Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Internet Will Save the World

Recently, a coworker asked me what I thought was the most important invention in history. A few of the usual candidates flickered through my mind - the wheel, space flight, nuclear power - but only one of them stuck. "Writing," I said, and I believe that I'm right. Writing is the most important advance any society can have. Without writing, information can only be passed down orally, leaving it vulnerable to mutation as it's told and retold down through the years. Writing is a prerequisite to the development of an advanced technological society - you just try committing something like quantum mechanics firmly to memory.

The Internet, I think, is the latest example of why writing is so important. In it we have a communications tool like no other, a tool that in the last twenty years has reshaped the way we look at the world, built new bridges of understanding, and created vast opportunities. Ideas can be shared, philosophies examined, and vast, sprawling arguments are there to be had. People have never been able to talk so freely and easily as they can with a keyboard, a monitor, and an Internet connection. Humanity is networking, and the iterative strength of that network will continue to increase in the years ahead.

It's already demonstrated its possibilities, in fits and in starts. Projects like SETI@home and Folding@home take advantage of the distributed computing power made possible by the Internet to crunch numbers cheaply and efficiently. The Internet made it easy for people to come together and donate to the legal defense fund of Peter Watts, an sf author who was assaulted by US border guards at the Port Huron crossing in December. Without the Internet, there would be no such thing as a Rickroll - and who would want to live in a world like that?

Yesterday, Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament demonstrated what else the Internet can do - or, more possibly, gave us a preview of what the Internet will continue to do in the future. You see, the Parliament of Canada was supposed to open tomorrow after its Christmas recess, but on December 30 Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that he was proroguing - that is, shutting down - Parliament until March 3, ostensibly so that the government could focus on economic stimulus work. This is the second time Harper's done this - the first was in December 2008, when he shut down Parliament to avoid facing a vote of no confidence from the opposition parties that would have brought down his minority Conservative government and forced an election.

A lot of people aren't happy about this, and Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament - a Facebook group founded by University of Alberta student Christopher White, with almost 214,000 members as of this writing - took action by organizing rallies across Canada. I was at and around the rally in Toronto, possibly the largest one - the Star estimated the crowd at 3,000, enough to fill Dundas Square with bodies, and enough to make a veritable river of humanity when the march spilled out onto Yonge Street behind a moving police roadblock of mounted and bicycle officers. Similar events were held from Antigonish to Yellowknife, and even places like Dallas and New York City to let expats get their opinions in - and those expressions ran the gamut from handmade placards to free men standing, a few against many.

Yesterday in Toronto, it was around -2° C (that's 28.4° Fahrenheit, for those of you who like having water freeze at 32°). These Spartans Against Tyranny are therefore crazy, and therefore awesome.

I don't think a series of rallies of this extent could have been planned from nothing in this short a span of time before the Internet. Beyond that, though, the very existence of the rallies demonstrates the possibilities that the Internet brings to bear. I don't doubt that Harper deliberately announced the prorogation on December 30 - after all, who's paying attention to the news on New Year's Eve Eve? Everyone is out in line at the liquor stores or already getting drunk. Online attention fanned the flames of this news.

Communication is the most important thing we can do, and the most important thing we can encourage. Communication bridges the gaps, provides new perspectives on our vexations, and fresh ideas for seemingly intractable problems. We will face a great many challenges in the century ahead, but as long as we stay in touch and talk together, I believe we will manage to stay calm and carry on.

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