The Internet and Your Head

Political change happens largely because enough people change their minds about something to see the stupidity of doing it the old way. On their own, halls to have meetings in, or money to pay for propaganda, or any of the other crude implements of the political machine – even printing presses for pamphlets and the telephone, are of no use until the perception of power and identity alters in enough people to make a difference. Until the lightbulb wants to be changed.
On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres‘ by Copernicus went almost unnoticed by the most people in its day, whatever its effect among the scientific and religious communities. And whatever its faults, it undoubtedly undermined the perception of Man’s role at the centre of God’s universe, with Jerusalem at the centre of the world. Over the succeeding generations, and in the light of subsequent discoveries, enough people shared this new view of man as a relatively insignificant sideshow in God’s cosmos, and not central at all. This shifted the emphasis from a cosmically centralised power structure, with its HQ in Rome, to something far more susceptible to personal interpretation, people started to ask ‘What about me? What do I get out of this?’ and the modern Individual was born. The printing press threw gasoline on this bonfire of feudal heresy. It is no accident that there were no Hamlets or Rembrandt self-portraits before the Reformation.
The entire political change we call the Reformation was empowered partly by the bumbling, timid Copernicus and his meanderings around Europe avoiding his creditors. People did not use his discovery to achieve political change – like a soapbox or TV station. They were simply allowed to see that another interpretation of the world was possible, and that they could be part of implementing that interpretation in their own interest, not the interest of any oligarchy or orthodoxy. They could, possibly, decide the course of their own lives.
The parallels with the growth of internet use are obvious. People ask,  ‘How can people use the internet for political change? It’s full of porn and teenagers scribbling nonsense?’ Which is to entirely miss the point. The same people might have asked: ‘What political use is a science book by an old crank. And one which got it wrong, anyway?’ The discovery wasn’t used to make change happen, it was the change. By altering the psychological perspective it altered the world.
The shift from consumer to producer changes everything. A world of photographers is more likely to be visually literate and therefore less susceptible to advertising and propaganda. And when a society reaches a stage when almost a majority are regularly using written words for pleasure, not out of duty or business, but because of the basic fun instinct, then something’s got to give. People learn fast when they are taught by personal trial and error. And as producers they not only learn to see the tricks being played on them, but also experience a shift in their own self-worth. They feel that their word is just as much as a college professor or prime minister or Pope. In the words of Oscar Hammerstein:“I’d like to teach you all a little sayin’`And learn the words by heart the way you should. I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else. But I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good!”
– which seems to be applicable to most frontier situations. And as with previous new frontiers and unmapped wildernesses,  the internet will alter people’s perceptions of their own worth and power enough for them to want to fufill the new potential they discover.
Clay Shirkyseems at first sight to be someone who understands the relationship between fun and awareness and political change, and is not prepared to sacrifice his idealism to the clunky misreadings of the reactionary press and TV, to whom the internet is merely a licence for paedophiliacs. The more his optimism and faith in human decency infects the mainstream media in their damp sulky caves, the better.
‘We have a set of tools for aggregating things people care about… Those tools turn love into a renewable building material.’
‘Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age’
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