Friday, April 29, 2011
How Did They Manage to Do It Before?
On December 16, 1773 a crowd estimated at 7,000 people gathered at the Old South Meeting Hall in Boston. It was the beginning of a protest that culminated, later that night, in the famous Boston Tea Party. Historians are still trying to figure out how they pulled it off without Facebook.
The point is that they did it, and so did the Parisians who showed up at the Bastille in 1789, the Iranians who rose against the Shah in 1979 and the Chinese who arrived at Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. When something’s afoot, the word always seems to get out.
Human beings are a communicative species, and the hunger for news seems to be hard-wired in us. If you look back at the racist Hollywood movies of the 1930s to 50s, the Native Americans were always using smoke signals and the tribal Africans were beating on tom-toms. Everybody was staying on top of the new development in the neighborhood.
All of which makes me tear my hair when I come across the breathless news accounts of how Facebook made the popular uprisings in the Middle East possible. Doesn’t anyone remember anything about anything any more?
Facebook is a tool for communicating, and in some ways apparently a better one than what came before. Arguing against it is like arguing that we should still be using messengers to hand-carry notes when the telephone is widely available. Still, the tool is the servant of the craftsman who uses it, and it’s merely being used to do the same work as before, only more efficiently.
Tools are also amoral, and that fact makes me a skeptic toward sweeping claims that the Internet and all its features, such as Facebook, will make the world a better, more open place. They probably will in some ways, but China seems to be doing a pretty good job of blocking out what it doesn’t want its citizens to see.
This week at my Rotary Club, I tried an experiment. We “fine” members of our club for things they’ve done in order to raise money for the schools and youth programs we support. The fines, which run from two to twenty dollars, are a good-natured affair, and the Detective who imposes them typically gets information from the people themselves, their friends in the club, or newspaper articles.
It was my turn as Detective this week, and for the first time, I used Facebook as a source of material for fines. There was no shortage of it, even though I limited myself to people in the club who had asked me to be their friend. People were fined five dollars each for such things as liking a youth boxing club, serving wild boar cheese sausage at a barbecue, and dining at a nice restaurant.
When I announced at the beginning that I would be doing fines based on what people had posted on Facebook, I could see a few worried looks in the audience. It had probably never occurred to some of these successful professionals that the material on their Facebook page could be used against them in any way.
So think about it for a minute. If I could use Facebook to do this to my friends, what could a ruthless dictator, with a few well-paid computer professionals on his staff, use Facebook to do to his enemies? It wouldn’t be any tea party.