Sunday, June 21, 2009

Re-thinking Iran and Twitter


After writing "Is Social Technology Making Us Smarter?", I felt a twinge of regret for not having capitalized on my argument.

While we all agree that social technology is becoming a greater part of global society, it is easy to get carried away. I've noticed that rational arguments about social technology can quickly become quixotic pseudo-spiritual prognostications.

There have been a half-dozen articles since the huge media flurry over Twitter and the Iran elections that attempt to curb our enthusiasm about the prospect that social media is going to change the world. Here are just a couple from Wired, Slate, and Forbes:

"Iran: Before You Have That Twitter-Gasm . . ." (Wired Magazine)


Let's not get carried away about Twitter power's role in Iran's demonstrations. (Slate Magazine)

Information Is Overrated: Twitter's not gonna change our world. (Forbes Magazine)

Toward the end of my last post, I believe I grew a bit vague, relying on Peter Daou's mystical vision of the "collective turning-outward of human thought". It sounded good at the time . . .

Now I'm going to admit to you that I'm not entirely convinced that social technology is making us smarter. This weekend I got a chance to visit my father in Chicago and one of the things we talked about was Iran and Twitter.

My father knows nothing about Twitter. He's only learned of Twitter's existence from newspapers like The New York Times. He was born in Iraq and lived there until his twenties. So while he doesn't know much about Twitter, he happens to know a lot about dictators. He lived under the regime of Saddam Hussein.

I'm less inclined to believe that social technology is making us smarter after having talked with my Dad. But I still believe we are becoming smarter through the use of blogging, Twitter, and the vast number of social networking sites. The reason for this is so simple I overlooked it in my first examination.

Social technology, at its core, enables, encourages, and expands collective intelligence. And so, it may seem like splitting hairs, but the real argument is that collective intelligence trumps individual intelligence. Social technology does not make us smarter; we are already smarter in large groups. Because social technology creates the network for collective intelligence, we tend to think it is causing the intelligence but the intelligence was there all along, we just never tapped into it.


Let's put this into a global perspective.

"What allows a dictatorship to function is its ability to isolate the people. To keep the people from communicating. That's how every dictatorship works."

My father continues, "In our country, we had a right-wing hold on the government for eight years. How did Barack Obama get elected? Not because of Bush's failures. It was because Obama's campaign took advantage of the Internet. Obama learned that he could accomplish incredible things using these new technologies."

"Whatever the outcome of the Iranian elections, it's not as important as the fact that the protest occurred and a threshold has been broken. Authoritarian regimes will have a harder time suppressing their populations. The momentum of electronic communications and media is growing every week, every day, creating a massive counter-movement to the traditional practices of dictatorships such as China and North Korea."

In my first article, "Is Social Technology Making us Smarter?", I mentioned an "inscrutable" aspect of social technology. I was unable to pin down what made Twitter a phenomenon on a large scale. I used the word "inscrutable" because I didn't have an answer at the time.

Now I know that the mystery behind Twitter is collective intelligence itself. As I said before, social technology does not make us smarter; we are already smarter in large groups.

From the "Afterword" in The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki writes:
The growing interest in collective wisdom is the product of a host of different factors, but I think in many ways it's directly connected to the increased importance of the Internet. In part, that's because I think the ethos of the Net is fundamentally respectful of and invested in the idea of collective wisdom, and in some sense hostile to the idea that power and authority should belong to a select few. Many of the Net's most distinctive landmarks--Google, Slashdot, Wikipedia--are the products of the wisdom of crowds, and more generally, the Net, almost by its very structure, seems antihierarchical. It provides a vivid demonstration every day that systems can work smoothly and intelligently without having any one person in charge.
Surowiecki believes that the conditions necessary for a crowd to be wise are: diversity, independence, and a particular kind of decentralization. Social technology seems to embrace all of these conditions, which is why I may have initially seen it as the cause of augmented intelligence. But this is looking at the world through a grain of sand.

We are intelligent, we are collectively wiser, and our latest technologies only reveal this truth more.


For more essays by the author, visit Escape into Life . . .

ARTWORK BY KOLAHSTUDIO IRANIAN UNDERGROUND ART

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4 comments:

Dr. Omed said...

Love the art. I'm a big fan of collage.

If it be your whim, I'd like your opinion on whether or not this:

http://doctoromed.wordpress.com/2009/06/20/little-sister-speaks-farsi/

is one of those "quixotic pseudo-spiritual prognostications" of which you speak. Don't worry about hurting my feelings; I need the strop to sharpen my thoughts on the matter.

dijeratic said...

I love the idea of collective wisdom and agree that most of these social networks only enhance what is already there (or give us a gateway to previously unavailable information, thus allowing us to combine forces as it were) - but as far as hierarchies are concerned, they do exist, even on Twitter and the herd mentality, much as we might loathe it, dictates who leads and who follows (Twitter uses this language)>

I do hope we are moving toward a global government that no longer depends on the middle men, the politicians and corporate types to speak for the people and become completely corrupt in the end. It does seem the logical result of this technology, if a bit Utopian. Unfortunately, we know that all the technology in the world does nothing to change that basic human characteristic: fear. And fear creates hierarchies and - we know the rest.

I appreciate how thoughtful and thought-provoking your writing is, thank you!

de.puta.madre said...

I'm Sorrrrrrrry!! But I must Say to U:

People just cared more about Mafia and Spaymastar than about Iran Election!!!!

It as the Problem!!

People in twitter live under the kindom of emotion!! The emotion of the moment! ... After some few days ... they get was more emotional satisfaction playing Mafia and Spaymaster than Just make a simple RT or Two about Iran election. But No! Nobody cares about it!!! Because they (as they said many times) "they don't feel" ... Stupid "Human" beings are living in this planet!!
They just go on the wave of self-emotional plauser ... They are unable to rationalize!

That kind of Be Humam KILL MORE PEOPLE THAN DICTATOURS!!! Memorize this Sentence!!!

PS.: Sorrry about my english ... I Usually write in portuguese ... On twitter I'm @Dputamadre ( I was RT Iran Twitter all the time in an account with more than 20 000 ppl ... I have a significative perception of what I realise during that period of the wave of Green Revolution! And I come from a Countrie with 141 years old of Justice without Death Penalty") ...

I Just don't believe in Social media ... twitter and so ... as a Tool to Stop Governants to "degrading us" as the song of @muse ( urprising) tell ...

de.puta.madre said...

dijeratic good perspective also!