Reach out and clutch someone

Malcolm Gladwell writing in The New Yorker (I confess that I have read Blink and Outliers, and very much enjoy his “not-so-fast” takes on the conventional wisdom)… does it again, in “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.” The “compare and contrast” is the civil rights movement of the pre-internet, pre-cel-phone, pre-fax-machine, pre-all-electronic-social-media era United States, with today’s “twitter revolutions,” be they in places like Moldova or Iran or wherever. His point is not something our “moron media by and for morons” will tell us, to wit (not shortened to “twit,” an all too apt description for all too many “twitter” users), those demonstrations were… wait for it… not the product of social media (let alone social media operating in the United States). Those demonstrations were… wait for it… a result of people being committed to the actual causes underlying the demonstrations… social media were merely an adjunct… and a tiny, insignificant adjunct… at that.
While Americans like to believe we had some role in Iran, for example, by flooding Twitter with new accounts purportedly operating in Iran which the thought police there would have to waste time trying to track… Gladwell makes the obvious point… few people in the United States, if any, were “tweeting” in Farsi… which would seem to be an obvious precursor to getting large numbers of people to do much of anything in Iran (just as a wave of Farsi “tweets” here would be… well, “farsical” or something…but not effective at getting anyone out the door into a situation where they might be arrested, beaten or killed). Get over it America: we just don’t own everything. No matter how much we want or need to feel good about ourselves.
Gladwell ends his lengthy piece with a discussion of what social media are generally good for (besides keeping up with those fifth grade friends that we largely dropped in fifth grade because… well, we didn’t like them all that much or have all that much in common… but on Facebook, no one knows you’re a dog, it’s so much fun to keep up with old friends). Social media are an extraordinarily great way to have low-risk, low-effort commitments, and hence, easy to have lots and lots of low risk, low effort connections. That is to say, a great way of getting five or ten or fifty of your semi-distant acquaintances (the ones in Greensboro, anyway) to come to your birthday party at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Greensboro (which, I’m guessing is now a Footlocker, or otherwise, something other than a Woolworth’s)… but a terrible way to get them to do anything “risky” like… staging a sit-in at a Wolworth’s lunch counter that will possibly get you and they arrested, threatened, or worse. The example Gladwell cites of “the potential” of social media involves a yuppie (remember that word?) using social media to humiliate an uppity (remember that word?) teenager who finds, and then stubbornly refuses to return, a misplaced toy cool new celphone to its rightful White owner, “forcing” the police to investigate and then arrest the wayward deviant (and uppity) teenager.
Gladwell observes the complete triviality of this… and the only thing I’ll say for his genuinely trenchant piece about the triviality of our times (which, simultaneously, are serious enough to be ushering in environmental, political, economic and cultural apocalypses, all while the moron masses are playing on their cool cel-phones looking for the next cool “app” and hence unable to notice most of it… other than, of course, to form utterly ineffective “social networks” to get 726 “friends” to contribute 22 cents each to Greenpeace or something)… is that Gladwell didn’t go all the way and make the point I just did. To wit, just over a decade ago at the close of the last millenium (just before the dot-com bubble burst), a friend in Europe suggested that the communications breakthroughs best exemplified by the effect of the fax machine in organizing the Tiannamen Square protests… would usher in the end of totalitarianism– because, such protests could spontaneously pop up anywhere and be organized at the speed of a fax speed-dial… he suggested that the Third Reich could not have operated in such a world of rapid communications. My response, not based on much besides a desire to respond quickly and wittily, was that I thought such communications would mostly just help Nazis… be better at being Nazis.
And so here we are: Gladwell’s point is that the toys of our time resulting in a purported “twitter revolution” are, like “a war against terror,” simply illustrative of the tools of… something… and cannot themselves be the subject of anything as requiring of commitment and risk as a genuine revolution of any kind, though, of course, they are great for such trivialities (my suggestion, not his) as geographically disperse social networks (close-proximity people can still be approached door to door, if need be… that, and a few minutes lead time) and of course, the lower personal investment are the real changes from “traditional” means of organizing.
And I, being me, will add that the toys themselves are a wonderful diversion (foist upon us by our betters precisely for this purpose) from otherwise largely pointless and unsatisfying existences (which are largely pointless and unsatisfying precisely because of the absence of “high risk,” “high investment” relationships, causes, projects, etc., to wit, genuine experiences of value, be they spending more time at the office in pursuit of Mamon stopping to hug your child, smell a flower, or form a human chain around a defense contractor or military recruiting station — which will do little if any good unless brilliantly organized with lots of really committed people willing to play ball for a really long time… or as we say here in Brooklyn… “good luck.”).
The I-phone, by comparison to walking in the woods, petting a kitten, gardening, making love, teaching a young child about the wonders of a clear blue sky… is one hell of a cool toy…. it’s AWESOME MAN! As is Facebook. And blogs, which quite frankly, are largely solipsistic exercises, mostly for the benefit of the bloggers themselves and a few selected friends… to this day, only a tiny fraction are read beyond the immediate social and family circles of the bloggers themselves… which doesn’t detract from them at all… but given the long-standing nature of letter writing, pamphleteering or even “the family Christmas letter”… nothing going on in electronic “social” media is all that “revolutionary”… other than in how quickly it allows so many of us to be “dumbed down” even further…if that were even possible… will miracles never cease?
This has been… “Reach out and clutch someone.”