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Revolution Eyes

September 28, 2010

So the Internet makes us happy. No surprises there; content leads to happiness, and the Internet is the most efficient means of distributing and finding content. The Internet also organizes people into networks more efficiently. And many (such as myself) have been quick to say that this empowers and democratizes those people.

The cost, also to no one’s real surprise, is privacy waived. If we want to be able to see everything our voyeuristic selves desire, then we are usually willing to allow others to do the same; it’s part of the bargain we accept because the perceived benefits outweigh the deferred and long-term costs. We are usually willing to ignore the fact that the private companies that collect our data don’t have our best interests in mind (their duty is to the shareholders, after all). We don’t mind that our singular and unified online identity diminishes our power to reinvent or selectively define ourselves to others as we choose. We wade through each others’ moments of mind-numbing boredom and impishness of when we are incessantly trying to manufacture a fake identity or are brutally honest about our own. Apparently, we are unconcerned whether our caloric intake is calculated by a health insurer, whether our weekend evenings are viewed by a professional rival or jealous ex, whether our bosses will see our silliness out of context. We seem to not mind that we are now responsible for impossibly inhuman standards of infallibility, unconcerned that any mistake or misstep would be publicized and made permanent with brutal efficiency.

The problem is that this is all the conventional wisdom. And as any astute observer knows, the conventional wisdom is wool that may be pulled over the sheep’s eyes. As Malcolm Gladwell writes in his typically didactic and over-expository way, the Internet is not a force that causes us to confront and advance our values in the real world. Our conventional wisdom is strongly tied to the breathlessness with which the press usually reports on the miracles of technology (a.k.a. cyber-utopianism). It makes for a good story when a bunch of high schoolers raise money to Save Darfur or to Fight Breast Cancer or whatever other laudable effort is made. And even though those organizers themselves are often empowered by that brief spurt of attention or money the masses may pay, that interest is inherently ephemeral and ill suited for achieving lasting political change. Those organizers themselves are often nothing more than middle men, passing money along to the “cause,” having gotten their satisfaction out of the fact of organizing rather than the achievement of the end goal. “Wait, we didn’t fix Darfur?”

What’s worse is that it’s pretty useful for those who are motivated and empowered by real-world hierarchies. Politicians are aware that attention spans are about as long as a tweet. The masses are typically less self-aware, or if they are aware, they are incapable of instilling the discipline necessary to limit oneself in line with that self-awareness. As Gladwell writes,

This structure makes networks enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations. Wikipedia is a perfect example. It doesn’t have an editor, sitting in New York, who directs and corrects each entry. The effort of putting together each entry is self-organized. If every entry in Wikipedia were to be erased tomorrow, the content would swiftly be restored, because that’s what happens when a network of thousands spontaneously devote their time to a task.

There are many things, though, that networks don’t do well. Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

Of course, the state is the best form of hierarchy that can possibly utilize the power of networks to its own ends. And the Obama administration will have lost a supporter if they follow through with their proposal to introduce a bill in Congress that would give the government the power to wiretap the Internet by requiring all web sites to provide the government access to any online content at will. All in the name of security. Car accidents kill more people than terrorists but we don’t require people to install a chip that monitors their speed at all times.

Total surveillance is simply tyranny. How many times have the Orwell’s of the world reminded us of that fact? Can you imagine the Founders’ reaction to a British mandate to allow the inspection of any and all of their books, papers, or letters? I know the Tea Partiers aren’t actually big on the actual text of constitution, but if nothing else, wasn’t the Fourth Amendment specifically addressing this concern? “But wait,” they can always say, “there’s ‘national security’ to be concerned about! We’re living in a post-9/11 world!” And how do you “balance” that risk? What good are rights when there are state secrets at risk? The logic being, “isn’t the state more important than the sanctity of any individuals rights or freedom?” If there’s one thing about a Leviathan, it’s that more power is never enough.

The problem is that we usually just limp onward in acceptance, never impelled to protect ourselves or stand up for our rights more fervently than by posting our dissatisfaction online and hoping that others will do the work for us. Gladwell is right; when we rely on online activism alone, the tipping point is pretty far away.


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