Relevance is about chaotic exchange, feedback, and disruption, how do we pull the signal from the noise? What is the revelation we're all chasing? After the dust settles, how will we measure whether or not our lives have changed for the better?

We think the answer lies in two equally essential components: first, the global network matches the demand of acute and pressing problems to the supply of innovative solutions and second, the creation of shared societal values across the ever-more decrepit and artificial boundaries gender, race, religion, and region. Co-creation through voluntary participation and feedback is the basic frame of a new kind of social accountability, and social accountability has old roots that nurture agency, personal responsibility, and collective power. Just ask the Tunisians, who froze the water inside their ossified structure and broke it. Or ask Egyptian telecom authorities, who attempted to avert "chaos" by resorting to the blunt instrument of severed wires; an entire country was disconnected, at least temporarily, from the global network. Happily, commerce flows through those same optical cables, so it will be difficult to remain isolated for very long.

Today in America -- with all our political strife and rhetoric -- we are harnessing chaos to confront problems with community-forming web-mediated solutions. Our government is busy trying to create broadband access, not limit it. By connecting minds and providing the "containers" for discussion, as Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould describes them, each of us can personally collaborate in this first wave of broad-banded cyber-enabled problem solving. Together we're looking deeply, and for many of us for the first time, at practically every aspect of modern society, from media and economy to systemic challenges like education, the environment, impartial justice, and renewable energy.

For example, at our agency we've used web tools to solicit ideas from employees that address our most acute operational problems -- like claims processing -- as well as to safely and securely link services to our sister agencies and private sector partners. To meet the president's challenge of seamless health record interoperability, we're creating ever more robust mechanisms that empower patients and their families to take control of their health data. Nascent efforts like the Blue Button -- with over 150,000 subscribers in its first five months of production -- are clearing the path to digitized personal healthcare, a stubborn holdout of the internet revolution. In collaboration with the Department of Defense and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, we are building a sturdy container for discussion: open architectures, standards-based implementation, rapid prototyping, and customer feedback. And we're doing this in days and weeks, not months and years. All made possible by the creative and constructive use of web-based services.

Connecting unmet needs with resources is what the Internet does best. This matching function is at the root of the Revelation of Relevance. Perhaps it is better described as the revelation of the possible, because the aperture of choice and opportunity has opened so quickly, and -- to our collective benefit -- so expansively. The Internet is making it easier for people to get what they need and deserve. It creates the access lanes of an economy that prioritizes societal problems, and the containers that transport the miracle medicine of individual and governmental accountability.

The starlings in flight who collectively forage for food and chase away predators demonstrate cooperation on a massive scale, and teach an important lesson: that the more eyes and brains on a challenge, the more secure we will be, and the more effective, even beautiful, the outcome. How wonderful that diminutive of the name is, at least in English, so directly apt, for it is mostly-anonymous people who are indeed the stars of these non-violent changes, each creating a small action of civic value and societal purpose.

What could be more relevant?

Mehret Mandefro is the Senior Medical Historian, and Peter Levin is Senior Advisor to the Secretary and Chief Technology Officer, in the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. The views expressed in this article are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. government or the Department of Veterans Affairs.