This past weekend, I’ve had the awesome opportunity to visit the MIT campus in Cambridge as part of the Zero Robotics Competition held there. And one of the things that occupied my time besides staring at screens and trying to find the way around the buildings was the campus tour offered by the institute. The tour recounted the main buildings of the campus and an extremely simplified overview of how things work at MIT, but as I walked the Infinite Hallway and stood in the same buildings as over eighty Nobel Laureates, it occurred to me that one of the reasons these prestigious institutions produce some of the greatest achievements in the world isn’t purely because they offer the best classes or attract only the brightest minds, but because it opens the doors and provides the opportunities for people to pursue their individual interests with a wealth of resources and support. In other words, the most original and innovative ideas don’t come from the textbooks or the classrooms, but from the individuals themselves; it’s only that the right environment allows those ideas to be realized.
And if you’ve got one of those innovative ideas, there hasn’t been a better time in recent history than now. Analysis show that 2014 was the single biggest year for budding startups and individual businesses, as the funding for startups in 2014 reached almost $50 billion, topping out at an amount that dwarfs the equally huge dot-com bubble of 2001*, according to Cnet. But Silicon Valley isn’t the only place on Earth where ideas are reaching for the stars; from hundreds of TED Talks delivered this past year to poetic tweets that’ll make Poe** jealous, one of the marquee features that define humanity is our ability to have original ideas and see them to realization. And while having ideas is, obviously, a key part of the process, most of them can’t have an impact until they reach the right audience and a variety of people collaborate to make it reach its potential. And to that end, spreading ideas is perhaps just as important as developing them, because ideas, no matter how potentially disruptive and world-changing, are powerless without the people who believe in it and will see it through.
To that end of spreading ideas and having a voice, we have a lot of tools available at our fingertips today, and the Internet is certainly a big resource. Going back a few decades, while you could file an angry complaint to an unresponsive company or send a letter to a few dozen people about your opinions, the power of a true “voice” to the public was restricted to publishers and other companies that produced books, periodicals, newspapers, TV broadcasts, and radio stations. And that obviously didn’t give much voice to the rest of the population. The freedom of expression and free press technically gave everyone unrestricted voice in theory, but it wasn’t until almost everyone had access to broadband internet that people could really exert their own voices upon the rest of the world. Radio broadcasts were superseded by podcasts, cable TV gave way to online video, newspapers and magazines are going obsolete to online journalism, and garnering attention for social change no longer requires massive capital funding or publicity support by media companies. Of course, not everyone in the world has this voice. Whether to social oppression, political issues, censorship, or lack of technological reach, the circle of those who have an online voice is still very limited. Nevertheless, it’s undeniably growing, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down.
While we have the privilege of this voice to the world, I think we’re not only given a choice to use it, but given a responsibility as well, to use the voice that we have to make a dent in history. You might not be the next Mark Zuckerberg, and you probably won’t invent the next Apple II in your garage***, but look back just a few weeks, and the power of individual voice and individual journalism through the amplifier of the Internet is pretty stunning. As I talked about previously, the nature of journalism has fundamentally shifted with the Internet and individual voice, and that reflects in, for example, how the world has reacted to the terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo****. It wasn’t just the major publications delivering opinion and information on the event, people around the world could share their thoughts freely to millions of other people in hundreds of ways, through apps, through tweets, through blog posts, through online video. And the collective voices of those who shared their ideas online shaped how the world reacted to the incident, and will continue to decide how the world will go forward to extend and protect freedom of expression. Not everyone has a voice that they so deserve, but far more people do than just a few years ago. And these voices have become a lot more powerful over the years, influencing major global events and decisions together.
“Now, everyone who has a Facebook account has a voice…If you go back 20 or 30 years, very few people actually had the ability to do that, but now, almost half a billion people can do that. I think that’s very powerful.”
“One of the things that’s amazing about the Internet is [that] if you build something good that is valuable for people, it will spread quickly.” - Mark Zuckerberg, TIME’s Person of the Year interview
The voices of the world is refocusing, becoming much more than a few publications typing out opinions on newspapers and magazines, and a collective force that can really influence how the world evolves. And that’s my approach to blogging as well. I don’t expect any of my ideas alone to have a significant impact in history, nor do I expect my writings to become popular or hugely influential. That’s missing the point. The world of individual journalism is still exploding, and the aim shouldn’t be to overshadow everything and take the spotlight, but to be a part of the community whose opinions and voices will collectively make a dent in the world. As with everything else on the Internet, it’s not about a top-down act of taking control, but about being a part of the action. And the more voices and actors we have, the more powerful it will be. So go ahead, if you haven’t already. Broadcast yourself. The rest of the world needs your voice.
* The same dot-com bubble that produced such jewels as Wikipedia, Ask.com, and Facebook.
** Edgar Allen Poe, by the way, was born today 205 years ago.
*** Don’t take it personally. It’s not you, it’s Steve Jobs.
**** I’ve wanted to talk extensively about this, but I couldn’t due to time and schedule restraints, and I felt that if I were to write about it, much of what i had to say would coincide with my thoughts in the post Facing Forward.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, The invisible eyes.
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