How the internet is uniting the world
For the first time in history, the world shall speak for itself
On August 25, a Syrian refugee was photographed selling pens on the streets of Beirut, clutching his sleeping daughter.
Abdul Halim Attar was desperate. A single father of two, he came to Lebanon to keep his children safe. And so he appeared in heartbreaking images posted online by an Icelandic journalist, Gissur Simonarson. He looked exhausted and distraught.
Gissur asked the internet to help find the man and started a crowdfunding campaign for him on Indiegogo. He used the hashtag #buypens to promote it on social media.
In less than 24 hours, Abdul was located by people who recognized him. Gissur made contact. And more than $117,000 was donated by people all over the world. Enough to change the lives of Abdul and his family, and hundreds of other refugees.
In a time of turmoil, Abdul’s story seems a rare story of hope. But the extraordinary thing is that it’s just one example of a much larger global shift taking place today.
The internet is uniting the world. And it’s going to change all our lives.
A new type of community
The tools and knowledge of one nation belong to all nations
When you look at today’s headlines, it’s easy to scoff at the idea that the world is coming together, or the internet has a meaningful role to play. How does a post or a Like stack up against the armies of ISIS, or a column of Russian tanks?
Certainly, the international community has never seemed more divided since the Cold War. But look beyond the flashpoints of today — and the community of nations — and a very different world comes into sight.
Today, 3 billion people have access to the internet. Hundreds of millions of people are now part of online communities. Around 1.5 billion people use Facebook, more than a billion people use Google and 900 million people use WhatsApp.
Admittedly, more than 4 billion people aren’t online. Right now the middle classes enjoy most of the benefits of connectivity. But that doesn’t lessen the internet’s impact.
The internet is the largest community in history — as big as the global population in 1960. It crosses every border and culture. And enough people are connected that the internet has become a planetary infrastructure for communications and collaboration. The tools and knowledge of one nation now belong to all nations.
And an internet that connects the middle classes is immensely powerful.
Throughout history, the middle class has been the greatest driver of social, economic and political change. The middle classes are opposed to the inequitable concentration of power and resources, against violence, and supporters of civil liberties and the rule of law.
But the internet isn’t just serving the existing middle class — it’s expanding it. Research by Deloitte also finds that if more people were connected in developing countries, 160 million people could escape poverty, 140 million new jobs be created and 600 million children receive education.
This is how the internet creates the foundation for a more united world.
As the internet drives social and economic progress, it strengthens the middle class in all nations and brings them into a global middle class, connected by shared tools and knowledge. And as the international community descends into chaos, a rising planetary community is changing lives and communities everywhere — and bringing the world together.
This is happening in three main ways.
Global empathy leads to global interests
First, the internet is changing the way the world thinks.
In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain famously declared German aggression towards Czechoslovakia as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”
Prague is less than 800 miles from London.
Today, planetary scale internet services allow us to connect with people everywhere to a degree never previously possible. With Facebook and Twitter, you can build friendships and relationships that cross borders, and share news and information from anywhere. With Instagram, you have a real-time window on the world, with more than 80 million photos shared daily. All of us can see the stars from the vantage point of an astronaut on the International Space Station, join a UN aid worker in a refugee camp in South Sudan, or follow the lives of people from Gaza to Tokyo.
Prague is not so distant now.
Of course, it’s difficult to measure what impact this has on people’s thinking. But here’s what we know.
A century ago, Britain and France were lobbing shells at German soldiers on the frontlines of Europe. Today, online friendship networks tie together millions of Brits, French and Germans, and countless other peoples with historical enmity.
At moments of crisis, the internet erupts in solidarity — at moments of joy, in celebration. After the earthquake in Nepal or recent floods in Myanmar, millions rallied online in support of countries historically marginalized within the international community. This summer, hundreds of thousands of Europeans demanded action on the #refugeecrisis. For Pride Month in June, more than 26 million people changed their Facebook profile pictures to support the LGBT community.
And the internet is shaping culture.
Memes and viral videos may not seem profound. But they are the first examples of a common planetary culture emerging — global phenomenon that belong to no nation. Watching trending topics in real-time is to see the synapses of our global consciousness firing. These are the subjects that move the world.
Where mass movements once stood for local or national interests, now online communities are moved by global interests far beyond people’s immediate lives and communities. There are no more faraway countries.
As the world thinks, the world acts
And far from simply generating empathy, the internet is mobilizing action.
