Ideas for social change in the minds of the power elite have always had potency. It was Constantine, emperor of one of history's most expansive empires, who saw a vision of a white cross in 312 and heard the words of a divine voice affirming "in hoc signo vinces". Now, Christianity finds over two billion adherents in the world. I doubt the vision of a cross to one of Constantine's pikemen would have had the same legacy. In fact, the brilliant ideas or revelations of the powerless or relatively powerless have almost always been fleeting unless organized and perseverant action is taken upon them.
When the pikeman pursues an idea that has social ramifications or applications, its longevity and impact depends on others to willingly adopt it. Unfortunately the potential social worth of ideas is often corrupted by issues of social status – a principal factor in one's evaluation of the ideas of another, according to Weberian sociologists. Would Constantine have accepted the pikeman's vision and subsequent success in the Battle of Rome as a compulsory call to Christianity? It is doubtful the pikeman would have been listened to with any seriousness by anyone of higher rank, let alone the Emperor. In fact, the pikeman would probably have remained silent out of fear for his life in bringing up such heretical ideas. Contrastingly, Constantine – with paramount social status and the resources to spread his new conviction rapidly throughout the Roman Empire – needed to do little tugging of shirt sleeves to radically change the course of human history.
But the relationship between power and ideas has changed, more so than ever in the past ten years. Power today is distributed much more widely via democratic institutions (though certainly there are many individuals who wield incredible power). More importantly, converting the potential power of one’s ideas into kinetic action that has real, social impact is now more easily achievable than ever before. Today, the pikeman is likely to be literate and have access to a number of media or technologies that enable him to promptly share his ideas with a great number of others. Newspaper or magazine editorials and especially webposting (in any of a number of electronic text types - message boards, blogs, wikis, chat rooms, etc.) are prominent and powerful modes of modern-day discourse amongst the masses.
With many of these communication modes, ideas for social change can be presented in low-risk forums that are relatively anonymous. Ideas can be accepted or denied without personal consequences for the presenter. Ideas in these forums are only loosely tied to the individual. Instead, they float almost freely in a public space where they are evaluated with much less value placed on the social status of the presenter. The sharing of ideas through these modes is thus very egalitarian in nature. They exist in the space among millions of people, and can be picked up and acted upon by anyone who feels so motivated.
Of course, when action upon an idea is attempted in the physical social world, social status again becomes a prominent factor. Fortunately, in this context web-based technologies and communication modes are also empowering. They facilitate attainment of the two necessary ends for successful implementation of ideas for social change: 1] enough people, that the collective voice has significant political force (MoveOn.org is an epitomizing example), or 2] more access to or at least exposure of the ideas to people of high status that can wield significant social influence if they choose to champion the idea.
The power elite of the contemporary world still have a great advantage in the propagation and implementation of their ideas. The most widely viewed mass media outlets still serve as extremely influential weapons in the hands of the powers that be (somehow 69% of the American public became convinced that Saddam Hussein was connected to the events of 9/11, according to a September, 2003 Washington Post poll despite no evidence linking the two). But new weapons are now becoming available to increasing numbers of world citizens via the internet. As long as internet technologies and modes of communication are not heavily regulated or made inaccessible to the general public – an imminent threat that must be fought against vigorously – the pikeman has hope for the future of his ideas for social change.
The internet is thus the best hope for authentic democracy in the 21st century. It has the potential to be the great equalizer between the masses and the few elitists that run governments and corporations. As more people of lower socioeconomic status gain access to online resources and tools, as public education more broadly incorporates training for the use of this tool toward self-empowering and democratic ends, as more people adopt web-based modes of public discourse, as social networks rapidly expand through the non-space of cyberspace, and as more people organize collective action with ease through the internet, ideas born of individuals amongst the masses will have more social force than ever before. They are easily published, and can rapidly be adopted and organized around. In other words, the internet enables the will of the people to be powerfully and promptly exercised.
The internet is still a teenager, but already it is the greatest weapon in the hands of the masses and the only viable weapon as of now that has the potential to save the ideal of true democracy in today’s capitalistic and globally connected world. So people must understand that we are responsible for raising this child for the sake of our own livelihood. We the people are responsible for socializing the internet, fighting for its rights, helping it to contribute to the greater good; ensuring that it serves the pikemen of the world, not its emperors. The internet is the people’s weapon. It is the people’s great hope for a truly free and democratically shared world.