I'm an Internet cheerleader. It's a massive democratizing force. It's an efficiency machine. It creates untold economic opportunity. Sis Boom Bah.
But, sometimes, it's important to recognize when the organic nature of the Internet creates dynamics that we wish weren't so...
Lots has been said about how the power of the Internet will eventually break down old barriers in regimes where democracy isn't a way of life. And, much faith has been put in the hands of young people to use the Web to tear down walls. In fact, this is a rational for why American companies put up with censorship in places like China. The idea is that a taste of unfettered communication will eventually push a people to demand minimal restrictions on speech, and this will eventually have a bubbling-up effect of creating a more perfect open, capitalistic and representative society. I happen to agree with this. Still.
Yet, societal transformations aren't always pretty and don't happen in black and white.
For example, what happens if this great Internet makes a good portion of said young people more closed to a world and less willing to embrace Western ideologies? Or, simply, what if the great democratizing tool lessens the appetite for the kind of democracy that you prefer?
A fascinating recent New Yorker piece examined these questions as it went behind the scenes of the creation of this video below...
"On the morning of April 15th, a short video entitled “2008 China Stand Up!” appeared on Sina, a Chinese Web site. The video’s origin was a mystery: unlike the usual YouTube-style clips, it had no host, no narrator, and no signature except the initials “CTGZ.'”...
...The video, which was just over six minutes long and is now on YouTube, captured the mood of nationalism that surged through China after the Tibetan uprising, in March, sparked foreign criticism of China’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Citizens were greeting the criticism with rare fury...."
...In its first week and a half, the video by CTGZ drew more than a million hits and tens of thousands of favorable comments. It rose to the site’s fourth-most-popular rating. (A television blooper clip of a yawning news anchor was No. 1.) On average, the film attracted nearly two clicks per second. It became a manifesto for a self-styled vanguard in defense of China’s honor, a patriotic swath of society that the Chinese call the fen qing, the angry youth."
The story traces the video to a well-educated and soft-spoken graduate student who has a better grasp of Western ideology and philosophy than most Americans, Germans or Brits. The fact is that he can easily circumvent state-driven censorship and this doesn't fuel him to question his country. It, instead, makes him defend it even more. (Of censorship, the student says "because we are in such a system [of media censorship], we are always asking ourselves whether we are brainwashed, but when you are in a so-called free system you never think about whether you are brainwashed.")
Many of those who are older than "the angry youth" in China either regret that they don't understand the purpose of protests like Tiannemen Square or are fearful of the intensity of their feelings (indeed, as one Chinese blogger who admired the NYer article wrote: It was the Communists who repressed patriotism). Yet, the 105 million under 30-year-old Internet users in China hold the power over the impact of the technology in their country in the coming decades -- for better or for worse.
UPDATE: Kevin Donovan thankfully wrote in below and alerted me to a post that he did on this very same New Yorker article. His comments from his interesting new-ish blog that I will soon put in the blog roll here ....
The instantaneous, global spread of ideas is unprecedented in human history. Sure, the Silk Road is a fascinating example of the globalization of products and diseases; even a few ideas made the journey. Sure, by some measures the world was just as globalized prior to WWI. But the scale and extent of the current global information society dwarfs historical comparisons. For the first time in history, ordinary citizens have the capabilities to connect across the globe to people of wildly different backgrounds, histories and interests. It was supposed to be a sovereign realm unto itself where “governments of the industrial world… have no sovereignty.” Nationalism was supposed to disappear, to dwell in history with the horrific wars and conflicts it supported.
The reality, is quite different. The Economist notes that, “the very people whom the Internet might have liberated from the shackles of state-sponsored ideologies—are using the wonders of electronics to stoke hatred between countries, races or religions.” How can these painful distortions of humanity be limited in the digital realm? The answer, of course, isn’t clear, but my intuition is that it will not depend on hardware or software. A future free from conflict - digital and physical - will be paved by breaking down the cultural differences and coming to understand the reasons for differences of opinion.
That referenced July Economist piece was titled "The Brave New World of E-Hatred -- Social networks and video-sharing sites don’t always bring people closer together".