What is the most socially engaged large volunteer organization on the planet?
Would you believe scouting?
I wouldn't have either until today, when a visit to the 21st World Scouting Jamboree changed my mind.
My little group and I have now finished the Wainwright Coast-to-Coast hike across England. We ended the two-week walk through the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors with a miserable 20 mile last-day meander through sodden, sheep poop-filled bogs to reach Robin Hood's Bay on the North Sea. There, we made our way down the steep, shop-filled main street to the harbor, where we waded in our muddy boots into the water and ceremoniously tossed in the pebbles we'd picked up on the shore of the Irish Sea 192 miles before.
Tad and the four other teenagers have already fully recovered and spent the day at the Jamboree hanging out with Polish girls and generally taking advantage of the fact that, unlike the Boy Scouts of America, most of the world's 155 scouting movements are coed. Tim, my 11-year-old, is still a little sore from the hike and kindly spent the day with me, eating ice cream and, being just a tenderfoot scout, seeing the big world of scouting for the first time.
I, on the other hand, am basically a shattered wreck: feet covered with blisters and shin splints so bad that the fronts of my legs are covered with subsurface bruises. Thus, while the teenagers strut, and the preteen wanders along, I am reduced to a painful, hobbling shuffle, all while trying to smile back at 40,000 kids anxious to say hello to an American as they run past.
But, besides making a substantial contribution to Advil's bottom line this year, slowing down does have its advantages, especially when paired with the need to write this column.
For example, while on the hike, I had the chance to witness the emergence of a new kind of digital divide. In particular, the reason you didn't see this column last week was because I couldn't find a place to file it online. The problem wasn't that there was no Internet access in the small villages we passed through. Quite the contrary: In almost every little town, the local pub or coffee place had some kind of public cyberaccess, albeit sometimes merely dial-up, and it was rather pleasant to sit in a noisy bar with a pint in one hand and a mouse in the other and surf my e-mail.
No, it was the fact that the middle of the hike took us through bigger towns, including the full-sized city of Richmond, that perversely made Internet access almost impossible. Five years ago I would have been able to pop into any number of Internet cafes across England; today that era is gone. Cheap access, wireless and the lure of broadband have literally sent the Web home.
The result here is a new kind of matrix of access: big towns with no public Internet access, and small towns that still have it. And then, among the latter, those with broadband and those without. These are not minor distinctions — I had dinner one night in Kirkby Stephens with a London couple who, after years of searching, had at last found the vacation/retirement home of their dreams. What closed the deal? Broadband access.
Slowing down has had even greater benefits at the World Scouting Jamboree. Sitting with Tim on a lawn at the crossroads of the park, resting my legs and eating yet one more execrable British hamburger, I had the chance to watch the extraordinary parade of hundreds and hundreds of Scouts walking past in all shapes, sizes, colors and customs.
Eastern Europeans in their baggy, old-fashioned uniforms, hip French and Germans, crisp Brits, slouching Americans, Jamaicans with dreadlocks, South American Scouts in brilliant colors, and on and on. Scores of nations, each with distinct uniforms but all with a common cause — and together representing tens of millions of Scouts worldwide, and hundreds of millions over the last century.
Has there ever been a movement quite like this? Surely Lord Baden-Powell, that brilliant, eccentric, heroic Victorian man-boy must be one of the most influential (and uncelebrated) figures of the 20th century.
None of this was entirely unexpected to me. What was surprising was a midway of tents I ran into near the center of the encampment. Here was represented several dozen organizations that have made common cause with scouting: Amnesty International, Oxfam, Habitat for Humanity, Islamic Relief, Christian Aid, the United Nations and the International Center for Non-Violent Conflict.
There were also exhibits on ending water poverty, climate change, fighting child labor, AIDS, solar cooking and fair trade. Even little Oyola Elementary School of Kenya had a tent. Meanwhile, all over the 700 acres of the Jamboree there are hundreds of signs suggesting that if Scouts work together — to turn off their computers, not waste water, buy locally, etc. — they can, through sheer numbers, change the world.
In other words, to my amazement, the Jamboree is probably one of the greatest gatherings of activism and social entrepreneurs in the world this year. And likely the most influential.
In the United States, where the Boy Scouts of America is locked into a death match with the ACLU — and in the process has embarked on one of the biggest PR debacles of modern times — we see little of this side of scouting. Yet, it is still there. Scouting, in big projects and small, has done more for the environment in the United States than any other organization.
And if, as I believe, the Eagle Scout medal is the Ph.D. of American boyhood, then the Eagle service project is its dissertation. Some of these projects are extraordinary. Just among my little gang of teenagers, one is building a classroom at an AIDS orphanage in Zambia, another just created a historic trail for Bay Area residents and a third is putting together a youth orchestra to tour retirement homes.
That is the real scouting, the one Americans don't seem to notice anymore. It will be the wellspring of many of the great social enterprises of the 21st century. And it is on display here this week at the World Scout Jamboree.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michael S. Malone, once called the Boswell of Silicon Valley, is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the bestselling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the ABCNEWS.com "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.