With a laugh, Dr. Lester Lee asks me, “You know I don’t use social media, right?”
I first met Dr. Lee as a student at Emerson College when I took his “History of Social Movements in the US” course as requirement for my history minor. However, he isn’t an activist behind a lectern, Dr. Lee has been involved in housing equality and tenants rights struggles for years and his work has awarded him the Cambridge Peace Commission Peace and Justice Award.
I intended to interview him about the way home broadband and wifi access is changing, or redefining, the housing struggle, but as we talked the conversation found itself leading to an unexpected, yet equally as fascinating topic: privacy.
“Is the internet a more effective tool for people or for the people in power?” He asked me. So much of my Digital Divide project thus far has focused on the social, economic, and political empowerment the internet can leverage, but the opposite is also true. The internet can, and has, proved a convenient means of monitoring, “We’ve invited the government into our lives,” Dr. Lee says to me and in many ways what he says is true. Paranoia aside, greater advances in personal technology naturally leads to more pervasive surveillance. For people who value privacy, the internet and the recent surge of communication technology it’s brought about must be unnerving. The world can appear nightmarishly interconnected.
“But are we conversing or just communicating?” Dr Lee asks and I don’t know what to answer. He and I spend time discussing the difference between the two and before I know it we’ve wound so deeply into our conversation that, he’s teaching me about the work of Grace Lee Boggs. But conversation allows for digressions, conversing is immediate and it involves an exchange that can lead anywhere, a back and forth that, in Dr. Lee’s opinion, even the best digital media interfaces can’t replicate. “Where’s the free flow? Where’s the excitement? Where’s the imagination?”
However, Dr. Lee acknowledges that social media is a social movement all it’s own, one that we’ve already seen different sides of: from totalitarian control of media to movements like the Arab Spring, from the recruiting efforts of organizations like ISIS to the viral work of activist organizations to rally support for an issue.
So how do we harness social media for constructive and restorative practices rather than political propaganda or a tool for destruction? And can we, or is social media just the natural end result of the leisure culture that the industrial revolution created? Dr. Lee points out so many people are only politically or socially “active until it interferes with their day.” All I can really account for is myself and my use of technology, so this blog, this piece of social technology, I intend to use for call for progress and practical action. Speaking with Dr. Lester Lee left me with more questions than answers, as any good conversation should, so rather than end this blog on any definitive note, I’d like to leave it with a question he gave to me:
The internet gives people the means to be, “crude and rude… without having to worry about consequences… is that freedom?”