Technology, activism, and the rest of the world

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There’s a funny blindness that sets in when you live in technology, where updates from the CEO of a computer company become as central to your news sense of the world as the fate of 33 miners in Chile. Are the release of a colour Nook, or the ups and downs of a white iPhone, really of the same weight?

Disparate bits and pieces of technology and its imprint in our lives have been burbling up lately. It may have something to do with the fact that I’m reading Gal Beckerman’s fantastic, seminal overview of the Soviet Jewry movement (circa, pre-internets), When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone. Somewhere in the space between how daily tasks (and an entire freedom movement) unfolded in that time and place, and the microscopic eye we cast on our own communications tools—Will there ever be an iPhone 4 in any colour but black? How many nano-seconds have been reclaimed by Google Instant?—is, I would like to imagine, some semblance of balance.

I’m trying to tread carefully here, because I know how easily this type of argument slips into waxing nostalgic for more glamourous, and conveniently bygone, activism, or carping on about how silly the internet is. Let’s not pretend that all 6.9 billion of us were churning out literary masterpieces or curing cancer before this.

[Ida Nudel] realized how complicated the simplest of tasks had become, how easy it should be to just buy a ticket, board a plane, and fly somewhere. For so long now each of these steps had been a small nightmare. -When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone

Read on for a list of possibly-but-probably-not-connected randomness. Or, if you prefer, let’s just call it a link round-up, with commentary.

  • I watched part of the much-hyped “Back to Mac” event a couple weeks ago, and particularly the presentation of the new iLife and iMovie. Aside from counting how many times the word “easy” was repeated (which I’m quite sure was intentional), my takeaway was that we’re meant to view these tools as ubiquitous and indispensable to the good life. Up there with good food, wine, and friends. Of course, I realize that’s the sales goal of any product. And the genius of “Apple’s Distortion Field.” But watching the walk-through of the new trailers feature of iMovie … hmm, I can’t quite put my finger on it… But to presume that the entire world must now consume itself with this marvelous new toy is, somehow, a world turned topsy-turvy. Perhaps it’s the sneaking suspicion that we could be doing something, well, something more, with our time and efforts than just finding flashier ways to package the mundane escapades of our daily existence.
  • This post from Gizmodo, “The Most Popular Phone in the World,” with its very pointed reminder of what a small fraction of the world’s population actually owns an iPhone, or any smartphone for that matter. It’s not because the developing world lacks the money or the know-how for outfitting themselves with smartphones. But needs are different. That, and the iPhone be a delicate creature. The tech gap is growing, even as the rest of the world catches up to our tech frenzy. It’s just not growing in the ways we assume.

    “If you spend hours thumbing through pages of apps, scoffing at less-than-perfect software upgrades and grousing about screen resolution and pixel density, it’s easy to forget that the very concept of a mobile phone is a miracle. It’s a device that shrinks your day to day world into a single point, making you simultaneously accessible to and able to access nearly everyone you know, instantly and everywhere.”

  • Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article on social media and social revolutions, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.” Gladwell seems to think that all activism is one and the same, referencing a search for a bone marrow donor in nearly the same breath as the demand for civil rights. One is charity, the other is a social movement, or revolution, if you will. Not all social movements and philanthropic causes are equal in either their concerns or their weight or their demands of people. And that’s quite acceptable, and has quite little to do with Twitter or Facebook.

    “But how did the campaign get so many people to sign up? By not asking too much of them. That’s the only way you can get someone you don’t really know to do something on your behalf. You can get thousands of people to sign up for a donor registry, because doing so is pretty easy. … it doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.”

  • And, of course, the Toronto election. Ahh, the election. Again, the Twitter effect, writ large. Or is that small? The outrage in my Twitter (and Facebook) feed was something to behold. So too was the uniformity of response. I actually went to the Toronto Sun’s site, just for a slight change of tone. Ford had managed to garner nearly 50% of the vote. Somebody, somewhere, surely, was happy about it. We surround ourselves with like-minded people in like-minded silos. There is, in some ways, a lack of togetherness to our relationship with technology. We own it individually, and so we use it individually. We don’t huddle together around a computer or a TV or a phone. Or even a newspaper. We truly have no idea what our neighbours think.

Underpinning these scattered thoughts, as I mentioned earlier, has been the 500+ pages of Gal Beckerman’s When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone. About people hiking off into the Soviet forests to huddle around a short-wave radio broadcast. Together. Nobody goes out into forest now to listen to short-wave radio. Internet and computers just don’t cut it. Or maybe that’s nostalgia talking. The story he relates, especially on the Soviet side, relies heavily on communication and trust between people. On secrets kept, on messages relayed, and on staying one step ahead of the KGB at all times. It’s a world straight out of any Cold War spy movie—Andrei Sakharov, nuclear physicist, dissident and Nobel Laureate, had a jamming device put on his front doorway, and all the public phones in his vicinity were disconnected.

What keeps coming back to me as I read is that it’s a world which seems to be moving further and further away from me, from us. From today. Partly, this is a personal response—I grew up, like most happily self-absorbed brats, with little interest in my parents’ former lives. I had a sense of its different-ness though: communist, totalitarian, anti-semitic, deprived, Russian …. That world is finished, and so it remains forever as it was. My world, on the other hand, changes and changes. Just as I became interested in theirs, mine shifted even more dramatically, and the gap widened.

Those differences run the spectrum—food, culture, politics, you name it. But in the context of the Soviet Jewry movement, it’s the differences in technology, in communication and information, that are such an inescapable part of understanding how it all happened. When I read, for example, about Yaakov Birnbaum sending a memo to the members of his student group (the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry) after a protest in 1964, I have to actively remind myself that it would have been handwritten or typed on a typewriter. I have to think about what steps he would have taken to distribute this memo. And what would people have done with this memo—a physical sheet of paper—after reading it?

It’s silly, perhaps. But it’s also a very practical level of organizing people that is exactly where technology comes into play, and where our worlds diverge.

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