Sunday, November 1, 2009

How the Internet Changes Everything, Part III

(Parts One and Two here)

1)As a Tool of Communication

The 2009 Iranian election protests and the Trafigura waste dumping case speak strongly to the internet’s basic strength as a tool of communication. Twitter was the platform predominantly used in these cases, which facilitated broad contact and information-sharing within an extremely rapid timespan.

Andrew Sullivan, reflecting on the Iranian election protests in The Sunday Times: After recounting his earlier skepticism regarding Twitter…
Well, the last laugh is on me. As I have spent the past week hunched over a laptop, channelling and broadcasting as much information, video and debate about the momentous events in Iran, nothing quite captured the mood and pace of events like the tweets coming from the people of Iran…The effect was far more powerful than I had expected. A mix of fact and feeling, rumour and message…

When you review the Twitter stream of the past week, it reads like a stream of constantly shifting consciousness. It is a kind of journalistic pointillism. From a distance it gains heft. It is history rendered in the collective, scattered mind and it has never happened before - millions upon millions of tiny telegram messages sent to the world.
Kinda dramatic, but makes the point well. Because information can be transmitted so simply (and the “transactions costs” of it are so low), some forms of attempting to suppress information are no longer as usable as they once were. With Trafigura, the issue was a "superinjunction," intended as a gag-order (with the intention to keep the issuer of the injuction secret as well.) After becoming aware of it, hundreds had...
“…sleuthed down [the gag-order mystery], published the relevant links and were now seriously on the case. By midday on Tuesday "Trafigura" was one of the most searched terms in Europe.”
The next day the gag-order was lifted and the details of the case came out.

2) As a Hub of Knowledge 

What makes the internet particularly valuable as a hub of knowledge is not just its vast storehouses of it, the millions of pages of Wikipedia or the availability of experts, but the ease and immediacy of access to it.

Even questions of greater rarity or specificity can still be “crowdsourced” by a search, opening up several links that may lend information or value, giving insight as to what some of the general perspectives on a given topic may be. If nothing else, this gives some different frames of reference to better understand how ones’ self sees something. I’ve used the internet for several years of my life but I’m still amazed by the speed and breadth of information access.

3) As a Way to Relate To and Understand Other People
Yes, the fact that the internet has a multiplicity of sites gives one the option to stay tightly within a ring of websites that flatter and agree with their views (as Cass Sunstein’s book “On Rumors:..”, reviewed here, argues).

That said, the most racist, vengeful bigot imaginable on a houseboat in the Atlantic Ocean may, at this moment, google his way to a knowledgeable, well-curated blog about U.S. Civil War bayonets – his favorite subject – just to click on the profile of the blog owner and find him to be middle-management in the national government of the People’s Republic of China. Our bigot is confronted with a computational error- and either has to ignore what he has seen, or somehow combine his care, respect, and appreciation of Civil War bayonets with his racist, bigoted perspective towards Chinese (and Communists).

Perhaps this would be ignorable the first few times. But if the house-boater was confronted with this sort of computational error repeatedly, his perspective would have to adjust with awareness towards his feelings on bayonets to justify a new racist view of the group - if not a more significant softening taking place.
Volatile topics like politics will always gather like-minded people together (particularly when there’s something making the ‘gathering’ simple to do); there’s strength in numbers. It is through what we value idiosyncratically (our particular areas of interest) that seems to act as a more effortless bridge to first understand and then connect to others. The web acts as a platform that increases the likelihood of this sort of connection taking place more than it would otherwise.

(Click for large, source)

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