I previously mentioned in passing that I have started working on a PhD research program.
My old self (or younger self, depending on how you look at the arrow of time), back when I received my previous degree about a decade ago, would have likely been quite incredulous and perhaps even appalled to learn that I would eventually decide to go back to that manipulative institution, that radical monopoly (as Ivan Illich would put it) called the schooling system. And it certainly wasn’t an easy choice.
So what made me decide to take on a (non-funded) PhD program?
There were circumstantial factors, to be sure. Meeting Jem, who is now my main tutor at IFLAS, and having him demonstrate his skills as a “strategic communicator” on me, definitely ranks as an important proximate cause! But I had been thinking of deepening my understanding of a certain area of knowledge for some time already: that of education, connectedness… and social change. I decided that this degree would be a way to do just that.
THE MESS WE’RE IN
It’s hard to deny that humanity is engulfed in a period of existential challenges unparalleled in history.
Sure, you could point at that other time, about 70,000 to 80,000 years ago, when the supervolcanic eruption at what is now Lake Toba in Sumatra might have only left between 1,000 and 10,000 humans on earth. Things were hairy enough. But there was a major difference: back then, our species had to deal with unfavourable circumstances (it was really cold) that it hadn’t caused itself. It’s one thing to adapt to the vagaries of nature because you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong geological era; it’s another if you and your fellow H. sapiens are causing, by just going about your daily business, the possible death of everybody (including many non-human species). In the second case, surviving isn’t about triumphing over a hostile environment: it’s about self-transcendence.
But we don’t really seem on track to achieve this. Quite the opposite: in the words of a recent report, we’re causing an age of environmental breakdown to unfold. Cue in the litany of depressing figures:
- climatic disruptions (we’re scheduled to hit +1.5 degrees of global heating by 2030);
- mass extinctions (up to 58,000 species are believed to be lost each year, vertebrate populations declined by 60 per cent between 1970–2014 — and let’s not even mention insects);
- oceanic acidification (oceans have acidified by +26% since the beginning of the industrial revolution; this figure could rise up to +170% by 2100, which would be more acidic than any time in the last 14 million years);
- deforestation and topsoil losses (-50% fewer trees worldwide since the dawn of the agricultural revolution, and over 75% of Earth’s land is now substantially degraded)…
… The list goes on.
And of course, facing those predicaments is not made any easier by widespread systemic social and political failures, such as the economic growth imperative; entrenched fossil fuels dependence; rising inequalities; and failing democratic processes.
WHAT TO DO?
Tons of books and reports and academic papers have been published on those issues, for decades. Millions of scientists and university students are studying them. So why are we letting all of this happen?! It’s not as if we don’t know!
In fact, hundreds of thousands of organisations, associations, and social movements have also sprung up around the world, in reaction to this situation. Hundreds of books have been written about them, too (by the likes of Paul Hawken, Rob Hopkins, Eric Dupin, and so many others…); and countless films and documentaries and websites on these topics are out there.
But learning about these initiatives, or participating in some of them myself, I have always wondered: Could these ideas and grassroots actions be brought together, to form a more cohesive and impactful global movement? If so, how?
Which brought me to the topics of collective learning and mobilising.
- Education and consciousness-raising: Many signs point at the lack of awareness, downplaying, or avoidance of these issues in the general population. Maybe if more people truly came to realise what is happening, in a deeper and more emotionally relevant way, public mobilisation on the scale we need would be easier to launch? This would of course require that we overcome the feeling of powerlessness that comes from the magnitude of these issues.
- Means of connected mobilisation: Online social networks have become a central feature of our lives. These tools have been hailed by some as central to the development of new popular and democratic movements. But where are the social networks specially dedicated to federating all the grassroots efforts taking place? Why is the crucial information drowned among GAFA-engineered ads and fake news? Can’t we do better than hand over our brain-time and revolutionary spirit to our Silicon Valley Big Brothers?!
So this is what I want to do in this research. I want to try and bring these two elements together, and explore how online networks can foster and enable people to engage in collective learning and mobilisation, to bring about deep social change.
In other words, I aim to simultaneously study how people from those networks:
- engage in “deep” collective learning (sense-making/understanding);
- and collectively organise to take action (decision-making/collaboration).
For this purpose, I am hoping to work with people from various existing online communities, in a participative way, using Action Research principles. Please get in touch if you’d like to learn more, or suggest an interesting case study.