Some of the better conversations I've been in recently have been ruminations on what is happening all over the world, particularly in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, and many other places. It's got me to thinking about the nature of revolution and how it's carried along by new media. Consider the following:
- The Protestant Reformation was fueled by the advent of the printing press and movable type. Several figures, with theology similar to Martin Luther, preceded Luther by one hundred years (Wycliffe, Hus, et. al.) but most all were condemned as heretics. Gutenberg comes along, then Luther, then the whole scope of the western world is changed.
- The American colonies acted like 13 different countries, with differing reactions against England, until a guy named Thomas Paine comes along and writes a tract called Common Sense which spreads and fumes the American Revolution.
- The advent of the radio makes it really easy for people in Germany in the 1930s to hear this influential speaker with their own ears, and they hang on his every word.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not meaning to make complex historical circumstances simplistic. I'm not insinuating that new media is the cause of revolution, or even the primary factor in revolution. But at a very base level, new media, throughout the world's history, has certainly had a role in increasing the scope and size and influence of revolutionary feelings at a popular level.
It's hard to know, though, if human history is in a pivotal world moment. Influential prognosticators are discussing the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, the Jasmine Revolution, and other middle-eastern revolutions as historically unprecedented for that region. On the other hand, people keep warning that we've seen revolution in the middle east before and all it's begotten is further Islamic Fundamentalism.
The lynchpin in all of this is new media. Twitter, facebook, and cellphone texting are the trump card for these new revolutions. These new technologies allow speed, ease, and massive groups of people to swarm to important areas in a hurry. Consider Twitter hashtags and texting. In a way that makes even Google seem monolithic, these technologies can be real-time, and provide rather accurate information within seconds. The role of the historian is being decentralized, and now history is being played out for all to see. On Twitter.
In all of this, it's important to remember what a philosophy professor once told my class: "that media technology isn't inherently positive or negative, but it isn't neutral either." Playing on Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, his point was that technology doesn't just give us information neutrally, but that media technology shapes the very way we think about that information.
Twitter isn't inherently evil or good, but it's use of being bad or good is in the eye of the user/preventer (as many governments are shutting down the use of the internet). But Twitter isn't neutral either. It is absolutely shaping world events as we speak. Because of Twitter, these world events are all happening faster, with greater frequency, and with more widespread support in a way like never before.
Kinda reminds me of something Jesus said once.