When the future came, we were promised there would be flying cars. We were promised there would be moon bases. We were promised world peace and cold fusion and robot housekeepers. We were promised jetpacks.
That future is here and we didn’t get those things. What we did get was a global network of information and communication. As consolation prizes go, it’s not so bad. The Internet is, after all, the great democratiser; a place where we can all gather to learn, share and discuss new and old ideas. Unfortunately, “all” is sometimes a problem. Democracy’s greatest asset is also its biggest shortcoming—it’s totally inclusive. Everyone and anyone can play, and sadly all ideas, new and old, are not created equal. We have realised Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” only to find this village, too, has an idiot. Several idiots, in fact.
When two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, within minutes people were on Twitter calling for death to all “sand niggers” (a term I was previously unfamiliar with and one that seems particularly designed to offend as many people as possible). When two high school football players in Ohio were convicted of assaulting an unconscious 16-year-old girl, people took to the Internet to blame her for not having the simple decency to not get raped. For more general examples, follow online debates about immigration reform or legalising gay marriage. And if you think this is strictly American behaviour, you clearly weren’t paying attention when the Idle No More movement was in full swing.
If you somehow missed these social media low lights, the blog Public Shaming has been diligently cataloguing them for posterity. Reading the site’s archive, you’ll find the only thing more shocking than the appalling things people say is the sheer volume of people saying appalling things. More interestingly though, Floating Sheep and Hatebase are using online hate speech as data points to graph what can only be described as the most intolerant places on Earth. These tools are hopefully just the beginning of a movement to make egalitarianism the status quo everywhere.
One of the core tenets of democracy is freedom of speech. But free speech and consequence-free speech aren’t the same thing. While democratic principles (arguably) give people the right to say stupid, hateful things, they allow the rest of us to tell those people why the stupid, hateful thing they just said is so wrong. Technology may have provided everyone with a soapbox, but it has also provided us with the means to hold each other accountable for the things we shout from it.
The global village has led to more dialogue than ever. A cursory look at Public Shaming might indicate this isn’t a terrific thing, but the problems of racism and sexism and all the other isms were never going to be solved in silence. In the global village, dialogue is the thing that will help us find something resembling global values. In a democracy, we have a right to individual beliefs, but we also have a duty to try and make the world a better place for everyone.
Father John Culkin, a friend and colleague of McLuhan’s, said “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” (a quote commonly misattributed to McLuhan). Wilson Miner, an American designer, put it more eloquently when he paraphrased “we make our world what it is and we become the kind of people who live in it.”
We have made a world where everyone can have a voice. Now it’s up to us to become the kind of people who have things worth saying.
And then, maybe we’ll get jetpacks.