Thursday, June 30, 2005


The politics of our time still mirror the power centers of the last century. We debate the influence that other countries have on us, or how corporations are meddling in our affairs; but the emerging power centers of this new century are starting to polarize the world in unexpected ways. The trick will be to recognize these power centers, by identifying the shifting poles that attract and repel humanity. Often, these changes are subtle, though they wash over us.

Here's an example:

Woman doesn't clean up her dog's mess -- blog infamy ensues
In Korea, a woman's dog crapped on the train. When people on the train asked her to clean up the mess, she became belligerent. Within hours, she was labeled gae-ttong-nyue (dog-shit-girl) and her pictures and parodies were everywhere. Within days, her identity and her past were revealed. Request for information about her parents and relatives started popping up and people started to recognize her by the dog and the bag she was carrying as well as her watch, clearly visible in the original picture.
Tyrants like Saddam, Kim Jong Il and Karimov occupy the front pages, and gae-ttong-nyue is reported as a footnote, presented as an amusing cultural oddity. Yet gae-ttong-nyue defines how the next wave of tyranny is going to come from us, not necessarily future Saddams. Tyranny might actually come from you and I -- the people who laugh at Dog-Shit-Girl, who think we're above inflicting tyranny.

Did Dog-Shit-Girl merely earn her comeuppance, by letting her lapdog soil the spotless train? Because she's also been mercilessly raped by her own society, for a minor infraction. Her rapists are cowards with video cellphones, who are confrontational only with the keyboard and mouse. The real crime here is her punishment, meted-out by an unelected pious clergy representing Mob Sharia, a new code that we have no real experience with. Mobs have been the beginnings of many a tyranny -- the ochlocratic mobs of Rome demanding the praetorian prefect Cleander's head; or the Parisian mobs of the French revolution. Now it's passengers on trains, with small devices. It's us.

Mobs; swarms; social networks. These terms are the salon parlance of contemporary movers and shakers who can make game boxes, video phones and iPods do a lot more than play DRM-copyrighted corporate schlock by Sting. Yes, they're dastardly clever, and very innovative. The good might be outweighed by the bad with respect to this boring technology -- and that's bore as in 'to bore holes,' like termites in soft wood, eventually permeating it into useless sponge. But who's really to say how all this will turn out? Power is shifting and collecting in unexpected, strange places.

In tyrannies, you watch your back; you modify your behavior to suit the regime. But what regime might gae-ttong-nyue be? Does it have a center, or a head? Or is it the shifting sands -- reactive swarms that group, morph, innovate and regroup to suit momentary morality? And if nobody runs this tyranny, then it's complete, and final -- never to be undone, having become culture itself. We simply become a part of it, mirroring the endless bits that compose it.

Power is politics, and technology changes who or what has that power. We live in a culture that clings to lost political ideals while technology routes around power centers, and establishes new ones. And they might not even be influenced by people, in the end. That's an open question.

Technological innovation in our time means so much more than interesting blogs, democracy in Lebanon and chatting with people across the planet for free. It means the rules of society and culture are being rearranged, even abolished. Hopefully for the better. But nobody's writing the new rules in this revolution -- hyper-evolution has the quill and parchment. What comes out of all of it for us may not be cumulatively for the better.

Whatever we gain in life, we attain it at the cost of what we have, and what we are. Nostalgia is the recognition of what we have lost. We shouldn't avoid change, but we should see ourselves clearly. History's major fulcrums have rarely been predicted, much less preempted or navigated until they're upon us. History's newest fulcrum might begin with a feculent dog on a metro train in Seoul.