I spoke at this conference earlier this year, discussing what digital technology offered the voluntary sector. One of the things I raised as an anxiety was an advert in the paper from that morning, in which Oxfam were claiming that 'One click. That's the difference between life and death for millions of people' (part of their current I'm In campaign). On the one hand this is a fairly transparent and innocent attempt to ride the wave of the Make Poverty History campaign which ended last year, but on the other, it's just a pack of lies. My medicine is a bit shakey, but I'm fairly convinced that One click is not the difference between life and death for even one person, let alone millions. The dilemma these charities face is how much to see the internet as a way of lowering barriers to entry, and how much to see it as a potential dilution of the issues at stake. And the problem is that barriers to entry tend to be constitutive of the value of action. The fact that it is a pain in the arse to write a letter, attend a meeting, dress up as batman and climb a monument, run for parliament or wage a decades long campaign for recognition, is why these actions are both admirable and effective.
Within what I've called an 'ethics of inconvenience', it could be that we start deliberately priveleging difficult, frictionful interactions, precisely because this enables them to carry more value. Hence we still write letters of condolence and go to cinemas, because the medium is part of the message. Conveying information is never adequate on its own. On a similar note, Andrew Orlowski has an excellent piece in the Guardian today on the perils of the wikipedia world. (I've often wondered why Andrew is quite so bothered about wikipedia, given it contains far fewer lies than the Daily Mail - and the bigger difference being that Ministers don't have lunch with the editor of wikipedia - but he makes the case well.) Admittedly there could be something somewhat arbitrary about the self-conscious use of traditional methods in a digital age - remember flashmobs?
There is probably an optimal mix between lowering barriers to entry and maintaining the seriousness of an enterprise. Oxfam presumably hope that One Click is the first step towards doing something (or rather, they know that one click followed can be the first step towards getting another email address...) but there are very few positive sum games in the relationship between convenience and moral gravity. How many things have you done recently which are both easy and ethically weighty? The genius of Pledgebank is not that it enables us to square this circle, but that it provides an acute moral calculus for the trade-offs of collective action.
Here's how not to do it: I recently used a combination of email and a website to raise £480 for a charity, which was admittedly much easier than going round all my friends with a piece of paper, and collecting cash. So I benefitted from lower barriers to entry - but so did they. Since then, I have heard absolutely nothing from either the coordinating website or the charity (not even a 'Dear Sir/madam' email), but I assume they have processed all the payments successfully. Thanks to the glories of the digital age, things are now so gloriously seamless and futuristic, that the transaction happens without you even knowing about it. So if anyone from justgiving or Sane is reading this - I hope you got the money OK, and haven't gone bust or something. Perhaps they've both been downsized and replaced with a mainframe.