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Is the Internet God?

Illustration for article titled Is the Internet God?

How could god let this happen? I am the Jewish child of Holocaust survivors, so that is a question that I have heard asked throughout my life. Everyone from the most revered religious leaders to George Burns playing the title character in Oh God, Book 2, has tackled that enquiry.

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During the early nineties, I traveled to Poland with my parents to visit the rural village where my dad grew up and where he eventually lost his family and his home. As part of the trip, we visited a concentration camp. While every aspect of this tour was moving and upsetting, I was most shocked by what I saw outside the fences that surrounded the camp.

I saw homes. On hills. The concentration camp was in a valley and in each direction I could see more and more houses built on the raised dirt that completely surrounded the killing factory where I stood. These neighbors would have constantly seen and smelled the plumes of smoke.

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As I stood at the center of camp I wondered if things would've been any different if the whole world was watching. Not just knowing. Watching.

Nearly three decades after that trip with my parents, I am staring at this computer screen and I realize that I am living on those hills.

Pretty much everyone I follow on Twitter has had some reaction to the revolution happening in Egypt. Most of this commentary, including mine, is not backed up by a deep knowledge of Egypt's history. Instead it's a knee-jerk reaction to a moral dillemma. Whether we adhere to some religious values or view morality as a human construct, we are all reacting to a situation on the ground where we see the good guys (the young protestors who want freedom) and the bad guys (the old dictators who have repressed the masses for their own gain).

And we're all living in those houses surrounding the valley where we see something that has to change. Physically, most of us might be on the other side of the world. But the story is piped at us all day long by the mass media and by members of our networked communities. We don't just know about it in the back of our minds. We're watching it.

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As the revolution unfolded, major media outlets were repeatedly looking to the White House to get the official American response. But at this moment in history, anyone with access to the Internet already knew the American reaction. The network had already responded.

Did the Internet cause the revolution? Of course not. Did it play a critical role in enabling the revolution? It might take a little time to answer that question completely. But it's certainly worth noting that those who helped to light the fuse used the Internet to do so, and one of the first reactions of the ruling party was to turn the Internet off.

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In an interview on CNN, Wael Ghonim, one of the voices of the revolution said: "If you want to liberate a government, give them the internet."

Of course, there are countless other events in the world that we're able to ignore even with modern life's constant connectivity. But every now and then, a series of events in a corner of the world rises up onto our screens and into our communal consciousness.

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This will happen more and more often. The more connected we are, the more we'll see. This will have a dramatic impact on our own experience of world events. Will more be better? It's easy to argue that we're better off watching the streets of Cairo than American Idol. But living on those hills might overwhelm us. Every now and then, you might want to take off your virtual beret and focus on events across the living room, not across the world.

But our old living room might be gone. Once you live on that hill, it's hard to close the curtains. It's hard to deny that we'll be increasingly confronted by a new question.

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Instead of asking about god we'll have to ask:

How could we let this happen?

I don't pretend to have any idea if our watching will make a differnce in the course of world events. A few people on the hill didn't make any difference to the victims of that concentration camp. Would hundreds of millions of people on the hill do the trick? Will we live in a better world because the world is watching?

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I don't know. But at least we'll know who to blame.

Dave Pell is an internet addict, early adopter, and insider. He blogs regularly at Tweetage Wasteland and has even been known to tweet.

Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

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DISCUSSION

themightyspitz
themightyspitz

When Madison penned Federalist #10, he observed that there will always be two groups of people: the Haves, and the Have-nots. The Have-nots will always want to take from the Haves, and will always try to. This happens regardless of the type of government in power.

Up till Madison's time, there had historically been two main ways to deal with this: either eliminate all liberty or democracy in exchange for total control and order (monarchy), or ensure that everyone has the exact same opinion, passion, upbringing, wealth, and interests so much so that there would never be conflict (idealistic communism, if you will).

Both these options didn't sit well with Madison, because both inherently destroy freedom. What he suggested instead was a large Republic - with broad, diverse opinions, backgrounds, and people - that would make it very difficult for the Have-nots to organize because they all have different self-interests. Essentially, Republics create a collective action problem for the masses.

But this was before the Internet.

The linchpin of the collective action problem is communication. Without the ability to rapidly spread a message among a large group of people, trying to organize a majority of the population - let alone more than 100 people - is like herding cats. With the Internet, however, people can easily accomplish such things with something as simple as a Tweet. Like the churches and temples of old, forums and message boards have become digital communities, helping each of us recognize that those of us who care are on these sites for a reason. Yet instead of having to expend entire days to go down to the local place of worship, it only takes us a matter of hours for us to log on and connect.

The fictional character Andrew Ryan said in Bioshock, "Why worship a flag or a god, when we could worship the best of us: our will to be great." My question now is, are any of those three things mutually exclusive?

No, the Internet is not God; it is so, so much more.