Technopoly and its discontents

Earlier this month, a noisy passenger on one of New York’s busy commuter trains was approached by a female conductor. When asked to talk quietly the passenger broke into an extended rant, and mockingly asked the conductor “Do you think I’m a little hoodlum? Do you know how well-educated I am?” A passenger nearby caught the incident on video and uploaded it to YouTube. Although it was taken down soon afterwards, the video went ‘viral’ – with predictable consequences. The ‘snob’ was ‘outed’ and the details of her personal and professional life are now easily available to anyone who wishes to find them.

This is not an isolated event. In Vancouver, during riots which followed the local team’s Stanley Cup defeat by the Boston Bruins, Nathan Kotylak, a national water polo athlete, tried to set fire to a police car. When photographs of Kotylak appeared on the Internet, outraged locals identified him to the police. Since then the Vancouver Police Department has used social media sites to find other rioters and a heated debate has sprung up around the ethics of using blogs and online social networks to assist law enforcement agencies which have often had a questionable attitude to free expression in the past. But digital naming and shaming is hardly confined to acts of public rudeness or vandalism, increasingly it has become a form of social levelling. (Congressman Anthony Weiner, for example, was recently forced to resign after he was found to have shared lewd photographs via a social media network.)  Every week brings a new story – from all parts of the world – of yet another politician or public figure humbled by the digital distribution of an ill-chosen remark or other lapse of judgement.

Three years ago Clay Shirky, who teaches the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, published one of the earliest books on the power of social media. Shirky’s book bore the prescient title Here Comes Everybody.  One of its most memorable anecdotes was the story of Ivanna, a woman who lost a smart phone in a New York taxicab. After replacing the device, she learned that a young girl in Queens was using the old phone. So, with the help of her friend Evan, who worked on Wall Street and was thus familiar with new technology, Ivanna tried to get the phone back. When emails to the teenager, Sasha, were brusquely dismissed, Evan decided to trace her via photographs taken with the smartphone camera. He put photographs up on the Web and before long someone had identified Sasha on her boyfriend’s MySpace page. Then someone emailed Evan Sasha’s home address. As interest in the story gathered, public pressure mounted on the New York Police Department. Eventually they arrested Sasha and Ivanna got her phone back.

Shirky believes the story shows “the ease and speed with which a group can be mobilized for the right kind of cause” with current information technology. Questioning this upbeat conclusion, Malcolm Gladwell has suggested instead that we are too easily dazzled by the new media and that our success in finding stolen cellphones and the like dangerously “shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.” Here the lessons of the Arab Spring are somewhat ambivalent. In the Middle East and North Africa, at least initially, Shirky’s analysis seemed largely right and Gladwell’s simply wrong. But the protesters’ subsequent loss of momentum, and the gradual reassertion of authoritarian rule have shown that there is no easy technological fix for longstanding political problems.

Twenty years ago, the media critic Neil Postman set out the dangers of Utopian thinking in the Information age. In Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology he warned that the uncritical embrace of new technology could foster the belief that “most serious problems confronting us at both personal and public levels require technical solutions through fast access to information otherwise unavailable.” Postman dismissed the idea as “on the face of it, nonsense” pointing out that:  “Where people are dying of starvation, it does not occur because of inadequate information. If families break up, children are mistreated, crime terrorizes a city, education is impotent, it does not happen because of inadequate information.  Mathematical equations, instantaneous communication, and vast quantities of information have nothing whatever to do with any of these problems. And the computer is useless in addressing them.”

Postman is surely correct when he warns against our tendency to confuse technological advances with social progress. We can now coordinate protest and find rude people or lewd people much more easily than we might have done just ten years ago, but this matters little unless we can change the institutions that inform the larger culture. If we cannot, our little victories will ultimately prove inconsequential. To make the most of the modern information technology we must learn how to resist its easy consolations. By itself it can offer no answers to social and political crises. But it can accelerate our collective deliberation on difficult questions, and it can share potential solutions with unprecedented speed. This is important, but it is hardly a miracle.

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