Monday, February 7, 2011

In defense of gray

Throughout my short life, I've encountered millions of choices. Many of these choices have been presented as dichotomies: do you like chocolate or vanilla? Are you a religious person, or an atheist? A Democrat or a Republican? Free Market Capitalist or Welfare Socialist? I've always hated these choices because there's always seemed to be something very divisive about them. Forcing people to pick sides, like the world is black and white and it is really easy to figure out which team you're on. And I've often felt alone in this. "There are two sides to every argument", they say. But I can't be the only one who sees the world in shades of gray... can I?

Hell no. This past month, the Arab world has stood up in defense of grayness, and I'm excited. Looking past the arguments about the degree to which social media has affected change in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan, I see people. And not just any people, I see people like me. Men my age, taking to the streets to protest day after day. Among the huge outflow of citizen journalism coming from Egypt last week, this video(yes, that video) and the picture above caught my eye. When I look at them, I see people similar to myself. Stuck in a dichotomy, between a rock and a hard place, they've been told for too long that they only have two choices. Settle for the stable autocracy, or try and take your chances with a turbulent theocracy, either way the government is not your government. But on January 25th, like the Tunisians before them, the Egyptian people politely stood up from that hole between the rock and the hard place, dusted themselves off and told the world "we'll take it from here, thanks."

Maybe its just the young idealist in me, but this got me PUMPED UP. I grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C., and I've never been too far away from the capital. Both of my parents have worked for the government, and many of my friends growing up had parents who were government employees as well. But when Washingtonians talk about the government, its always in those terms: the government, the fed, the president, the senate, the house. Whatever happened to our government? Our constitution begins with the phrase "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union." It never dawned on me until this past week that I have never thought of the government as MY government, one that truly represents my interests and beliefs. And to be frank, I never was completely sure it should be my government. I've always kind of thought of the government as what old people keep themselves busy with while the rest of us are actually doing things. I've had this lingering sense that the government as I knew has always been a little outdated, struggling to keep up with a society living on the cutting edge.

Okay, so maybe I got a little carried away with the hyperbole there. I did vote in the last two presidential elections, and I know our government isn't actually a retirement home. I like that President Obama seems to be a president who talks with the American public and not at them (Bill O'Reilly interview on Super Bowl Sunday anyone?), and I do talk about what our government is doing on a semi-regular basis with family and friends. But that doesn't fix the disconnect that seems to exist between what the people want from their government and what the government is actually doing. For that, we're going to need Clay Shirky's "Everybody."

In Shirky's book "Here Comes Everybody," he explains the institutional dilemma- a collective action problem. "Because the minimum costs of being an organization the first place are relatively high, certain activities may have some value but not enough to make them worth pursuing in any organized way. New social tools are altering this equation by lowering the costs of coordinating group action. The easiest place to see this change is in activities that are too difficult to be pursued with traditional management but that have become possible with new forms of coordination” (31).
Now lets put this in terms of government. Say your town has just authorized a contractor to install 35 closed circuit security cameras all about town. There is a huge public uproar in response: some citizens are appalled by the invasion of privacy, while some think 35 cameras is not nearly enough to watch the whole town. So the town government decides to hold a town hall meeting, where people can come and voice their opinions about the new security camera contract. The town hall discussion will determine the agenda for the next town government meeting, which will be postponed to one week later in order to allow more time for the town hall. When all is said and done, the process has taken weeks longer than originally planned, with potentially hundreds of people spending countless hours of time taking transport to and from the town hall and city hall, arranging for sitters for their children, preparing speeches and counter speeches that costs hundreds of dollars in paper, staples, and man-hours.

But you didn't go to the town hall. On the first day, when the local paper announced the news of the security camera contract, you posted a link on your facebook with the caption "too much?" A couple of friends "liked" it, a few people chimed in with comments and you all agreed that you'd rather live in a town without security cameras if it was up to you. One of your friends, a city councilwoman, sees this on her news feed and reads it. Two weeks later, at the city hall meeting, she thinks about what you and your friends said, what you have contributed to the conversation, and she considers your opinions as she casts her vote.

Now I know this doesn't sound like revolution, but it damn well feels like it. Yes, its mostly just a change in tools, but look how quickly the world has shrunk. Your simple action of posting that link, with the sparse, two-word caption, carries as much weight as any of your fellow citizens letters, with a fraction of the effort. This is government at the speed of you, and the barriers to entry in the conversation are nearly non-existent. You no longer have to choose between excess action and inaction, between black and white. Now, you can demand your right to be gray.

Long live the slacktivists.

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