We need maps for digitization: we are entering a new era, and we need new maps to navigate, to orient ourselves, to know which way to go. Interview with Joana Breidenbach, co-founder of betterplace.org, founder of betterplace lab.
The Internet and digitization are creating completely new possibilities: transparency, simple access to information and new ways of networking. Is digitiza-tion making the world a better place?
To begin with, digital media are of course simply just neutral tools; they can be used both for socially oriented aims and for destructive purposes. In my experience, most people are good, however, and wish to help improve our world. Therefore, I would answer this question with "yes."
What is the greatest benefit of digitization?
I would begin by saying that digitization expands humanity's playing field, as it were. For the first time ever, we can meet with just about any person in the world and have one-to-one exchanges with him or her. This is of great significance, because we are facing major global challenges – such as environmental destruction and our obvious need to build a new economic system with less inequality between rich and poor.
We cannot tackle these challenges by ourselves; we have to work together with a great many other players. And now digitization is providing us with the necessary tools for that. It enables us to cooperate, share knowledge and collaborate on projects.
One of the great things about it is that it is not limited to Western countries; it functions worldwide. For example, we can see how it is enabling many different societies to simply leapfrog over older technologies and empower their citizens via smart phones or ordinary feature phones. There are many positive examples of how it can be used to improve our quality of life. Examples such as the services that offer micro-insurance to African subsistence farmers, thereby giving them absolutely unprecedented possibilities for insuring themselves against harvest failures, a basic existential threat.
Digitization is making many people uneasy. Many questions about it still remain to be answered. Can projects that benefit the public as a whole change the image of digitization in a positive way?
Yes, and we need more such positive examples of how digitization can improve our quality of life. I think such examples abound, but the public is not yet very aware of them. In the nonprofit sector, for instance, we see a great many examples of how associations can streamline their operations – making them more flexible and efficient – by working via crowdfunding and by using cloud technologies. I think the nonprofit sector will be able to produce a great many positive examples that will give individuals a greater sense of ease about this new era.
At the same time, I also see a danger. I see a rather large gap opening up between a) established players, such as long-running nonprofit associations, that have not yet gone fully digital and b) new players – often young initiatives – that are establishing themselves in the social sector and using digital media as a matter of course. The gap between these two groups – between a) established nonprofits, which often have a great deal of knowledge and experience, and have deep connections to their target groups, but which lack digital approaches and have not yet made the digital transformation, and b) the new players, who often simply have better tools, and who know more about running campaigns and raising project funds online – presents a challenge. How can we bring these two groups together so that they can work together to make the world a better place?
How can we get things moving in a more positive direction for everyone, so that the future will look brighter for all of us?
Well, we face a major challenge in that we still don't have a good idea of what digitization will truly mean for our society. Just about everywhere you look, we lack roadmaps for this new era. As a result, we are lacking orientation, and many people are afraid because they don't know what direction they're moving in and what all of this means for them and their life situations.
As far as I'm concerned, it's all sort of similar to the emergence of the printing press with movable type. At the time, it was obvious that a new medium had emerged, but no one could have suspected that that medium would lead to such things as the Reformation, the scientific revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. The realization that digitization is ushering in a new era can be disquieting. Therefore, we need orientation. And, consequently, we need to identify the great potential of digital technologies, and show how they can truly be used to enhance people's quality of life, around the world.
Digital education is another area that I think is also very important. Many people still associate digitization only with certain tools and technologies, even though it is something much more fundamental, something that is affecting our entire lives and subjectivities, including the ways in which we work – and much, much more.