Jeremy Heimans: How Can We Harness Technology To Fuel Social Change? In the digital age, the power of the collective has led to movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Jeremy Heimans discusses how we can continue to use "new power" to drive activism.

Jeremy Heimans: How Can We Harness Technology To Fuel Social Change?

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So when many of us think of the word activist, we think of participating in a grassroots movement, going out on the streets. Is that, like, a good working definition of what it means to be an activist?

JEREMY HEIMANS: Well, look; I think the basic impulse is the same, right? It's people binding together in pursuit of some goal, challenging power in some way.

RAZ: Yeah.

HEIMANS: But the way that plays out in the 21st century does look pretty different. And the repertoire of activism, I think, is broader.

RAZ: This is Jeremy Heimans. He works to mobilize activists around the world.

HEIMANS: Yeah. I've been an activist really all my life. I started as a child activist back in Australia, where I grew up.

RAZ: In fact, in the early '90s, when Jeremy was 12, he tried to stop a war with a fax machine. Jeremy Heimans picks up his story from the TED stage.


HEIMANS: It was the eve of the Gulf War. And I organized a global campaign to flood the hotel - the Intercontinental in Geneva - where James Baker and Tariq Aziz were meeting on the eve of the war. And I thought, if I could flood them with faxes, we'll stop the war. Well, unsurprisingly, that campaign was wholly unsuccessful. You know, and there are lots of reasons for that, but there's no doubt that one sputtering fax machine in Geneva was a little bit of a bandwidth constraint in terms of the ability to get a message to lots of people. And so I went on to discover some better tools.

I co-founded Avaaz, which uses the Internet to mobilize people and now has almost 40 million members. And I now run Purpose, which is a home for these kinds of technology-powered movements. So what's the moral of this story? Is the moral of the story, you know what? The fax is kind of eclipsed by the mobile phone. This is another story of tech determinism. Well, I would argue that there's actually more to it than that. I'd argue that in the last 20 years, something more fundamental has changed than just new tech, that there has been a fundamental shift in the balance of power in the world.


RAZ: So in your talk, you introduce this idea of new power. What is it?

HEIMANS: So we think of new power as this kind of critical method, this critical mindset that you need in the 21st century. And that is this ability to harness the energy of these connected crowds that are all around us. So the metaphor that we use - we contrast old power and new power. Now, old power is power as currency. It's the kind of power that you can hoard up. So the more of it that you have, the more powerful you are. You use that power. You spend it to maintain your position.

But new power works differently. It isn't the kind of power you can hoard up. It's power as a current. What we mean by current is, like water or electricity, it's most powerful when it surges.


HEIMANS: It's most powerful when people are participating. And the more people participate, the stronger the current gets.


HEIMANS: And so that's how we think about the difference between old power and new power, right? So in a world where everybody's connected, where everybody can spread ideas, can mobilize communities and followers very quickly, the realm of digital activism is a whole new space that's opened up in the last 20 years that has enabled a series of different kinds of movements to emerge.

RAZ: So - like what?

HEIMANS: So you think about the #MeToo movement. I think it's a great example of the new kinds of movements that you see in this kind of new-power world, right? So to come back to that metaphor of new power works like a current, with the #MeToo movement, you get this incredible surge of energy that kind of, more or less, comes from nowhere. So Tarana Burke had been seeding this idea for a decade. But then all of a sudden, it catches fire.

And the way that it does - many people take that energy. They adapt it and make it their own. So in France, the #MeToo movement becomes Denounce Your Pig - much more French, right? - Balance Ton Porc. In Brazil, it becomes My First Assault because the problem is so prolific there. And the structure of these movements is different. The way people participate in them is different. The speed, the scale, the density of participation is unprecedented in a movement like that.


HEIMANS: What's interesting about new power is the way it feeds on itself. Once you have an experience of new power, you tend to expect and want more of it. So let's say you've used a peer-to-peer lending platform like LendingTree or Prosper. Then you've figured out that you don't need the bank. And who wants the bank, right? And so that experience tends to embolden you. It tends to want - make you want more participation across more aspects of your life. And what this gives rise to is a set of values.


RAZ: So if you were thinking about something like the civil rights movement and you were to sort of say, OK, this is what it would look like today under a new power structure, what would it be?

HEIMANS: I think you'd - you could look at Black Lives Matter. The founders were women. Two of them were queer women. And they had a very particular perspective about how to lead in a movement. They felt that if they made the movement all about them and they didn't create a context in which many leaders could emerge in a decentralized way, that the power of the movement would be limited. And I think that was very effective for creating a lot of energy around criminal justice, police brutality. That kind of movement can be less effective in pushing very specific policy outcomes. And that's where you kind of need almost, like, a relay between old power and new power, where new power creates the energy, creates a lot of decentralized activity, spreads an idea, and then old power institutions can sort of help push that into, for example, a state House legislature, where you've got to do sort of particular kinds of gritty work in order to get a particular bill passed.

The most effective movements today are combining old power and new power. Now, the NRA is a great example of this, right? It's got a brilliant, old-power strategy. You know, it's got a fearsome brand. They project this power. They project this ability to change an election. And at the same time, they're very good at new power - at kind of releasing control, cultivating the energy of their supporters. And those supporters go far beyond the people who pay dues to the NRA. And what they do is they, basically, cultivate that energy. They fund little blogs and gun clubs and local activists. And then they, essentially, see the stuff that's bubbling up, the stuff that's taking off. And then they bring some of their old power might and resources in, and they really amplify.


RAZ: So you're talking about really big movements, right? But what about, like, on a smaller scale? - because it's almost a truism that the squeaky wheel is always going to get some grease, right? But in the past, to be a squeaky wheel, you had to show up. You to be a pain in someone's butt, right?


RAZ: And today if you want to be a squeaky wheel, it's not - it's, like, not that hard to mobilize people quickly, to irritate somebody to the point where, you know, a politician or a journalist or somebody in the public eye is going to respond and react as a result of your complaints.

HEIMANS: Exactly. And companies and organizations still haven't quite learned how to respond to these huge kind of currents of new power. Institutions are good at dealing with other institutions. They're not very good at dealing with movements. And I think you're also right that anyone can be a squeaky wheel. I mean, I think one of the fascinating things - I mean, if you're a kid today, you know, what you're learning every day are these skills of mobilization. You know, every kid has followers. Every kid is thinking, in a way, about how to build community around the content that they produce. So that's why it's so much easier now for anyone to take that up. And that, unfortunately, is also why it's easier for extreme ideas to spread. But, you know, it also gives me a lot of hope because, you know, kids today - and we saw this wonderfully with the Parkland kids - are using these skills to fight for justice. Digital activism is an entree to those more-committed forms of activism.


HEIMANS: I think that the version of activism that we have, maybe, in our heads, the version that, maybe, we tell stories about in our films, is an incredibly important form of activism. But it's not the only form of activism that matters. And it's not the only form of activism that has brought about change. So we need all these kinds of participation.


RAZ: That's Jeremy Heimans, co-author of "New Power." He's also the CEO of Purpose. It's an organization that helps build and support movements around the world. You can see his full talk at On the show today, ideas about Changing The World. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


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