There’s a relatively new collection of essays making its way around Washington circles asking a provocative question that, I’m sure, many have acted out in their own personal lives yet never really pondered what it meant. The essays are found in a book entitled, “Is the Internet changing the way you think?”
Gathered and compiled by editor John Brockman, publisher of Edge.org, the myriad scholarly contributors examine just how the Internet has altered the course of an individual’s thinking. “A new invention has emerged, a code for collective consciousness that requires a new way of thinking,” Mr. Brockman writes. “The Internet is the infinite oscillation of our collective consciousness interacting with itself. It’s not about computers It’s about thinking.”
Indeed, perhaps the single greatest invention of our time has changed the way we collect, process, analyze and share information; from a casserole recipe to state secrets pilfered by rogue military personnel. Not since the telegraph in the early 19th century has information moved so rapidly and efficiently.
But is the better question today, in these modern times, not just how the Internet has changed the way humans think, but rather how humans behave? Has this technological crowbar not only opened the minds of, say, the lowest of the Third World, but given them a rally point from which to begin a cause — something that, to Mr. Brockman’s point, empowers individuals to work toward a collective goal?
If today’s events in the Middle East are any indication, the answer is a resounding “YES.” Following years of oppressive rule in Egypt, the nation’s youth found its collective voice and turned its anger and frustration toward the government into action. Social media was the galvanizing force there.
Many credit the successful uprising as beginning soon after the death of Khaled Said, a 20-something businessman who caught the Egyptian police red-handed for corruption. He was later beaten to death. Yet his death led to the creation of a Facebook page entitled “We are all Khaled Said” that grew to more than a half-million followers by the first days of the revolution.
Information is the lifeblood of any fledgling movement. And the unvarnished accounts of direct eyewitnesses on the streets of these protests helped even the most timid of believers hundreds of miles away know their cause was just and worth pursuing.
Would the Berlin Wall have fallen earlier? Would Tiananmen Square had ended differently? That’s how revolts of even 15 years ago withered and failed; they never got off the ground. At even the first signs of unrest, the totalitarian regime would step in and quickly squash any movements. Yet if that revolutionary tour de force moves at the speed of light, who can stop it?
From China to Iran to Yemen, governments are struggling to squelch the power of the Internet and social media. Even North Korea, ranked dead last in terms of technological advancement, struggles to keep its people properly brainwashed. Like water flowing downstream, this information and the power of words winds its way toward consumers.
It’s not a leap in logic to credit the United States with laying the groundwork for such movements across the Middle East. Our nation set the tinder. These revolutionaries lit the match. After all, the Internet was created right here in the good ole U.S. of A. (Brace yourself, Al Gore.)
That’s right, the Internet as we know it today started as a small Department of Defense project as early as 1969. Back then, the Pentagon was looking for an alternate way of communicating beyond the telephone system during wartime threats. The best plan was to communicate across a “web” of networked computers — a program that was to be run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Created just after the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1959 and long heralded as the wiz-bang arm of the Pentagon, DARPA quickly stepped into action and perfected the ARPANET as it was first called, by 1983.
Just think, American ingenuity has done what hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, thousands of soldiers’ lives and all the might of the U.S. military war machine could not — spread democracy like a prairie fire. Maybe that’s the lesson we as Americans can take from the volatile yet history-setting events unfolding half a world away. The desire for self-rule and independence is insatiable. No matter how big a stick we may carry, sometimes even the softest of words can wield the greatest influences.
Thought can in fact produce action, and spark a sense of community and solidarity, even when those passions are less than 140 characters. Didn’t we as a young people recognize this truism some 250 years ago? Only then, our rallying cries came in the form of Federalist Papers and words such as “Don’t Tread on Me.”
We are embarking on a new Age of Freedom. The world’s youth know this. To them, freedom rests in the palm of their hands.
Armstrong Williams is a nationally syndicated columnist.