On November 20th, the New Economics Institute hosted the 32nd Annual E.F. Schumacher Lecture on “The Role of the Internet in the Creation of a Just and Sustainable Economy.” The lecture series are a thirty-two year tradition that celebrates the legacy of E.F. Schumacher, who proposed a formal relationship between economic activity, environmental sustainability, and effectiveness of scale in his 1974 collection of essays, Small is Beautiful. These essays continue to inspire tens of thousands of people not only in the United States, but also worldwide. Past E.F. Schumacher Lectures have included other visionaries, such as Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Hazel Henderson, Ivan Illich, Andrew Kimbrell, and Winona LaDuke. This year’s speakers were Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law and Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, and Bob Massie, President and CEO of the New Economics Institute.
Lessig focused his lecture on how use of the internet can help mitigate the high levels of inequality and bring about a sustainable economy. To begin his talk, Lessig described the political and economic system in the United States. He emphasized how the economy is dominated by major industries that pollute, take large risks, and eliminate competitors. These industries, through campaign contributions and lobbyists, control the political landscape of the country. Less than the 1% of the country choose the political candidates for high profile elections, particularly that of the presidency. In fact, only 0.000042% of the country, or 132 people, gave 60% of the Super PAC money this past election. These large donations and time spent lobbying preserve corporate interests and prevent real change.
The internet offers citizens the opportunity to voice their opinions and fund campaigns from the bottom up. Using this model, politicians can raise millions of dollars from millions of citizens, not just a few highly influential people. The internet provides a space for citizens to develop an alliance and work together, focus on a common ground, and be active in our democracy. It allows us to crowdsource ideas and crowdfund elections. The choice of political candidates and important policy decisions will not be influenced by a selective few, but rather, the entire country.
The second lecturer of the evening was Bob Massie of the New Economics Institute. Massie spoke of the potential of the internet to strengthen communication and change individual and collective relationships. Networks provide more pathways to spread ideas and to support others – it opens channels to democracy and information exchange that have previously been unthinkable. Technology is breaking down conventional barriers and if used to its utmost potential, can intensify the best of human qualities, break down inequality, and ultimately improve economic systems. With the internet, the traditional power structure of knowledge versus ignorance is broken down as people are learning to be more interactive in these environments and researching for themselves before going to the experts.
That being said, Massie also warned that conventional powers will try to disrupt the new democracy that the internet can create. He emphasizes that the internet can intensify the best of human community and reciprocity, but it will not do so automatically. Citizens must stay out of what he calls the “Walled Garden” that the internet can create–an Eden-type space created by the internet that appears perfect but is very insular and does not encourage any kind of true engagement. To avoid the “Walled Garden,” internet users must continue to create their own pathways with the internet and find ways to increase its potential as a positive tool for social change. The framework Massie suggests is Communication creates Agreement creates Alignment creates Power which finally creates Change. If the internet becomes a tool for changemakers to reach out to the masses and align factions, it can become a tool for creating a just and sustainable economy.