Tuesday, August 16, 2011

800 Words: The Twitter Counterrevolution

We knew it was coming. The second we saw the looting, the beatings, the fires, we knew it was coming. If it can happen in London, it can happen here. And after Twitter and Facebook were used to create riots in London, it was only a week before we started to hear similar reports of flash mobs coordinated by Twitter in Philadelphia, Wisconsin, Maryland and DC. These mobs have gone strangely under-reported in the Press, but that will change. Social media is just too effective. What is to stop Facebook-coordinated attacks from becoming more common? Will the FBI have to read every one of our Facebook and Twitter postings in order to stop the coordination of riots? And if they do, will everything good about the internet have been destroyed all the same?

Whatever the answer, one thing is still clear: History goes on, regardless of our attempts to stop it. Just as people can use twitter and facebook to liberate, to resist, to create freedom; people can use all the same social media outlets to terrorize, to coerce, to destroy in seconds what it takes decades to build.

Every generation welcomes the new developments of technology as a means to liberate humanity from its worst setbacks. In every generation, this kind of utopianism has a different name. The latest name for this movement is ‘transhumanism’. Stalin used to call their forebearers ‘useful idiots.’ In any case, what transhumanists invariably forget is that the worst obstacle of all to human progress is human nature. Technology is value-neutral, and all the same objects that can be used for the good of the world can also be used for its destruction.

Nothing ever changes - new developments are invariably held up as something that will improve the lot of mankind. And for a short time it seems as though it will, until somebody figures out how to harness these technologies for evil. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, we developed the cotton gin, gas lighting, machine tools, cement, steam power, steel production, coal power, mass production of medicine, railroads, navigable roads, paper machines, thermodynamics, diesel engines, electromagnetism, telegraphs, the electric light, telephones, adding machines, petroleum power and the automobile. We also developed the machine gun, poisoned gas, industrial pollution, gilded trusts, rapid declines in farming production, mass famine, urban overcrowding, tenement housing, unsanitary cities, mass child labor, more dangerous working conditions and violent uprisings on an unprecedented scale. Would the world had been better off without technological development? Probably not, but it’s difficult to realize that when you’re the one adversely affected by technological change.

The world is always changing so that it may stay the same. It’s fine place for many people, and a really terrible one for others. And sometimes the world that was once great for certain people falls apart before their eyes. Standards of living always increase until people die. Stability always increases until it falls apart. Technology always improves our lot until its used to destroy us. A great work of art upholds beauty and truth until someone uses it for propaganda. The world is what it is.

How can we speak about the root causes of riots when we don’t know what motivates individual people to riot? Some people will be violent regardless of circumstance, some will never be violent. Most of us exist in the middle of that continuum. Will greater spending on social programs stop violence? Will higher standards of integration? Nobody knows.

But one of the most striking statistics about the arrested rioters is that, contrary to the stereotypes of both left and right, a stunningly large plurality of those arrested were neither poor nor black. These rioters are middle and working class people who are taking whatever frustrations they have out on middle and working class neighborhoods. As always, the rich are largely unaffected, and the poor can’t afford the technology it would take to coordinate these attacks online. The rioters are unfailingly diverse: lots of blacks, whites and Muslims alike have been spotted. Any attempt to simplify the causes of the riots will fail. The only conclusion to be drawn is that a society which can’t keep its middle and working classes safe is a society in very deep trouble.

We in the first world take it for granted that the society in which we grew up will always be there. But a community in which the majority of people can speak freely, obtain a good education and earn living wages is the exception in human history, not the rule. The circumstances which make a society like ours possible can always erode more quickly than we ever know. In all such circumstances, the most important thing to remember is that there is no greater enemy of the good than the perfect.

Our Grandparents are called The Greatest Generation for a reason. Many of them survived Great Depression childhoods full of poverty and starvation only to risk their lives to prevent the spread of fascism. After World War II, they returned home to administer the best educated, most productive society the world had yet seen and made sure to spread their prosperity to the very countries which they vanquished. They saw the injustices perpetrated against African Americans and were the first generation ever to seriously address the issue. They led the fought against Communism for forty-five years, yet always resisted the temptation of nuclear war. Yet all this was not enough for their children. For all the good the WWII generation did, it was not enough for young people, and they rebelled. The only result of the 60’s revolution was forty years of Conservative dominance and the steady erosion of all the progress which the Greatest Generation made in improving the world.

It’s been forty-three years since the urban riots of 1968. Conservatives have steadily accumulated power ever since. If mass riots occur in America, their ascension will take yet another step forward. If mass-riots are coming, we will be faced with another impossible choice: to accept violence in our cities as inevitable or to allow our cities to be patrolled like a police state. Nobody wants to make this choice, but it ultimately won’t be ours to make. If the riots come, it will be made for us. People will die, more people will be hurt, we will not sleep and our lives will change in the blink of an eye.

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