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.