The “You Tube Debate”: The Ecology of Technology


By Patricia Wilson-Smith 

Recently, on the ground-breaking “You Tube Debate” broadcast on CNN, America got the opportunity to see what those of us at have seen all along – Senator Barack Obama as the strong, defiant, and principled leader, standing up with humor and grace against a field of Democratic nominee wanna-be’s, and showing without breaking a sweat why he is our best choice for a Commander-In-Chief who can bring about change in America.

The unique debate was for me, a marriage of two of my greatest loves – politics and the Internet. For the first time ever, a viral-video website was used to solicit questions from a hand-selected group of regular, everyday Americans. I sat and watched the debate in awe as citizen after citizen from every walk of life appeared on screen; some nervously gazing into sub-standard web cameras, some having very creatively crafted humorous messages using professionally produced video and audio, and others bravely and quietly being videotaped as they delivered questions to the candidates about issues important to them, like the state of healthcare in America and the war in Iraq.

I love the fact that people who otherwise may have had no chance whatsoever of ever speaking directly to a presidential candidate, actually got the chance to do so, even if it was only a one-way conversation.When CNN put out the call for ordinary Americans to submit their questions to the candidates, they created a global, digital lottery of sorts, one in which the winners got a great deal more than just money – they got the opportunity to air their personal grievances before a captive audience made up of some of the nation’s greatest leaders and the millions who watched it all from their livingroom couches. Way cool.  

Watching the faces of all those men and women flicker across that huge LCD screen as some of the most powerful political minds in the nation stood at the ready to answer their questions felt historic to say the least. However, the real wonder of it for me was not in the novelty of the technology, but in watching how for a night the Internet seemed to level the playing field for common folk who normally would have to go to great lengths to get such an audience with the politically elite. It’s quite something when you think about it – suddenly, as long as you had a high-speed internet connection and a decent web cam, you too had as good a chance as anyone of having your words broadcast around the world, and your questions answered by the group of men and women who over the coming months will spend millions of dollars in an effort to gain our attention, garner our vote, and become the next leader of the free world. Absolutely incredible.

In a blink of an eye, it seems, we’ve found ourselves living in an age where it is possible for anyone to kick their way on to the global stage and voice their opinion about anything at all. These days, any Joe-blow with a half decent computer can erect a website, and start spewing their rhetoric about any subject under the sun to the masses, and without much effort at all. Even more incredibly, because of technology, their message, good, bad or indifferent can make its way around the country or around the globe in an instant. We are no longer tied to the limits of proximity when it comes to exchanging ideas, and it’s all made possible by a technology that is as readily available to inner city youths as it is to powerful heads of state.

But is there a downside to all this? What about the CNN/YouTube debate itself? Even with the controlled, professional way inwhich the debate was conducted, there was for me, a feeling of lawlessness to it all. A gun-waving NRA psycho, melting snowmen, guitar-playing hippies – is that really what we want from our Presidential debates?  Can the viral nature of a vehicle like You Tube really easily be integrated into the political process in a meaningful way? Should it be?

We probably have no choice in the matter at this point, because we’re headed warp speed towards a truly digital age, and there’s no turning back. Twenty-four hour news channels, virtual work, online, well,  everything – the Information Age is upon us, and if you’re like me, you can’t help but wonder what it means for society. Think about as an example, (if you’re old enough to) how different  the process of electing a President is today than it was even 30 short years ago, when the news was broadcast once a day, and  televisions only had 5 channels. We learned what we learned about candidates by reading the paper, and through the very important debates that were broadcast live, and through stump speeches, and public appearances. And always, always, the little guy was largely outside the process watching it all from the side lines.

So, what does all this technological mumbo-jumbo mean for the future of presidential elections, politics, or society in general? What have we done to long-standing political traditions, by making possible the casual swapping of videos between ordinary citizens and political powerbrokers? And what of those questioners from the CNN/YouTube debate who were, uh, let’s just say, a bit odd? Has the Internet, the great leveler, ushered in an era where meaningful political discourse will be forced to exist along side the lunatic ramblings of a gun enthusiast babbling on about “his baby”? Will our new technological capabilities create some sort of swirling, digital vortex of informational nothingness, where political candidates will only be heard or noticed if they have the coolest MySpace page? Will a torrent of misinformed bloggers, or huge multi-national media giants one day control the substance of what we read and understand? Now that the dams have broken, should we worry about containing the flood?

In his article, Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change, the late Neil Postman, (speaking before a group of theologians in Denver in 1998) remarked on the things we should all endeavor to understand about how society is impacted by technological innovation. In it, he said that “technological change is not additive, it’s ecological”, and that in essence, in order for us to comprehend, manage, and embrace the rapid changes brought on by the technological advancement happening all around us, we need to understand that technology doesn’t just add to society – it transforms it. 

The illustration he gave in the article was that of what happens when you place a drop of red dye into a clear glass of water; what we end up with, according to Postman, is not a clear glass of water with a red drop of dye floating around in it, but a new “coloration to every molecule of water”. He contends that technological change is no different – as the invention of electrification,  new modes of transportation, the telephone, radio, television and the Internet have altered the very fabric of our society, so will other amazing technological innovations. And there’ll always be something new on the horizon.

His point is well taken with me – the transformative power that Internet technologies in particular have had and will continue to have on our society is endlessly fascinating to me, and the CNN/You Tube debate is proof positive that the Internet hasn’t just added some peripheral dimension to the way we live, work, play or even choose our leaders for that matter – it has changed the way we do it all, and changed it forever.

I say again, we no longer have real choice in the matter. We have been changed irrepairably as a society by the myriad inventions of the human mind, and it’s never-ending need to make everything easier, faster, smaller, more convenient, and more powerful. And though we must do as Postman says and embrace these technologies, we must also be ever aware that when we allow technology to invade our most honored and time-tested of traditions, there is often no going back.

And so, we can reflect on the technological marvel of the debate and worry about what’s next, or we can choose to focus on what was important that night.  As I think back on it now, I am reminded that Joe Biden may have made me think, Mike Grivell may have made me cringe, and for sure Senator Obama made me proud, but what was really important that night were the quiet citizens and the questions they posed. I’m reminded of the woman fighting breast cancer, who removed her hat to give power and meaning to her question about being unable to afford her treatments; and of the two young black women, Cecelia Smith and Ashanti Jenkins, staring happily into the camera and asking the candidates if they would be willing to be President if they had only the promise of a minimum wage to sustain them. And of Charity Woods, the woman sitting sadly next to her ailing mother, asking boldly of the candidates how they would deal with preventative medicine in their various healthcare plans.

It was equal opportunity democracy, and it was all made possible by technology. So in the end, as with all things, we can decide that innovations will change us for the better, or worry about them changing us for the worse. The CNN/YouTube debate proved to me at least, that it is better to cringe, get over the fear, and embrace the possibilities.

About Patricia Wilson-Smith

Patricia Wilson-Smith is a freelance writer and author of the romantic comedy "Duped By Love". She is a regular contributor to She Unlimited Magazine, and covers special events as a special on-air correspondent.
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