Malcolm Gladwell's recent New Yorker essay on social media and political power introduced an insular debate among technologists to the general public. It also inadvertently demonstrated the social media debate's analytical vacuity. Gladwell argues that digital spectacle cannot replace old-fashioned analog methods of transmuting public sentiment into political power. His critics counter that he underrates the power of networks and technology. Both sides both ultimately err in their implicit assumption that technology is a discrete and autonomous tool external to human relations.
Gladwell's piece and the debate surrounding it sheds little light on political power and technology. Much of it states the obvious, which is undeniably helpful for those unfamiliar with the debate but of little value for more experienced observers. It's true that Blackberries and iPhones can't stop bullets, and techno-utopians who suggest otherwise are now far and few between. But when Gladwell disparages social media in favor of Civil Rights-era offline organizing, he is privileging what he views as a more natural method of social organization over machine dreaming.
This elevation of the "human element" over the machine -- common in discussion of technology -- downplays the decisive interaction between humans or machines that drives our society. As technologist Kevin Kelly pointed out, human beings have always been part biological and part technological because of our extensive reliance on tools. In short, we are "cyborgs" without deep Austrian accents and instructions to protect John Conner.
Technology, as Kelly points out, is an "extended body" of ideas, an extra-human shell that we construct from our complex mixture of hopes, fears, and desires. "As fast as we remake our tools, we remake ourselves," Kelly argues. "We are co-evolving with our technology, and so we have become deeply dependent on it." It is not entirely a stretch to observe, as Kelly does, that we are now more "symbiotic" with technology than we have been in the past. Gladwell and his opponents either neglect this essential unity or sometimes deny it altogether.
In this light, it is difficult to look at media technology's decisive role in the Civil Rights era and simultaneously criticize modern social media for neglecting the human factor. Some of the most important moments recounted in Taylor Branch's three-volume history of the Civil Rights era hinge on Martin Luther King Jr.'s tactical and operational exploitation of technology to attain his strategic objectives. Indeed, most great human endeavors succeed by maximizing effective interactions between human beings and the tools that we have become inescapably tied to.
In World War II, the German combination of mechanization, tactical airpower, and radio communication with sound doctrine, campaign plans, and training created the military system that journalists would erroneously dub "Blitzkrieg." Similarly, Britain's creation and utilization of an efficient (and almost science fiction-like) man-machine command and control interface allowed the Royal Air Force to track German aircraft and mass enough force at the decisive point to win the "Battle of Britain." Both examples demonstrate the effective fusion of man and machine to accomplish goals of strategic importance.
The overheated debate between techno-utopians and techno-skeptics gives us two false choices: technology as a tool to achieve utopia or technology as an alternatively frivolous or willfully malicious force. Both proceed on the assumption that technology is something external to us. A better understanding of technology would instead assume that we are ultimately inseparable from the tools we use. Then perhaps we might gain more clarity -- if not a semblance of control--over the political, military, and social revolutions to come as technology pushes us farther and farther beyond the first stirrings of our ancestors.
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