imageThe new leader of the L.A. office of a venerable civil rights organization made this comment in a recent planning interview that two colleagues and I were fortunate to conduct.  Several other civil rights and public interest advocates that we’ve interviewed have made similar comments (including the observation that in L.A., marches are also dangerous to participants). So what are the new pathways for involving large numbers of people in social movements? 

The gentleman quoted above noted that we have yet to use technology to tailor mobilization efforts to how people increasingly live and work.  He went on to suggest that advocacy organizations should investigate how they might engage people through their cell phones. 

Skepticism is natural, of course–how many times have we heard how technology is going to change the world?  But there are some compelling facts to support a focus on cell phones. The sheer numbers argue that cell phones will be the predominant means of access to the Web for the vast majority of people in the U.S., and the world. As Reed Hundt, former chairman of the FCC (1993-1997), recently wrote on the TPMCafe blog, we are in the midst of the largest and fastest expansion of communications capacity in history: Within the next 10 years, the world will reach nearly 3 billion cell phone users. China already has 500 million subscribers and expects to double that number within a decade. 

Their affordability and diffusion give cell phones the most promise for accommodating how people live in this age, and especially perhaps, for involving people of modest means.  In the U.S., it is common for low and moderate income families to hold down two or three jobs, despite the fact that we’ve seen a large and steady increase in work hours over the past three decades. When it comes to being involved in their children’s lives or in their communities, time is at a high premium for these families. As energetic and refreshing as “netroots” are, participants in and other forums are fairly elite—well educated and relatively well off. Outside the industrialized economies, low incomes and poor infrastructure mean it’s very difficult for people to focus on issues beyond survival, such as education or participating in democracy.

“Design for the Other 90 Percent,” a recent exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York City, makes a powerful connection between those two goals and the availability of affordable and relevant technology.  Paul Polak, founder of International Design Enterprises, (two of whose designs are featured in the exhibit) promotes the concept of a “trinity of affordable design”—cost, expandability, and miniaturization— which squarely fits the pattern of cell phone advancements.

The growth of this potential power can be helped or hindered by policy, of course. Americans lag well behind Europeans and Asians in the use of wireless access to the Internet, and this is in large part because the status quo is profitable for cell companies, as Paul Krugman recently pointed out in The New York Times. This distortion has moved Google to make a $4.6 billion bid in an upcoming FCC auction of wireless spectrum, just to try to open it up. Apple may also make a bid, if for no other reason than to allow the I-phone to spread as widely beyond AT&T as possible.

But this is not just a commercial issue.  Not only are we spending more money for inferior service, but we are falling behind in developing our skills for this tool.  This is a drag on efforts to get more Americans to participate in civic life—in local community activities, in supporting charitable causes locally and globally, and in elections. 

Riding from JFK into Manhattan last week, the cab driver, who I believe was from Africa and has a son serving in the U.S. military, cursed the Iraq War disaster and painfully lamented that the breadth and depth of opposition to it are masked by the way T.V. and print media cover the War.  He said that the media prevents people in the U.S. from “seeing” and showing their feelings about the War. 

To involve people today in mass social movements, we may need to find a way to use cell phones to do the equivalent of the Chileans’ pot-banging in protest of Pinochet, or the cries of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” from the film Network.

This will require some very creative social innovation. Any ideas?

imagePeter Manzo is the director of strategic initiatives for the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy organization, and a senior research fellow with the Center for Civil Society in the UCLA School of Public Affairs. Previously, he was the executive director and general counsel of the Center for Nonprofit Management.