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Our Social Future

This week marked the end of the most recent installment of the Economist’s online debate series. The motion was about social networking: “This house believes that society benefits when we share personal information online.” Jeff Jarvis, Director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY presented an eloquent closing rebuttal to Andrew Keen, the technologist author arguing against the motion:

But it is not technology in which I have faith. It is humanity. Technology merely enables us. It gives us the opportunity to connect and create the publics Mr Keen appears to fear. If you do not trust the public, then I wonder how you can support democracy (why let us govern ourselves?), free markets (why allow us choice?), reform religion (how can we be permitted to talk to God?) or, for that matter, education, journalism and the arts (why inform or attempt to enlighten the public if we are by nature doltish?).

Nearly 70 percent of respondents were in favor of the motion, though the comments paint a more nuanced reaction, with readers raising all sorts of caveats and concerns.

Via Meadia, like both Jarvis and the readers, is by nature optimistic, though ours is a qualified, Christian optimism which keeps original sin firmly in mind. We too believe in man’s ability to harness technology to ultimately positive transformative ends, but we note that other potentials also exist.  At one time people believed that radio would be a democratizing technology; then Hitler figured out how to use it.

Technology, like all forms of knowledge is good in and of itself, but like other goods it can be perverted and made to serve wicked ends. It’s just too early to tell if social networking will wholly be a force for good. We’re bullish about how social networks are helping disseminate ideas and educate people; it’s an important driver of what we’re trying to do ourselves. But we’re more skeptical, for example, about the ability of social-powered movements to lastingly transform societies.

We hope that a connected world is a freer world, and will be doing our little part to make it so, but two problems remain. First, the entrance of any new technology into an existing system is disruptive, with consequences that are hard to predict.  Think of the role that Gutenberg’s invention played not only in promoting the Reformation but in fueling more than 100 years of religious war. Second, human beings are ultimately free to make whatever use they want of any technology, and that radical moral and historical freedom limits our ability to predict what the consequences of any new technology will be.

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  • LM Sacasas

    I share your tempered, Christian optimism, but I would like to add one more consideration to this discussion. The usual assumption seems to be that tools are basically neutral and it is the use to which they are put that carries ethical consequences. This is true enough as far as it goes, but it may not go quite far enough. Our tools, perhaps especially our communication tools (writing, print, social media, etc.) carry consequences that attend to their use regardless of the kind of use they are put to.

    As Churchill said of buildings — We make our buildings and later our buildings make us — so it is with our tools. Their habituated use forms the user apart from the good or bad consequences of that use. Social media will not only reshape how people communicate, it will reshape the self. The ethical consequences, then, attend not only to the actions performed with technologies, but to the kind of selves that are formed through their habituated use.

  • WigWag

    Somewhat off topic but speaking of technology; the blogosphere has certainly improved our ability to hear opinions on a diverse array of subjects at almost a moment’s notice.

    Over at Steve Clemons’ blog at the Atlantic, Steve cites an essay that Professor Mead and Sherle Schwenninger wrote in 2003 for “Foreign Affairs” about the rise of the worldwide middle class.

    It would be great to read what Professor Mead and colleague had to say on this subject but unfortunately, the price the magazine/website is charging to read the piece is $150.

    Now for those of us who are his devoted fans, every word Professor Mead writes is worth its weight in gold but for those of us who are not yet billionaires, $150 is a little steep.

    Given the price they are charging for Professor Mead’s work, it seems that “Foreign Affairs” must be stuck in the muck of the blue state model where everything is ten times as expensive and far less accessible than it needs to be.

    I know that Professor Mead doesn’t own “Foreign Affairs” but I do know that he worked with the Council on Foreign Relations for many years and must be one of its most respected alumni. Would it be possible for him to contact Richard Haass or whomever else is in charge, to inform him/her that the Council on Foreign Relations is as entrenched in an out of date, anachronistic and dying model as the legal profession, the medical profession and the teaching profession are?

    Only a model as morally corrupt and economically inefficient as the “blue” model would insist on a fee of $150 to read an article the good professor wrote about, of all things, the middle class.

    Can you help get this fixed, Professor Mead? You know what they say; if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

    For those interested in the Clemons article citing Mead, it can be found here:

  • Damir Marusic

    WigWag, I can just say as someone who’s working all the time in getting content repurposed for the web that this particular instance may just be the case of “not enough hours in the day”. Unless I misread something, the $150 you’re citing is for a print book that CFR is willing to sell you. That, too, is steep, and sounds like it’s something intended for libraries and academic institutions.

    But it’s not like it’s what FA is charging for access to one article: those usually go for $2.95 for a PDF download. And though, yes, they probably ought to offer a Kindle version of this book for mere mortals such as ourselves, I can also attest to the fact that Amazon’s tools for doing that are not nearly as easy and straightforward as they should be.

  • Anthony

    Technology is not a dynamic with its own logic (yes the technical process matters but people use technology…). Therfore, social media (networking) by definition must be shaped by the “social relationships” within which its actors are embedded – people use technology as a resource that may provide some material advantage; resulting imponderables are…

  • WigWag

    Damir, $150 is for the entire book but I don’t believe that the Mead/Schwenninger piece is available as a pdf for $2.95 or at any other price, but I could be mistaken.

    The idea that $150 is a reasonable price to charge for any work (even Professor Mead’s) in the digital age is simply ridiculous. The fact that think tanks like CRF think they can get away with charging that much is as crazy as the idea that textbook publishers think they can charge over $100 for texts or colleges and universities think they can charge students tens of thousands of dollars for tuition.

    As a colleague and faithful reader of Professor Mead’s I know that you have heard him talk about the importance of reducing costs through technological efficiency. Given the wide latitude that Professor Mead assumes when describing the “blue” model (earlier this week he suggested that American religious groups were following the “blue” model) it seemed to me that the CFR pricing of his work exemplified the “blue” model on steroids. Given that he is such a critic of the “blue” model, I thought that he might want to at least try to intervene.

    One last thing, Damir; I do consider myself a “mere mortal” but given the great work that you do, I think that you’ve graduated beyond that description. At the very least, in and around the “ American Interest” I am sure that you’ve achieved the status of demiurge (a good demiurge that is)!

  • Anthony

    Correction 2nd sentence: Therefore….

  • Jim.

    We have…

    …faith in Democracy, because we don’t trust kings.

    …our Bill of Rights, because we don’t trust democracy.

    …a free market, because we don’t trust commissars.

    …a multitude of different Protestant denominations, because we don’t trust priests and popes

    …near-anonymous posting, because I don’t trust *you*. (Nothing personal, except in a few cases. I just don’t know you that well.)

    We also don’t trust Zuckerberg, which is why people resist his ever-more intrusive attempts to “share” us.

    Should we shed this mistrust and leave ourselves open to all? If you think we should, then go turn off your computer’s firewall, virus scanner, and the rest of your security software. Wait a day or two, see what happens, then get back to me. Oh, and if you’re feeling really trusting, consider leaving your keys in your car.

    Making all your information public because we should all trust everyone. Where do they get these ideas?

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