I’ve been neglecting my blog lately as a result of professional and personal travel but it certainly hasn’t been as a result of a lack of ideas or inspiration. I In fact, just now I came from a meeting with Argentine Technologist Santiago Siri and our conversation made me connect the dots between a few different ideas I’ve been toying with.
First let me tell you a story: last week I returned to the private school where I worked as a High School teacher for two years in Quito, Ecuador. The topic of my guest lectures was technology and how the medium of the internet and the ubiquity of connectivity is changing our lives in ways we aren’t quite aware of at a societal level. I started my classes by asking, “how many of you know who Joseph Kony is?”. In each case about 3/4s of the class raised there hand. Then I asked, “How many of you knew who he was last month?”. Of the roughly 40 students I addressed only one (a model United Nations type) had ever heard of him. After I asked students to explain who he was (now all the students knew about him) we traced the origin from Invisible Children to YouTube to Twitter to Facebook to them. Remember: these are students in Quito. Ecuador. South America. discussing Joseph Kony and Uganada/DRC. Not only did they know who he was the knew about the controversy surrounding Invisible Children and thus the nuances of the debate surrounding the video.
Before I move forward with my argument, allow me to digress for a minute to talk about the Joseph Kony story. In my opinion most people miss the point about the the significance of the Joseph Kony story: the first is that the power of virality is growing exponentially. Joseph Kony is, for many people, old news, yet the actions of one NGO made him a topic of discussion all of the world and thus extremely relevant. Second with the critiques of the video and the NGO came a form of self-regulation never before seen. An entire community of individuals spoke up to hold the documentary’s film makers accountable, thus allowing for a more nuanced and intelligent discussion. Seeing virality and accountability work together in such a way proves the true potential of the internet to make us smarter.
Back to my point, though, what struck me about my conversation with the students was the empathy they held for the Ugandans. Empathy, as Santiago points out, is one of the by-products of connected communities. Allow me to put this into context: the students I was addressing see poverty and misery every day in their home city. They are highly aware of what wealth gaps look like and the difference between the haves and the have-nots. Nevertheless they were able to be moved by what they saw because of the medium through which the message was delivered. The idea of an Ecuadorian contemplating the existence and suffering of a Ugandan would have seemed far-fetched back in the unconnected dark-ages of the 1990s. Today such an opportunity presents itself in their everyday Facebook stream, right after the latest news about Justin Bieber and The Hunger Games.
The ability to evoke empathy isn’t, of course, limited to the off-line world. I remember once seeing an interview with an Al-Jazeera producer who addressed a question about the radicalization of his audience by answering that, while CNN shows missiles take off, Al-Jazeera shows what happens when they land. Anyone constantly exposed to the true human cost of war is going to be far less likely to support wars undertaken in the name of abstract concepts.
With social media slowly gaining influence in our media consumption patterns we know longer depend as much on traditional media to select who we should care about and what words and images define a story. Instead virality brings those words and images to the surface: if they are manipulative the community will through the same viral means begin the process of self-regulation.
If we become more empathetic and allow ourselves to see and understand the perspective of the other we will necessarily become better people. Our notion of community will expand, our ability to discriminate will lessen (after all, what is discrimination if not beliefs based on a lack of information?) and our tolerance for suffering will weigh heavily on our willingness to support war and violence. I’m not saying that we’ll all become Quakers (remember Qaddafi), but we will become less vulnerable to those who promote violent agendas.
I don’t know about you, but this is the world I want to live in. Now our challenge is to prevent governments that feel threatened by this power from stifling our ability to communicate. Preventing our digital revolution from being drowned by the ink and saliva of legislators is paramount. I’ll write about that next.