Al Harkan












Social Inertia

It seems that everybody nowadays wants to change something.  We can tell that by looking at growing number of startups founded, ‘innovative’ products launched, or initiatives -well, initiated. It’s like literally every day in news we hear new startups being reported, new gadgets being promoted, and new social projects being campaigned -not to mention how many new policies being passed. Personally, I think that is confusing, if not noisy, how thousands of people try to place their effort to change our society at the same time, every day.


It’s not me being anti-change nor keeping the status quo. I get the idea of how people want to change part(s) of society for a better one, but competition to put a better order isn’t an order, it’s a chaos. Not to sound dramatic, but try to play Jenga with no order of turn nor coordination, it won’t last a minute because everybody wants to take their pieces and the blocks will fall immediately. It’s chaotic.


Remember when we had only Facebook as our main social media, and Twitter as second alternative? Life was simpler to choose what to put where, and it’s also much simpler to manage our traces and bio-profile on the internet. But now we’re given at least 20 different social media which basically offer the same thing: medium to upload our daily activities and interact with people via rich contents from text to video. It becomes harder to choose, it’s getting harder to maintain our focus, and it’s much harder to manage our data we stored on that different services. And it happens not only in social media industry, but also in e-commerce, transportation-logistics-travel, computer, gadgets, finance, education, fashion, basically in every major industry. It’s not a bad thing. Truly, it’s great how people are getting into competition for improvement. Competition in consumer products brings us larger array of alternatives to choose, and their competition eventually brings us either better quality or better prices.


But how about competition in social initiatives? Even out of commercial field, we’re also being offered with so many choices in social volunteerism. Just name organizations which offer the mission on literacy, education, or youth empowerment, and you’ll get hundreds different communities with similar goals to accommodate your good deeds -in Indonesia alone. And similar to the case of competing companies, it’s a good thing how people are competing for good causes. The only downside is the question of why do they compete, or why didn’t the founder just join the established community with linear vision of hers/his instead of founded it themselves?


This is not the case for every social initiative, but you also notice that founders (of social organizations or communities) nowadays are getting younger. I mean, I think it’s not too long ago, in our parents’ generation when some foundations used to be initiated ‘only’ by established profiles, like wealthy, high profiles or experienced people; as forms of their charity or philanthropy. Usually you can find this example where there’s a founder’s name on it, like Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Habibie Institute, Wahid Foundation, Surya Institute, and many more. But today, even a junior grader can be a founder of something, like book donations or other form of campaigns. But this phenomenon largely can be found in college level, where there are students working to realize their very own version of movements. They have many social issues to address, and their movements were planned to solve them.


It shaped a trend where movements nowadays don’t concentrate on a single major area, not focused at a single high-profile leader, and not addressing a single big issue. Instead, it spreads, deconcentrated on local areas, addressing various and specific issues, motored and can be initiated by anyone from any backgrounds, including youth and students.

I hope they will succeed with their missions.


To mention a fraction of example (but avoiding mentioning the brand), their movements try to address issues like: saving street child, democratizing literacy, woman empowerment, poverty eradication, public education, youth networking, and many more.



I hope I was wrong about this, but I also heard whispers and couldn’t help but noticing pattern that this trend is used by some to commoditize social initiatives for personal goal. This people didn’t initiate a social project to solve an issue, but merely came from a pride that being a founder of something is what they needed to be. Having a label of a founder is a great deal as a portfolio to be shown off, or worse, they use their project to sell the campaigns and literally gain material benefits for themselves. I don’t need to explain it further, hope you get my point. And again, I hope I was wrong about this with fair prejudice.


Pros and cons aside, I want to discuss about more basic question on this change movements topic:


How Do You Change a Society?


It’s cool to be a change maker, agent of change, the changer of something, or in a latest term: disruptor; as long as it deemed good by society (because the opposite, you’re a criminal). You know how much we value Ir. Soekarno and every national hero, as heroes, who fought for independence of this country. But it was historically speaking. Today, what we value much in the context of industrial society is mostly people who are powerful either economically, politically, or impactfully. No wonder we idolize CEOs, leaders, social changers, and celebrities. They change our society by doing something that’s helpful for us, making life easier, or solving problems that’s never been solved before. We value celebrities because their works are meaningful to us. We value great CEOs because companies they lead bring us products that help us. And we value social leaders because they are working to solve social problems we currently have.


Society never changed by words, but by works.


Do you notice what I repeatedly wrote about those people? Works and value. People are following them because they are working for something valuable, by making improvement, meaningful creation, or solution. Society will always move towards progress, forward, not backwards. That’s why we reject bad products, bad arts, and bad solutions. But there’s a catch, because what society value is different from one to another, their progress will only as good as what value they believe. Not every society have similar definition of what good and bad of something -at least not until today where access of information is almost limitless.


Put this example into perspective. It’s early 20th century, and the year was 1903. People moved around by using horses. So, what they valued on transportation, their definition of good transportation, was stronger, faster and beautiful horses. The opposite was bad transportation. So, what happened when Henry Ford was introducing automobile as the mean of transportation of the future? He was being laughed at. No one believed him. Initially. After long hard works and educating the market, long story short, people understood that automobile was more efficient transportation, easier in maintenance, and cheaper. The rest is history of how automobile industry became booming, replacing horses to be left behind.


