Bearing Witness

The world spins faster.  This is not necessarily a good thing.  Some days I attend a video conference while my phone(s) ring, texts come in (teletype sound effect), calendar beeps, multiple Skype messages make moist Skype noises.  I think, this is how the world will end: everything moving faster, overwhelming the individual until society throttles itself like an Iranian centrifuge infected with Stuxnet.

Equally, it may not be a bad thing.  I can’t be passive in the face of change.  I learn – at least enough – to keep up.  I limit, too.  I don’t need to get app-happy like the kids and geeks.  I save my bandwidth for other things.  (See how it creeps in?  Insidious.)  Nor am I alone.  This afternoon Adrienne was trying to put two neighbors – each north of 50 – in touch.  One has no email; the other no voicemail.

In other ways, not a bad thing.  If we’re judicious about how we choose to use the new tools, they can be a great leveling force for democracy.  Occupy, Wikileaks, Anonymous.  Computers give citizens reach heretofore reserved for governments and multinational corporations.

Give you an example.  Vermont Gas, which despite its name is a wholly owned subsidiary of Canada’s Gaz Metro, wants to extend its western Vermont pipeline.  Natural gas is only available in two of Vermont’s 14 counties and the pipeline would extend to a third county and across Lake Champlain to New York State to serve a pulp mill.

Vermonters oppose the pipeline – as well they should – but DIY social networks are a potent agent of change, as they are for other local issues.  Reasons for opposing the pipe are many, but the first that rises from an opponent’s throat is fracking.

Vermont has a recent statutory prohibition on fracking, so it’s a non-issue here.  This is the result of using web tools that weren’t available when I moved here 15 years ago for quickly accessing information about the effects of fracking on rural areas like those here.

It’s not a NIMBY thing, nor do I think it’s even “think globally, act locally.”  I think it’s real human nature, something worth continued faith.  People care about Pennsylvania groundwater and will act to protect it as they hope fellow Americans will have our backs.  Once we get this scaled globally, when our circle of concern reaches each class and continent, these networks will fulfill their promise.  People want to do the right thing and will, if given the means to do so.  Social networks facilitate that.

(I’ve been watching this phenomenon close up for several years and it’s only now I’m beginning to push through cynicism about what one colleague – also north of 50 – derides as “clicktivism.”)

My neighbors, literally the people who live on the blocks around my house are posting to community listservs links to videos of testimony given at a public hearing several towns away.  I don’t even have cable and they’re getting their issue in front of me, stimulating me to action.  (I mean, I cared already, I just wasn’t doing anything.)

This isn’t Avaaz or MoveOn or VPIRG.  These are citizens talking to each other, networks so loose as to be diaphanous.  Technology gives us a chance to expand.  Saying no to fracking means saying no to its products and the system that supports them.  Maybe we’ll start saying no to bad ideas earlier now, before more damage is done.  I hope so.

We’re living in the future; this might be the good part.  We’re giving each other a voice.  We have the means to take back our future, if we have the will and sense and compassion.

© Mark Floegel, 2013

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