Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Google Initiative to Make the World a Better Place

Faithful to the conviction that technology can solve all problems, Google has launched an online initiative to take on what has begun to seem like a pandemic of violence as a preferred alternative to discussion and deliberation.  At least this seems to be what Dana Kerr reported last night in a post to her Internet & Media blog for CNET News.  The basic idea seems to be that, if you bring together people like “a former violent jihadist from Indonesia, an ex-neo-Nazi from Sweden and a Canadian who was held hostage for 15 months in Somalia,” alternatives to violence will emerge, will be implemented, and will be embraced around the world.  The above quote comes from a blog post by Jared Cohen, Director of Google Ideas, which is supporting this initiative.

For my part I tend to subscribe to the Zen precept that he who tries to change the world can only make matters worse.  Thus, while I have no quibble with Winston Churchill’s declaration that “jaw jaw is better than war war,” I believe that serious problems require serious deliberation.  Thus, before I take this Google initiative seriously, I would like to see it run a gauntlet of some healthy skepticism.

I was a student during the Sixties, so I have had my own previous exposures to those who expressed strong beliefs through violence.  I thus was drawn to a production by a local theater company called Riot, which left a strong mark on my own thinking.  On the surface the piece was staged as a panel discussion.  The premise was that, while reasonable minds may differ, those differences can be resolved by honest efforts at dialog.  Beneath the surface, however, the result was anything but reasonable.  Dialog led to greater divisiveness as each participant became more entrenched in his/her personal convictions;  and, at the risk of trivializing the production, the result was that riot triumphed over reason.

This is actually a very familiar narrative.  The story keeps popping up in different settings based on different events, but the punch line never changes.  One of the more popular voices to repeat the story has been Yasmina Reza with her play God of Carnage, now given a much larger audience through Roman Polanski’s film, titled simply Carnage.  However popular the narrative itself may be, it probably keeps recurring because so few people get the message:  Before bringing together people of radically opposing opinions, it is more important to think in terms of how communication breaks down than it is to ask how technology can broaden the forum in which communication takes place.

Such breakdowns are almost always difficult to analyze.  Often they arise from data points that are too easily dismissed as either irrelevant or insignificant.  However, communication is a complex social system;  and we should think about that complexity they way we think that the butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can trigger a tornado in Kansas.

Let me, therefore, consider one possible butterfly.  As Jürgen Habermas has observed, the success of a communicative action can sometimes depend critically on the specific words that are exchanged.  In this context we should consider the very name of the Google Ideas initiative:  Against Violent Extremism.  This is admirable, but we live in a world in which names get reduced to acronyms.  In this case the acronym is AVE.  This happens to be a Latin word that was used for greeting when the language was still a living one.  More specifically, it was a standard greeting among the military, often used specifically in reference to Caesar.  To be thoroughly blunt about it, it was used in the same context that the Nazis used “Heil, Hitler!”

Now, the fact that our own culture has become one that is ignorant history should not lead us to assume that all other cultures enjoy that ignorance.  There is thus a good chance that many who might otherwise be interested in participating in dialog will be put off by what amounts to “linguistic provocation” before the conversation even begins.  That will be when the butterfly flap triggers the tornado vortex;  and, as was the case in the Riot play, destruction will ensue.

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