Friday, August 12, 2011

Don't shoot the Messenger

At the end of a week in which Neanderthal instincts came to the fore in Tottenham, Clapham, Croydon and other parts of England, we are told that the human brain may have reached the limit of its development, and may even be genetically starting to shrink. 

Being the energy hog that it is (you'll have burned five calories just reading this post), scientists believe that our brains are finding ways to conserve energy, and shrinking - perhaps to the size of our early ancestors' brains - is a possibility. 

This follows another recent piece of neurological research which suggested that computers and the Internet are causing us to use our memories less, as we use the likes of Wikipedia and Google more as a form of 'offline' storage. With most of us now online and more people carrying smartphones around, information is instantly available - so why waste our own storage capacity when someone's cloud server can take the burden?

Blaming technological progress has always been too easy. Caxton's printing press opened up the spread of knowledge, but was also demonised in fundamentalist quarters. The Internet has faced a similar gauntlet. 

The World Wide Web - which, coincidentally celebrated its 20th birthday this week - has, along with most other forms of information and communications technology, revolutionised life and transformed everything from education, commerce and travel, to government, economic development and social interaction. The list of things we just did differently before Tim Berners-Lee came up with his interconnected network is endless.

But just because a group of hooded miscreants, who've bought into BlackBerry's marketing of BBM to non-business users, started lobbing wheelie bins through the windows of Currys and Foot Locker, we end up with politicians calling for smartphones, Facebook and Twitter to be curbed.

Weren't we, earlier this year, praising these very same tools for their role in transforming the political and social landscape in Egypt, Tunisia and other parts of the Middle East? Didn't Twitter provide a vital lifeline to the victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami?

No sooner had popular revolution in one part of the world become popular revolt in another, than the politicians were leaping on the technology involved in it. Don't shoot the messenger.

Whether the orchestrators of this week's mayhem used BBM, SMS or World War One carrier pigeons to marshall the looting, it wouldn't have made a difference. Those bent on theft and arson would have caused it anyway.

People who have been quick to apportion blame have been equally quick to forget that it was Facebook, Twitter and, we assume, BlackBerry and other smartphones, who galvanised the community response. When 200 people take part in a riot, and 500 come together via a social network to clean it up, I think it's safe to say who the winner is.

1 comment:

  1. In the immortal words of Rodney King, "Can't we all get along?" Who knows, maybe we can all get along over a nice game of Angry Birds. On an Android device.