Now we do know that cars are more reliable, efficient, and much better transportation alternative than horses. But people in the past just didn’t think so. What they valued as good transportation was limited by knowledge they had and possibility they imagined. It wasn’t wrong for them to think that horses were the best transportation, they were just limited by what’s possible and what’s not. But once their knowledge was expanded, their value changed almost immediately; and what they saw as good transportation was no longer horses, but automobile. At that moment, Henry Ford changed the society of America, and eventually the world, on how to move around efficiently using technology.




The point is, again, to bring change to society is to work on something valuable for people. But we must be careful on what we think valuable because it’s not always as valuable as people think and believe. And it applies the other way around. Sometimes people are just limited by knowledge and need to help to understand on what’s possible beyond what they already know and believe. We must be really, really, careful on assessing what’s good value to be delivered to this world. You don’t want to sell drugs to some people just because they value (read: addicted to) drugs, do you? Your very actions literally are shaping this world.


And that is the very reason I am writing this. I am asking you, who are working hard to bring change to this world: before you learn how to change society, learn why society don’t want to change.


The subject is called social inertia.


Social Inertia


By understanding the nature of why naturally society don’t want to change, we can do better plan on how to bring change to society. But this is not to be confused with another nature of ever changing society. Yes, change is inevitable and a necessity. Society will always be changing. But that change is mostly forced to adapt to natural ecosystem, like disasters, where they reside, and who do they co-live. Society is naturally keeping their status quo, maintaining comfort zone as soon as they reach it, and only reach out when the have the stimuli. But social change is intentional and planned, not mere responses to nature.


Social change is a fruit of hard works by social leaders, challenging the stagnating status quo, for a better society. So, when the society is ever changing naturally, it’s just a slow process; but social leaders bring the change intentionally, bringing acceleration to the process of change.


Social inertia is the opposite of social change. It is the resistance to welcome change, the endurance of a society to maintain the standing order. This theory was pioneered by Pierre Bourdieu, which explains that individual’s engagement in the social space will lead her/him to develop set of behaviors, lifestyle and habits which often serve to maintain the status quo. They are encouraged to “accept the social world as it is, to take it for granted, rather than to rebel against it, to counterpose to it different, even antagonistic, possibles.“ (Bourdieu: 1985) It is good and mostly needed to maintain order in society, that’s why that status quo is transmitted to the next generations so that the order can be intact for the next years or decades, over time. But the close-minded society to order and rejecting change is harmful to society itself, because they will lack of innovation and will be raced by another society who have openness to change.


There are examples of social inertia in Indonesia, mostly in the past with some remain today, and also modern version. It happened when we had social classes in the kingdom era, where privileged people were bounded together in each other circles by their lifestyle, and lower classes were restricted to join their classes by maintaining relations of authoritarian and servants. It also happened in the colonization era, happened again in the New Order (Orde Baru) era, even some still remain until today. And it’s not only about social classes. When lately taxi and conventional ojek drivers were protesting against online ride hailing company, it was a form of social inertia, the resistance to welcome change, just because they had developed a status quo on how to do transportation business, even when it’s proven to be better for them. You can identify these phenomena further in other area: in relationship, in culture, in collaborative works, in creative labor, even in attitude of yourself and in animal world.


Again, maintaining order is not bad. But it doesn’t need to be like a locked door. What we need to do is to keep the door of change checked. So that when the opportunity of a good change come, it can knock the door and be welcomed.




Epilogue – A Little Physics


If you thought form reading the title that inertia was closely related to physics, so did I when I first had the idea to write this. The concept of inertia is well-known as a property of mass which was expressed in Newton’s First Law of Motion: “an object at rest tends to stay at rest or an object in motion tends to stay in motion, unless acted upon by and outside force.” It is an expression of the tendency of matter to remain in its current disposition with respect to motion; if and object is sitting still, it stays sitting still unless a force is applied to it; if an object in in motion it will stay moving unless stopped or sped up even more by an outside force. Because inertia is an intrinsic property of mass, it ties into Newton’s Second Law, which is expressed in this well-know equation F = ma. When a force is applied to a mass, the mass is accelerated.


On the other hand, it is generally accepted that any physical object, a mass, can be viewed as an aggregation of material points (i.e. atoms) which act together. While society, as Pierre Bourdieu stated, is a “field” of interactions between contiguous members which are made on a day to day basis -family, friends, education, organization, etc. which can be seen as an aggregation of individuals interacting with each other through various mediative structures. This is to make an analogy that we can see society as a given “social mass” (m) and see acceleration as its rate of change (a). Because the later is vector quantity, it has magnitude and direction, and it can be seen as the quantity of effort and direction of the social change in the society.


We cannot necessarily change the quantity of social mass, but we can change the vector quantity of social acceleration -the energy and direction of the social change; if we act as the force, because we have a potential energy inside similar to atom as a mass unit.


We can choose to be part of the social mass, standing still as a regular unit inside the aggregates, and following whatever acceleration applied to us. Or we can take a side and ignite our potential force, since the quantity of force is not given, it depends on how much our willingness to bring the change. And by acting as the force, we can apply our effort of change to society so that they can accelerate their progress.


You don’t need to change the world today. Changing the world is the hardest thing -well, in the world. But if you don’t give up, you can be a unit in a social mass which waking up your potential energy. It’s tiny, but if a million unit like you aggregate, you can be an unstoppable force, and society will never be the same.

Be the force.




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