Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Day The Universe Changed

(note: Apologies if this blog post comes across as some academic sociology/history lesson...this is how my mind works :P)

Pretty grandiose title there right? I use it symbolically, but there is also a practical reason why I choose it as the title of today's post. And to be clear, I'm totally plagiarizing the title from an old documentary series made by the scientific historian James Burke called amazingly enough “The Day The Universe Changed”. I encourage anyone with a dose of patience for the strangeness of deep history to watch it.

I watched this documentary series during its first go around, right when I was graduating high school twenty five years ago, and I've taken the lessons learned from this and other experiences to construct my way of thinking about the world.

Perhaps the most important lesson one can bring away from this series or indeed from any deep and critical study of history is that what we institutionalize as right, just, ethical, moral, or true are very malleable concepts.

Human beings are in a constant state of flux where we express our individuality and liberty, alongside our desire for systems, institutions, and rules. Which systems institutions and rules survive are entirely dependent on the desires of individuals expressed both individually or collectively. When systems arise that take for granted their very existence as systems and do so without taking into account the collective needs and desires of individuals within those system, those systems are either modified or abandoned entirely.

Again and again throughout history are examples of systems modified or abandoned for ones that not only work better, but work the way we collectively want them to work. And when these paradigm shifts occur the universe itself changes because our view of the world around us changes.

We've lived now for centuries taking for granted such vaulted concepts as liberty and representative democracy, and many of our views of these things have become quite powerful institutions in and of themselves. Individually and collectively we've also had for an equal amount of time the ability to be critical of such institutions. One need only look at the campaigns of our earliest presidents here in America to see how important an expressive role that the press had and has had over the centuries. But it's equally clear that the nature of things has changed somewhat from the time when we were a tiny collection of colonies in an underpopulated hinterland.

How does representative democracy work in a nation of 311 million people, when it was a concept originally developed to deal with transportation problems in ancient greek city states with populations nowhere near that? How does the citizen become an active participant in such a system in a country where only seven large corporations are responsible for all the news and information we receive? Take these concepts to a global scale now, given that things like borders and country mean less and less and eventually will mean nothing at all. How can we have investigative journalism, oversight, or any sort of watchdog activism in such an environment?

The only way people can make good decisions is to have good information. One can debate all day long what to do with information, but in a vacuum of information we cannot even do that. In many areas of our lives we rely on the transparency of good information, but we can only be assured of that transparency when the information itself is available for scrutiny.

To me, the Anonymous movement is precisely about the nature of information and its transparency. Rather than debate endlessly about where we all might stand politically about what we think about the world we live in, the focus should be on ensuring the transparency of information around us. Institutions live and thrive on their information, and that's all fine and well. But when such information becomes “secrets”, one must not only question the secrets themselves, but the reasons why they are secrets. In a process of critical inquiry secrecy is an anathema. The mere concept of secrecy implies that critical examination is not only unnecessary, it is undesirable.

The only way to reconcile this view against the critical and necessary exercise of logic and reason is to reject it entirely. In this information riddled age we live in, secrecy simply does not work. Not only because it limits the public's ability to know and make reasonable decisions, but also because of the dangers of insularity. Systems that do not embrace critical inquiry are ones that simply fail to work well, or work for any interests other than self interest. We have centuries of history showing us the obviousness of this conclusion.

As is the case throughout history, new inventions become fundamental catalysts for change, often in ways unforseen. From the wheel, to paper, to the printing press, to the rediscovery of geometry and countless other technologies this pattern repeats over and over again.

The internet, and the entire worlds reliance on it as a medium for social, political, and economic exchange is as pivotal an invention as any in human history, perhaps the most pivotal one. And the efforts of Antisec, Anonymous, Lulzsec, Wikileaks, and countless others funneling out of the woodwork as we speak are the tip of the iceburg in a sea change of the very nature of what it is to live on the third rock from the sun and to know what it is to exist.

It is, and as uncomfortable as every other shift in human history has come, the day the universe changed.

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