Digital activism’s first constitution: The Seattle Statement

While gathering up my #Social for Survival book notes, I recently dug back into the proceedings of the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility DIAC 2000 Conference. Now colored by the era in which it took place, the conference was titled ‘Shaping the Network Society: The Future of the Public Sphere in Cyberspace’. What made this gathering of geeks special was the fact that it came on the heels of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle and therefore had a decidedly radical flair.

Tech activism, embodied by the first Independent Media Center, had just received its first major baptism by fire and had proven its worth as an indispensable organizer and amplifier of protest. While a hundred thousand people jammed Seattle and brought the WTO talks to a halt in December of ’99, a small army of geeks was enabling the direct upload of citizen reports, images and video to create a truer picture of events on the ground that other news outlets were ignoring. In the words of a popular slogan of the time, activists had stopped hating the media, they had become the media!

A few short months later in the company of heavyweights of the day, such as digital prophet Howard Rheingold and Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy, I was back in Seattle for the three days of the DIAC 2000 Conference. The subject on the table was how to harness the emerging power of the Internet towards progressive social change initiatives. The resulting statement of purpose, signed by delegates in May of 2000, has shown itself to be incredibly prescient and powerful, given the state of affairs today.

The Seattle Statement, 2000.

    • The world is becoming globalized and communications technology is an important part of that process.
    • The human race is faced with a multitude of major problems that are receiving inadequate attention.
    • Civic society throughout the world has enormous — insufficiently tapped — resources including creativity, compassion, intelligence, dedication which can help address these problems.
    • At the same time civic society is undervalued and threatened.
    • Information and communication technology offers enormous potential for civic society for education, health, arts & culture, social services, social activism, deliberation, agenda setting, discussion, and democratic governance.
    • Active, informed citizen participation is the key to shaping the network society. A new “Public Sphere” is required.

Now almost fifteen years on from the first signings of the Statement, it’s safe to say that online networks and social media have definitely hit their stride as powerful levers that help force real world changes. More than this, the ‘public sphere’ online is buzzing, with millions having joined networks of cause and purpose, ready for actions that range from “liking” and sharing digital cause-related content to hitting the streets, occupying public spaces and more. Impressive results of scale are now seen monthly. While existing powers drag their heels, citizens are mobilizing online to to overthrow regimes, to block carbon-heavy resource projects and even to create new parallel economic models.

1999 and 2000 were indeed formative years for modern activism, just as they were for digital culture. The now legendary Cluetrain Manifesto was drafted in this period and remains, to this day, a key reference for strategists and evangelizers. Given the crowd in attendance at the 2000 CPSR Summit and the import of its discussions, I would argue that the Seattle Statement nailed down the essential DNA of contemporary digital activism in the same way that Cluetrain set down the principles of modern e-commerce and digital marketing.

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