"The Crisis"

In 1776, Tom Paine tweeted, “These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service.”  He followed it with a continuation: “shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”  A third came: “Tyranny, like hell,is not easily conquered;yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict,the more glorious the triumph.”  And then a fourth, a fifth, and more.

George Washington, at his camp in New Jersey, read these, and then retweeted them to his troops, and posted them on his Facebook page.  They became an important motivation in the campaign that was about to begin with that famous crossing of the Delaware and the subsequent Battle of Trenton.

There are those who say that Twitter and Facebook aren’t that important to what’s going on in Egypt, what happened in Tunisia and, well before that, (unsuccessfully) in Iran.  And they are right.

But they are oh, so wrong.

A generation after Gutenberg printed his first Bibles (a point analogous to the introduction of the World Wide Web), the world had changed dramatically, though few (if any) knew what this meant:

Forty years after the invention of the press, there were printing machines in 110 cities in six different countries; 50 years after, more than eight million books had been printed, almost all of them filled with information that had previously not been available to the average person.

That’s from Neil Postman, twenty years ago.  Though it might have been argued that this was simply amplification of what could have been done through manuscripts, it has proven to be something quite a bit more.  Postman saw it as even more important than the introduction of new technologies of our own age:

Nothing could be more misleading than the idea that computer technology introduced the age of information. The printing press began that age, and we have not been free of it since.

He, too, is right–but also wrong.  Wrong, perhaps, because he was speaking before the accelerated change of the past twenty years, much more dramatic even than the spread of the printing press.  We may still be in the age of information, but it is also a different age, a digital age–and we are yet too close to its inception to adequately define its extent or its impact–or even really provide it a name.

As we struggle to understand the impact oy the events around us of the technologies we introduce, we’d do well to keep in mind that it took hundreds of years for the full impact of Gutenberg to be felt on European cultures.  Yes, the spread of printing was quick (by standards of the time), but it seemed, at first, simply a new and better way to do what had been done before.

We are still waiting for the Tom Paine of our new networked communications.  But he or she will come, will crystallize a situation, will galvanize a people.  And the results, stemming as directly from the fact of our digital age as clearly as the American revolution stemmed directly from its own ‘age of information,’ won’t be known for some time.

Yes, the printing press was no ’cause’ of the American Revolution, but that doesn’t mean the Revolution could have happened without it.

Just so, today.  As Matthew Ingram writes:

The real trigger for the uprisings… is simply the frustration of the oppressed Egyptian people — which is undoubtedly true. But it also seems clear that social media has played a key role in getting the word out, and in helping organizers plan their protests. In the end, it’s not about Twitter or Facebook: it’s about the power of real-time networked communication.

 How important that will prove cannot be shown right now.  But, from looking at history, I know it will be shown to have been important–extremely important.

Those who argue that social networking is not critical to what is happening around the world right now are arguing from incomplete information.  They need to wait just a bit–maybe not the hundreds of years between Gutenberg and the American Revolution (things move faster now), but at least a little while.

They will certainly be surprised.

As will we all.

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