There are countless examples, large and small, of what this looks like.
The extraordinary story of Abdul, the Syrian refugee, is repeated almost daily thanks to online communities. In July, donations poured in for a Filipino schoolboy pictured doing his homework on the streets. A crying Greek pensioner, unable to withdraw money during the debt crisis, was sponsored by a generous Australian. A New York bus monitor received more than $700,000 from 30,000 people in 84 countries after a YouTube video showed her being bullied.
All these individual acts of compassion are changing people’s lives. But the internet also drives action for much larger causes.
This summer, the tragic image of a drowned Syrian boy mobilized the internet to demand action on the refugee crisis.
As politicians admitted, it was this single image — amidst a vast humanitarian crisis — that pushed governments to act. And the internet itself mobilized using hashtags such as #refugeeswelcome and #refugeecrisis, raising funds for refugees and fighting intolerance against them.
The internet has also shown its ability to demand dramatic political change.
In 2008, a 33 year-old engineer called Oscar Morales created a Facebook page, One Million Voices Against FARC, to protest against the Colombian terrorist group. Over the next month, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world Liked his page and joined his movement. And in February 2008, millions of people marched in more than 100 cities worldwide to demand that FARC come to the negotiation table. They did.
And for every effective campaign, the internet is now an essential part of the strategy.
In 2014, the ALS ice bucket challenge became a global phenomenon, with more than 17 million videos watched on Facebook by more than 440 million people — and more than $100 million raised. And even if other causes attract less attention, fundraising and awareness campaigns for global issues from climate change to Ebola all depend on the internet.
Certainly, many of these acts of change are momentary. After a brief surge, movements disintegrate. The internet’s attention moves on.
For change to endure, action must assume a stronger and more permanent form.
Institutions are instruments for long-term change. They bring organization and cohesion to otherwise diffuse movements. They help articulate and defend global interests with a greater voice than any individual or one-off moment.
The internet has no president or parliament. It has no armies or central bank.
But these are the wrong things to look for. The institutions of the future bear little resemblance to the past, because we are dealing with a new form of human community. In an age where knowledge is our most valuable resource, and the planetary community the most powerful actor, the most effective global institutions are those which harness the power of online networks of citizens, activists and experts.
Innovative civil society organizations and NGOs like Avaaz, Amnesty International and Global Citizen have shown their ability to quickly mobilize thousands of people to sign petitions, write letter and demand action from leaders and governments. These are relatively lean organizations that have invested in online innovation and building strong online networks of supporters.
Where multinational corporations once defined global trade and enterprise, the internet has enabled a new class of ‘micro multinationals’ — small, highly dispersed teams of skilled individuals working across borders to build products and companies.
And some of the most powerful institutions of global collaboration are built on the power of the crowd — with weak hierarchies and emphasis on individuals choosing how to contribute to shared missions. Wikipedia or Ushahidi, the crowd-mapping and reporting tool, are perfect examples.
Institutions like this are barely more than highly organized movements. But these movements are organized, and they endure. And that makes all the difference.
The institutions of the planetary community undoubtedly remains its weakest aspect. But we are making progress. Every day, millions of people around the world are working together to advance global interests as part of a common human infrastructure. As billions more people join the internet over the coming years, the online community will continue to grow in size and sophistication.
One day, in the not too distant future, there will probably even be a political party for Earth. And its headquarters will be everywhere you are.
A more united Earth
So this is how the internet is uniting the world — in thought, action and institutions.
The history of humanity is a story of people coming together in new and different ways. We began as bands of hunter gatherers. But one day we came out of the plains of Africa to make the world our own. Our communities have never stopped growing in size and complexity.
Now technology gives us the chance to take the next big step — to build one great human community.
This will not be a utopian future. As millions of people begin to work together to advance a new world, many more will remain mired in the old. Sectarianism and nationalism are not going away anytime soon. Change creates new tensions and problems in society, which must be carefully managed — or progress can be easily reversed. And to build a truly representative planetary community, we must connect the entire world. We’re not there yet.
But for the very first time in history, instead of listening to leaders speak on behalf of the world, the world shall speak for itself. The problems of every nation shall be our problems — but so will the opportunities and solutions that we can all build together. Every leader, movement, business and organization has a chance to harness the power of this planetary community to move the entire world forward.
Everyone connected is part of the next chapter in the story of humanity. All of us have a chance to write it together. A united Earth is coming.