Remarks delivered at the TechVenture conference. December 6, 2011. Hard Rock Cafe, Universal Studios, Orlando.
[The audio is here: techventure2011]
On December 17, 2010, Mohammad Bouazizi, a 26 year-old street vendor in Tunisia, was harassed, beaten, and humiliated by police for selling vegetables in the street without a permit, which is a euphemistic way of saying he failed to bribe the right people.
Shortly after this utterly dehumanizing incident, in which his entire stock of produce was taken and his pushcart – his only source of income – ransacked, Bouzizi, in an act of protest against mindless government brutality and corruption, doused himself in gasoline and set himself aflame.
The story of Bouazizi’s self-immolation and martyrdom became a rallying cry for the Arab world, a rallying cry quite naturally carried on the fastest and most efficient communications substrate available: Twitter, Facebook, and various blogs. It became the a call to action that ignited a series of revolutions and uprisings that became the Arab Spring also known as the Arab Awakening, a veritable tsunami of human bravery and courage and sacrifice that toppled decades of dictatorial rule in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and also rewrote the equations of the balance of power in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen, and almost every country throughout the middle east.
Here at home, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which started in New York City but has since blossomed into a massive global act of peaceful protest against corruption, drew direct inspiration from the Arab Spring, and ultimately, from Mohammad Bouazizi.
And whether you agree with any or all of these events or you are repulsed by them, you have to admit that they only truly exist in their present hyper-accelerated form because of the internet.
These events might have happened without the internet, but surely not as explosively. When humans communicate, revolutions happen. Humanity, like the internet, treats censorship and oppression as an error condition, and routes around it.
Each and every one of these clashes has met with violent resistance from the governments who lay claim to the right to make the rules for the people they ostensibly serve.
And in each and every case, the government has attempted to quash these uprisings by doing one thing: shutting down the internet. Kill the lines of communication, cut off the bloodflow, and you starve the tumor. Or so the theory goes.
I grew up in Bangor Maine, and I first set foot in the city of Orlando in the Spring of 1985, at more or less the same the time future produce salesman Mohammad Bouazizi would have been celebrating his first birthday. In 1985 I was a freshman majoring in computer science at the University of Maine, and for a couple of years I had already been an avid user of an obscure computing resource that we did not yet call the internet.
And what was cool about the obscure computing resource that we did not yet call the internet in 1985 was that you could use it to send text messages. You could chat with people on it. Just like on facebook or your cell phone today you could type in:
message firstname.lastname@example.org hey dude, djeet yet?
And I could reply:
message email@example.com nope, let’s sgweet!
And thereby lunch and fellowship would occur.
But an even cooler thing about the obscure computing resource that we did not yet call the internet in 1985 was that you could use it to send text messages to just about anyone, on just about any computing system attached to it. Like some folks were attached to it down the road from here in Orlando in the computer science department at the University of Central Florida.
Look, if you’re too terribly much under the age of 35 you have no idea what personal communications media were like in 1985, but we were pretty much blind, deaf, and mute, OK? I mean, you couldn’t just pick up the phone in Bangor, Maine and call someone in Orlando, Florida without incurring something called “long distance charges,” which, I assure you, were prohibitively expensive for a college freshman in 1985. The kind of computing power you and I are now carrying in our pockets was then only available to an anointed class of high priests who knew how to cast the spells and perform the arcane rituals designed to operate it and to cleans it of evil spirits from within the inner sanctums of massive rooms filled with refrigerator sized boxes of computing equipment… and their climate control systems.
So the ability to sit down at an 80×24 green screen terminal at the University of Maine and type out a message that would instantly appear on someone’s 80×24 green screen terminal at the University of Central Florida was the epitome of cool, in 1985, ok? I mean it was the apotheosis of cool.
And my first collegiate spring break in 1985 was spent on Daytona Beach hanging out with some UCF students, the entire tenure of my friendship with whom up until that point had been comprised entirely of a series of green text messages carried over the obscure computing resource we did not yet call the internet.
I may be the first bona fide example of true friendship forged and intermediated entirely over a digital substrate. I may be the first guy who ever got a date on the internet.
So what do Mohammad Bouazizi and I have in common…?
Nothing. Ok? Nothing.
He’s the very definition of a hero, and I, back in 1985, I’m just a dude looking for a party.
I could never flambé myself for the cause, ok, I mean, let me just get that out there right now; if you’re looking for a martyr, I am not your huckleberry, ok? I am not in Mohammed Bouazizi’s league.
What we have in common, is that we didn’t need the internet to achieve anything. But it sure helped.
Mohammed Bouazizi didn’t need the internet to ignite the Jasmine Revolution and the Arab Spring.
He needed a gas can and a match.
I didn’t need the internet to find my way to a bitchin’ spring break experience.But in each of those cases, the internet sure did help.
Technology rarely creates behaviors with intrinsic value or normative force. Technology accelerates and magnifies human behavior. We come to technology with all of our pathologies and our intricacies, our sacred and our profane, and technology puts those things on an express train to the future. The internet is where we connect with the rest of the world. Technology gives us unprecedented power to examine and redefine all that we are.
And what we are discovering is that we are one people. One global people. There is no them. It’s all just us. We’re all in this together.
We are not the 99%. We are the 100%.
The only things that matter in human existence are human relationships.
We’re each here for such a brief period. The toys we collect don’t matter. The very concept of money is losing its legitimacy with every passing year. The things in our lives are all so much window dressing.
What’s left? What’s left are human relationships and the love with which you fill them. When you love your fellow human, you do not casually spray him with pepper spray, or shoot a can of tear gas at his head. When you love your fellow man, you do not humiliate him to the point where self-immolation is the better option.
For you entrepreneurs, your technologies will win if they help people communicate, and love, and relate, or at least get through the tedious parts of their lives more efficiently and more quickly so they can get on with the good parts, the lovely parts, like family and friends and love.
Look, we’re human beings. Before angry birds, we played games with balls and sticks. Without text messages, we flirted live and in person. Without the internet, the oppressed have sought liberty and hatched plots to achieve it in smoky cafes and back alleys.
Big give us a little technology to move those things along a little more effectively, a little more efficiently, and you don’t just change the world.You save it.
One of the last things Mohammad Bouazizi did before he died is write a love letter to his mother. To make sure she got it, he wrote it on Facebook.
Help righteous people make love and (sometimes) war, and you’re not just a game-changer.
You’re a goddamn savior.