Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Technology: It's Not a Panacea

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the revolution that ultimately ended the Soviet Union in 1991, much was made of the impact by technology in preventing the success of the attempted coup against then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Fax machines played a large role for Russian leader Boris Yeltsin to organize opposition to the coup--the coup leaders couldn't keep information to themselves or adequately monitor the opposition, and thus the coup ultimately failed.

In the past few days, similar lauding of technology has surrounded the video of Susan Boyle singing on the "Britain's Got Talent" show. The audience had been unkind to Boyle, in part due to her non-traditional appearance for a singer, until she started to sing. Through YouTube, Susan Boyle is now known around the world. Technologists are pointing to this as a triumph of meritocracy through the Internet.

There's an issue with that interpretation, though. The Boyle appearance took place in February. Not until it actually aired on television on 11-April did the YouTube video start to take off. So, while YouTube certainly introduced Boyle to a broader worldwide audience, pretending that the Internet was some sort of meritocracy that discovered Boyle is a fallacy. The television gatekeepers did that--had they chosen not to air Boyle, nobody would be writing about her now. Technology may have been an intensifier, but it didn't fundamentally change this situation.

For better or for worse, this applies to most lauding of technology. We'll never know for certain, but I suspect that even the fax machines in the Soviet Union in 1991 were not actually necessary. They may have made the process easier or faster, but the dynamics against the success of that coup would have played out, and the coup would have been undermined at some point--much of the military, for example, reportedly felt more loyalty to Yeltsin than any other leader. That feeling was the key.

The single image that stands out most strongly to me from my entire life is the photograph taken by Jeff Widener of the man staring down a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square, China, during the June 1989 standoff. That was all about the power of the human condition--that man wasn't using technology at all, just his own courage and body. When crises occur, those will always be the most important elements, no matter how much technology might help. No amount of technology will change that.

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