Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Internet, conceptually

Ever wonder what it’d be like to view the world for the first time, as a complete stranger? So did Tocqueville view America.

He saw it through the eyes of a skeptic. Yet he was immensely drawn to it – the “experiment of democracy”, its citizens’ buzzing political fervor, freedom at a level that the world had not yet known. America somehow reflected the good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity, all at the same time, and to a new extreme. But Tocqueville knew for sure that the rest of the world was to follow its trend with an unrelenting inevitability.

It wasn’t just “democracy”. It was freedom of the press. It was the rising of masses over the few and powerful. It was liberation. The world was getting bigger. It was becoming impossible to contain it all. In America was a group of people who had broken through their shackles to lead themselves. It was a new world to say the least – filled with exotic differences from the old world, equal parts raw potential and unbridled danger.

By all means the experiment now appears to be a success. But Tocqueville’s observations – a, perhaps giddy, excitement strung along a sliver of dark foreshadows – remains acutely relevant today.

It wasn’t just America. The whole world was changing, it can’t be stopped. Like evolution. Capitalism. Like the image of Coke bottles being passed through the Berlin wall – which goes beyond smart PR, it speaks to the inevitability of progress.

It’s no accident that the world's first democracy also guaranteed freedom of the press. To Tocqueville Americans appeared hungry for knowledge. The newspapers seemed to bring out the best and worst in them. Unlike the pristine press in France, American newspapers were littered with advertisements, gossip, and scandal. But sprinkled in were also small journalistic gems – brought, hand-in-hand with all the noise and dirt, through pure public demand.

For the first time, newspapers were controlled by readers – their interests, desires, curiosities – rather than by authorities. Just as ruling authority was spread thin across the people and through additional checks and balances, an authority of intellect was also spread thin over thought. Independence became virtue. All of which you can see reflected in their newspapers. The whole country was littered with them. And they weren’t the same one or two or three publications, they were all different – cities all had at least one local paper, many had more.

Communication of information has driven America ever since. The progression of its history can be measured in related technological advances, from railroad and Morse-code to the telephone, radio, television, and cable television, movies, new methods of transportation – and finally to the world wide web. Parallel to such advances is an exponential increase in man's capacity. If measured by the number of significant world events, time is certainly speeding up, hurdling us through the boundaries of the unkown.

But at the same time, the internet is just the next step in this forward march. Like the first American newspapers, it offers a reflection of mankind that's sometimes flattering and sometimes wretched. This blog, I hope, will portray the former, as if it were through the eyes of a stranger.



Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1) Alexis de Tocqueville; (2) Coke Bottle; (3) newspaper vendor; (4) Internet Map by Matt Britt, created 11/2006 based on interconnecting IP Addresses using data depicting the internet on 01/15/2005

Video: (1) Underworld, "Born Slippy", 1995, featured in the 1996 movie Trainspotting


Upcoming ideas:

  • How Americans handle freedom
  • Differences between democracy in America & attitudes in Europe, particularly France
  • European existentialism/ennui vs. American practicality
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