A few years ago, I saw ex-NDP Federal Leader Alexa McDonough being interviewed on television on the lack of voter turnout by Canadian youth. When asked about the nascent online political forums being used by young people, she said, “Surfing on the internet is no substitute for voting.”

We can see now, with the advent of Twitter, ProjectDemocracy, CitizenTube, OpenGov and many others, how wrong she was.  Our current federal political battles are being fought through social media and young people around the world prefer to bypass the limitations of electoral politics altogether and affect real change through direct action.

Witness the complete transformation in the political landscape in the Middle East, largely driven by the ubiquity of cell phones, smart devices and internet connections. This topic of societal malleability in the face of digital technologies is one of the main themes of the Mesh Conference this year.

In only three years, mesh has become “Canada’s web conference.” Held this year at the Allstream Centre at Exhibition Place on May 25 and 26, the theme of societal and political change will be addressed by a wide variety of thinkers and technology experts.

The University of Toronto’s Ron Deibert has garnered a reputation for fighting oppressive regimes all over the world as Director of the Citizen Lab. Run out of the basement of the Munk School, Citizen Lab acts to “monitor, analyze and impact the exercise of power in cyberspace.”

Citizen Lab gained headlines in 2009 by exposing a cyber-espionage network appropriately called GhostNet, which originated in China. Opennet.Asia is a Citizen Lab project devoted to helping countries in the far East “concerned by surveillance and censorship to build institutional capacity and networked resources to conduct research and public policy advocacy.”

Deibert delivers a keynote lecture at Mesh 2011 this year. Joining Deibert in the “Society” stream of the conference is activist Mona Seif who was one of the organizers behind this year’s protests in Cairo.  Seif will be talking about the role technology played in the uprising in Egypt, which resulted in a largely peaceful transition from the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak to a (very fledgling) democracy.

Such so-called “digital activism” is the tool of many young people around the world, including teenagers in Iran, Yemen, Libya, Beirut and Syria. This topic is to be discussed further in a panel by Globe & Mail Foreign correspondent Sonia Verma, Al-Jazeera producer Ahmed Shihab-Eldin and CBC journalist Susan Ormiston.

To complete the loop from the Middle East back to Canada, Tony Burman the Managing Director of Al-Jazeera English, talks about “reinventing television for the online age,” an absolute necessity for any media company wishing to stay relevant with youth.

Such is the advice Alexa McDonough could have used eight years ago. If you want to keep ahead with societal trends in the digital universe, be sure to get tickets for Mesh 2011 before they sell out.

Joseph Wilson

Joseph was an education advisor at MaRS Discovery District. He writes on topics of science, culture and city issues for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events. See more…