The Future of Civil Discourse – Four Scenarios Imagined

by Katie Barrett and Lawrence Wilkinson

Looking 10 years ahead, try and imagine a world without trust, but rife with monopolies. Walled gardens of tech giants solidify. The DOW and Nasdaq are up, civic engagement is low, surveillance is ubiquitous. In this world, do users trust publishing on the open Internet? What does this mean for news organizations? Will there be more country-based firewalls?

Now imagine a completely different world where antitrust laws have ensured many tech winners. Equal access to knowledge is attainable. Open Source tech flourishes. Risk-­taking is on the rise. Workforces become distributed across borders. Are civil liberties organizations as needed? Do people still value privacy? Is there enough coherence to solve big issues like climate change?

Over the last several years, political and cultural changes have caught many unaware and unprepared. As a bulwark against such unpreparedness, leaders from Wikimedia Foundation, Mozilla, Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Internet Archive gathered together to discuss the future of the ‘Open World.’ What role should each organization play in fostering healthy civil discourse? Are there areas for collaboration?

The four organizations joined on a yearlong journey through a process known as Scenario Planning. Led by Lawrence Wilkinson, Chairman of Heminge & Condell, the process asked participants to construct a set of very different, yet plausible stories about what the future might hold. With civil discourse as our North Star, we crafted strategies that responded both to opportunities and risks.

Questions which began as open ended and abstract led to future modalities that were distinct and concrete. Exploring a future possibility led to some clear ideas about what hurdles an open Internet may face. If, for instance, a country becomes less democratic, with weakened journalistic institutions, transparency will suffer. If economic hegemony shifts to a different part of the world, the cultural imperatives of social media giants will likely shift as well. In this spirit, the four orgs found areas for collaboration while also uncovering distinctive gaps in our ability to evolve in a changing world.

The beauty of this experience is that it offered each individual organization the time and space to do some deep, long-term thinking about its roles in civil society. It also deepened our personal relationships, which seems just as valuable as the process itself.

The Internet Archive, specifically, has emerged with a sharper vision and new projects on the horizon to foster healthy civil discourse:

  • Help make the web more useful and reliable:
    • Weave the best of human thought into the web. An Open Libraries project would bring millions of books from public libraries’ collections to billions of people.
    • Work with Wikipedia to fix more broken outbound links using the Wayback Machine and make footnotes link straight into ebooks and journals.
  • Take a leadership role in the evolving Decentralized Web
  • Bring permanence and light to the words of politicians and government that are being disappeared through the:
  • Increase our operational security

How to Build Scenarios — General Overview
To get a better sense of the overall Scenario Planning process, click here.

Scenario Planning for the future of civil discourse
To view a summary of the scenarios and general implications created by the Internet Archive, Wikimedia Foundation, Mozilla and EFF, click here.

How to Build Scenarios at Your Organization
If you have questions or an interest in applying the scenarios in your own organization, you can contact Heminge & Condell here.

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