Steve Effros

Commentary by Steve Effros

Please read this column by Tom Friedman that was recently in the New York Times. Then link to the “TED Talk” he provides by Egyptian Tahir Square activist, computer engineer and former Google employee Wael Ghonim discussing what is probably the most important issue we, as the primary facilitators of the new “information age” must address.

The question posed is this: Does it turn out that social media is better at breaking things than at making things? I’d expand that to apply to the entire broadband/Internet ecosystem we’ve been responsible for promoting and building. Please, read the column, watch the talk. Don’t get diverted by things like foreign affairs, or Egypt, or “liberal” columnist, or New York Times. The fundamental issues raised are far too important.

I’ve long said I intend to write a book titled “Pause…The Building of the Information SuperHypeWay.” I call it that because I’ve always been concerned that what we’ve been doing, or asked to do, or pushed to do—by well-meaning activists, regulators and legislators—has far greater impact than we’ve considered, and we should slow down and think about how to deal with the consequences before running as fast as we can into an unknown, albeit commercially very successful technological future. In other words, don’t let the money and hype blind us to the realities. Several years ago I added a sub-title for the book; “An Apology,” because, regrettably, I think that’s exactly what we’ve done.

Ghonim’s answer to the question is, unfortunately, yes. And he points to the disastrous outcome of the “Arab Spring” as an example. But as he notes in his talk, the underlying issue is not restricted to foreign policy, or the Arab world. Rather, it’s a realization that the speed with which we have enabled people to communicate, to “socially network,” has led to mindless simplicity, brevity and associated volume in online discourse; and that the ease with which people can now express their own views, biases, anger, hopes, dreams and, yes, manias in such a way is in large part one of the reasons we now see increasing polarization around the world, in our own politics, and, indeed, in just about every area of our lives.

As he comments, you can’t talk about any “hot button” issue these days without social media and the Internet lighting up with the filtered (we only listen to what we agree with, we only talk to those who agree with us) instantaneous, polarized, often angry and regrettably loud hateful responses we are experiencing. He has some proposals for what to do about all that, but they are only a beginning. I would suggest, as well, that it would be wise to throttle back on all the hype about our new ways of instant communications, instant information, electronic buzz, insistence on “more” and “faster” until we spend some time thinking about how all that power gets used, and how we can ameliorate the clearly dangerous and growing threat it has become. We created this tool. It’s time we took responsibility for also promoting the techno-social ethics required to use it wisely.

This is not just about “more television for consumers.” This is about how we will all communicate and interact, and with whom, as we move forward. If all we have done is commercially facilitate polarization, then we really need to hit that “pause” button. Please read the column, listen to the TED Talk, and contribute your thinking as to how we can stop the hype and responsibly respond.

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