I went to Penn Dental in Philadelphia, graduating in the very late 80's. Hey- very late 80's, I'm not that old! I did not go there for undergrad; I attended Muhlenberg College, a small and truly remarkable college in Allentown.
The University of Pennsylvania is an excellent place to get an education; it is, however, a very... corporate place. It's the Ivy League school with the least heart and soul, in my considered opinion. I state that simply to increase your appreciation of what was happening when I was there.
In those days South Africa was in the throes of Apartheid and severe unrest, as the ruling class of white peoples struggled to keep an iron grip on the black population. P.W. Botha was still president, the relative reformer F.W. de Clerk hadn't yet come to power, and Nelson Mandela was still in jail, not being released until 1990 after many social and political upheavals had occurred.
More here for those who love their history:
So anyway, U Penn's massive endowment was invested rather heavily in South African business interests. Students got ahold of this and started to protest, much as the Occupy WallStreeters have done today. They set up actual shanty towns, just like in the Districts in South Africa, and in an astonishing move to show solidarity with the suffering people there, many well-off middle-class students started to actually live in their cardboard and sheet metal constructs:
(I'm sure their parents were thrilled about paying for room and board at the same time haha.)
Here's the thing, and my point in telling you all this: there were two extremely different viewpoints that came out of this protest.
The students said, "Divest from South Africa, it's wrong to be invested there when they treat people the way they do under Apartheid."
The Trustees of the University said, "By investing there, we can make a difference."
If we think about this objectively, without coming in with any assumptions, each point of view has a chance of being valid. There really could be two partners in a tech or manufacturing firm, real people, people who would be happy to talk to you, named, say, Cecil Benoist and Kenward Fitton, who were gradually but steadily using their influence to change things for the better, and being absolutely transparent about it. I doubt it, but there could have been.
The thing was, in 1987 you needed an army of reporters, working for a mega-corporation news organization, running through insane levels of money and resources, to even have a tiny chance of finding out. Even then, they might be locked up by the repressive regime themselves. Game over. Nothing learned.
Now? Now, the free exchange of information via the Internet, and even more importantly, the ability of people to connect and make a difference, has changed that game, probably forever. As an example, the multiple revolutions in the Middle Ease in 2010-2011 all had as their proximate cause: the ability of people to really know what was going on outside of their narrow part of the world; the ability to know what terrible things their governments were responsible for, and what they were stealing from their citizens; and the ability of those citizens to connect and organize via technology.
The Internet. It's not just for posting Red-Cup Party Pictures anymore...
Actually, of course, it never was just for frivolous things, and although there is a great deal of misinformation and clutter out there, even evil things, we should respect all that and beware of it, but mainly we should be focusing on how it can connect us to folks who want to move forward together, and use it to change the world around us in ways big and small.
It is now extremely difficult for anyone- a government, a business, a person- to do evil in the dark. Not for long. The bright light of free flowing information brings everything out in the open in time. It's all a matter, though, of where we direct our precious Attention. Attention is a fixed quality, as there are only 24 hours in a day for all of us, and that's the thing that limits us.
If today's information technologies had been available in the late 80's, all the activities that UPenn's investments were leading to, good or bad in their effects on South African society, would have come to light. The trustees would have a choice to proudly trumpet their accomplishments, through the means of business investment there, or they would have had to divest and retreat in horror at the public relations scandal that their investments had caused. Back then, they successfully hid the truth, whatever it was. Now, they couldn't. Simple.
The Occupy Protestors are apparently trying to hide much of their own goals and tactics, falling into much the same pattern as the corporate entities against which they protest. Not a great strategy in today's world. Sigh. People as individuals learn so fast. People as large groups- they never seem to learn.
It pays to really examine the power of our Attention, though. If there's interest, I'll do just that in a future blog post. For now, let me say that our precious Attention is our most powerful weapon, far more powerful than guns or money or yelling in the streets. For if we turn our Attention away from anything in sufficient numbers, that entity will wither and die. Examples? If no one paid attention to those Kardashians, they wouldn't be rich and famous. If half of the people who now shop at Walmart suddenly stopped, say in protest against their treatment of employees, well then within two months Walmart would be brought to its knees and would change the way it treats its employees (I'm not saying we should necessarily do that, but we could.) If we didn't do business at a certain bank- no more bank. If we all voted against the incumbent just one time, on a local, state, and federal level- all politicians would be permanently afraid of us, and would actually respect us for the first time in a century.
Gedankenexperiments, yes. Impractical "thought experiments"- but they demonstrate, through extreme examples, what could happen.
We all have tremendous power now. Our Attention is more valuable and powerful than it has been since we inhabited tiny Villages and there were no kings, no corporations, no gatekeepers of information and power at all.
What, then, shall we do with it?