Let them haz cheezburgers?

There is a growing sentiment that technology will save us socially – from first world problems such as boredom, mediocrity and loneliness – and politically, from isolation, repression and exploitation. In a recent article in The Age, for example, Tim Van Gelder discusses his grassroots political site YourView, arguing that crowd-sourcing (facilitating by his site) will help politicians make better-informed decisions.[i] I have already documented some of the risks of using mobile devices to cure our impatience with RL[ii] – yet there are even bigger dangers in expecting the web to solve global injustices and disharmony. There is a pervasive idea amongst the West, for instance, that we helped make the Arab Spring possible with ‘our’ technology. Do we really have the impudence to claim that social networking, video hosting, and microblogging platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter stood down American-manufactured tanks, rather than incredibly courageous Muslim men and women?[iii] It appears so.

How much technology really facilitates civil rights movements is debatable,[iv] and certainly beyond the scope of this post. However, such a focus on the weapon rather than the wielder reflects both an unhealthy degree of autoerotic back patting, and a perverted sense of priorities. It is as if we think we could mitigate all of the world’s suffering just by giving everyone a Facebook account and infinite lolcat images.[v] Even worst is the hypocrisy of imposing liberal online values on other countries at the exact time we are behaving autocratically within our own. Like modern day Marie Antoinettes, we surf the internet in our air-conditioned cubicles, drinking our caffè latte, and reading about the deficiencies of the world – and all we can think to say is ‘Let them haz cheezburgers.’

Image by Crethi Plethi

End notes

[i] This is an instance of the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ idea: the belief that the more opinions you can gather, the more accurate a picture you can form – much like applying the law of large numbers to ideas.

[ii] In a study of ‘stupid, hyperaddictive games’ for instance, journalist Sam Anderson describes his plans for an iPaddle. This would be “a little screen-size wooden paddle that I would slide in front of [my wife’s iPhone] phone whenever she drifted away, on the back of which, upside-down so she could read them, would be inscribed humanist messages from the analog world: ‘I love you’ or ‘Be here now.’”

[iii] Other candidates include Wikileaks and The Guardian – being an Assange-fan-boy, however, I don’t mind these as much.

[iv] One recent article quite blatantly argued that a new laptop worth $150 a unit would terrify repressive governments the moment it hit the market. This is because it would allow what David Brin refers to as sousveillance – citizens turning the tables on their totalitarian governments by recording and distributing proof of human rights violations. “‘The soldiers inside this Trojan horse are children with laptops,’ said Walter Bender, a computer researcher who served as director of the Media Laboratory.”

[v] This is indicative of a deeply held sentiment amongst the West - that suffering as a result of human rights violations is far worst that suffering as a result, say, of preventable diseases. It is as if the population of the developing world is drifting down a river on a flotilla of overcrowded boats. Lunatics are at the helm and disease is rampant. Meanwhile, the developed countries are lounging on the banks, occasionally glancing to the centre of the river where they ensure the boats remain, and prodding them if they get too close to the shore. Occasionally, some of the crew on the boats will start ‘violating the human rights’ of the passengers - maybe beating them, maybe mocking them, maybe just preventing them from talking to one another. If that happens, the civilized residents on the shore throw their hands up in horror, and strike down at the oppressors. Yet in the mean time, it is completely acceptable for the boat to float along, with its passengers starving and dying.

A similar analogy has been presented:
"Think of a stretch limo in the potholed streets of New York City, where homeless beggars live. Inside the limo are the air-conditioned post-industrial regions of North America, Europe, the emerging Pacific Rim, and a few other isolated places, with their trade summitry and computer-information highways. Outside is the rest of mankind, going in a completely different direction." -- ‘The Coming Anarchy’ by Robert Kaplan, The Atlantic.