I woke up Jan. 1 late in the afternoon. I met three of my friends at Skyline and spent the night watching movies and playing Wii with those friends. When I got home I sleepily trudged down to the basement where I’d set up my computer. Within a few minutes I had watched a Youtube.com video of a wounded Iranian protester bleeding to death as his countrymen cradled his head and scrambled to stop his bleeding.
That same night, I watched a streaming video on ExtraLives.org, a site run by high school students, which was holding a Zelda marathon over the Internet. They raised more than $12,000 for Free the Children, more than enough for the nonprofit to build a school in a developing area of Kenya, Sri Lanka, India, Ecuador, Sierra Leone or China. The entire site is devoted to that concept: video game marathons for charity, something that would have seemed entirely improbable not long ago. Much of that money came from members of Reddit.com and the attention they gathered by posting a link on their news-aggregating site.
It’s apparent that changes in communication technology have made communication faster and easier to access more obscure information. A decade ago I might not have seen that particular video from Iran, and I might not have gotten images from the Iranian protests nearly in real time, but the protests likely would have been reported eventually. The ExtraLives marathon, on the other hand, wouldn’t have even been possible without streaming technology and would have been far less successful if not for a community brought together on the Internet. Increased speed and availability of information undoubtedly have real value. Without cell phone cameras that can upload to the Internet, the Iranian government’s deportation of foreign journalists may have kept me from getting more than a few vague paragraphs about the protests and the protesters themselves would have had a much harder time communicating. But the truly revolutionary aspects of modern communication lie in its ability to organize people, information and resources in new ways, and perhaps most importantly with its ability to make people aware of how easy it is to organize even for modest purposes.
Robert Heinlein, a famous American science fiction writer, once wrote, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, con a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” It may be an ideal picture, but he has a point. A single human being has the capacity to acquire a number of skills and undertake a variety of projects, especially now, living in a time of unprecedented leisure (with respect to both time and wealth); but most people in the developed world devote their “productive” time to a profession and reserve their free time for relaxation.
There are a few basic reasons for this, including the simple need for a break. A cynic would attribute it to apathy: people just don’t care about other people any more or they don’t care enough to do something about problems that matter to them. This might be true of some people, but the quickest road to apathy is impotence. Many projects seem either too costly or altogether impossible. You might be willing to spend an hour cleaning up a park or building a public paintball field on unused land, but you’d likely be considerably less willing to spend months of your spare time to do the whole job yourself. Meanwhile you’d likely be right to assume writing a letter requesting a local official get the job done would accomplish little if anything, and handing out fliers on a corner somewhere probably would be just as futile.
In the show Scrubs, J.D., one of the main characters, remarks, “I think one of the most universal human experiences is feeling alone. You’d never know it, but there’s most likely tons of people feeling the exact same way.” That idea captures the essential problem of collaborative projects: hundreds and even thousands of people might feel the same way about an issue or problem but never come into contact with one another, or if they do so it’s in such a meaningless interaction that the subject never comes up. As a result, nothing is solved.
The Internet addresses this problem by being searchable and by being permanently accessible. There’s little point in standing on a corner when you can put up a post that remains available at all hours and will be viewed primarily by people who are actually looking for it because they share your values or ideas. This will be even truer in the future, when location-based technology will provide Web sites and search results most relevant to a person’s physical location. The number of online communities that will watch video game marathons and donate money to countries they’ll never see might be small, but sites for one’s hometown or even neighborhood will be far more likely to address issues and suggest projects that make sense to that person.
Modern technology is combining increasing awareness with increasing ability to actually do something – organize people, gather money or resources and so on. America prides itself on valuing individuality: its future will value individuals more commonly and more effectively working together, and doing so outside of traditional collaborations like companies and political parties.