Friday, June 24, 2011
From Tiananmen To Tahrir
It all started when someone sneaked out of the cave, found a clearing in the woods, maybe swallowed a naughty root and communed with his/her hallucination. The result was a vision that answered questions no one dared ask. The shaman told his story of how it is ……..and who doesn’t like a good story?
Troubadours sang the news. Fabulist rabbis-priests-imams preached it from on high.
Fast forward a millennium, plus or minus, and enter Guttenberg. The printing press allowed one person’s version of things, or the church’s, to be read by all who could. Then newspapers, movies, Walters… Winchell & Cronkite distilled what was important from what was more important. Even the Internet, with all its options, reinforced what we wanted to hear.
In all the above we were consumers. Choices multiplied from a single hunter bringing home the day’s kill to a fruit stand to a world marketplace on the keyboard. But our options were still limited by the provider or programmer.
Amazon has the power to cut off Wikileaks and they did. When we go to Google the websites that pop up are more custom-made than we might realize. Google knows me. They know my preferences, who I vote for, what I eat for breakfast, what car I drive, and my favorite ball team. That information arranges their responses on the page.
The seed of something new is now afoot.
In the move from the electronic age to the digital a huge amount of data or info can be stored and processed in a tiny space. We can all become programmers. The new literacy is not measured by linear-sequential print technology. It has more to do with pattern recognition and creation of new platforms. The flow can originate from the multitude; the emergent spokesperson in Tahrir Square spreading the word, not the government telling those gathered in Tiananmen Square. In twenty-five years there has been a shift. Everybody gets a piece of the megaphone.
Wikipedia is fed from the bottom up by amateurs with expertise. Safecast is a web page started by an individual in which Japanese people are invited to monitor radiation readings on site, recording the levels around the Fukushima nuclear plant. Another site, Sea Cliff, was initiated by a person in a New England town to track pothole repair. These are all examples of citizens returning media to local hands. Blogs, of course, are also largely non-professional; clumsy and blabbering perhaps but also free of serving any constituency.
In the case of Wikileaks, so-called classified information was made available to everyone. In fact three million government workers already had access to it. What is classified in one country is routinely made available to security agencies of our allies. The day of secrecy is slowly yielding to transparency.
Technology is just one of many forces that impact our lives. Weight must be given to social constructs, evolved human consciousness, economic cycles, climate changes etc… But, I would argue, that new inventions and breakthroughs in transportation and communication have had profound and hidden influence on all the others.
Those on the cutting edge are questioning old assumptions and deconstructing institutions and social conventions; our monetary system, the Constitution and the way our cities are laid out. We live with needless dissonance, misaligned with what is organic to our needs. We are moving away from a centralized Internet with a bias toward branding, to a social network designed by and for individuals to share concerns and effect change.
To be sure there will be abuses in the hands of narcissists and fools. We are still learning how not to play with fire. The old adage applies that if you have nothing to say the very least you can do is to shut up. However this can also be a pivotal moment without precedent in human history; like anti-gravity moving from the bottom up.