In his The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900, David Edgerton makes an important distinction between what he calls "technology" and "things". Professor Edgerton, the founding director of Imperial College's Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, encourages us to "stop thinking about technology" and instead think of "things":
Thinking about the use of things, rather than of technology, connects us directly with the world we know rather than the strange world in which "technology" lives. We speak of "our" technology meaning the technology of an age or a whole society. By contrast, "things" fit into no such totality, and do not evoke what is often taken as an independent historical force. We discuss the world of things as grown-ups, but technology as children.
Exactly. We discuss the world of things as grown-ups, but technology as children. Things are concrete, while technology is magic; things are historic, while technology is the promise of the future. The New York Times' David Carr takes up this theme of children and grown-ups in his analysis of technology's role at the Democratic convention in Denver. His description of early supporters of the boy Obama as a "children's crusade" is memorable, particularly when imagined in the context of David Edgerton's distinction between the childishness of technology of children and the adult quality of things. As Carr notes, these supporters are about to "occupy the sweet spot of electoral politics and bring a new set of expectations to being courted and served."
So what, exactly, are the expectations of Obama's children's crusaders?
Carr quotes Salon's editor in chief Joan Walsh who says they want to want to "eliminate the middleman" in American media. They want to use technology to do away with the thing of mainstream media thereby using direct e-mail, video and social networking sites to empower the boy Obama to directly communicate with his youth following:
The presidential campaign of Barack Obama has all but christened a new era by seizing the medium itself. The network pageantry has been replaced by the network effect — a huge pipe directly to his supporters, no intermediation involved. The press, it seems, just gets in the way.
But, as David Edgerton reminds us The Shock of the Old, behind abstract technology there are always concrete things and behind the children there are always grown-ups. The original Children's Crusade of 1212 -- when 30,000 kids set out for Jerusalem (none reached the promised land, most died on route) -- was, of course, a staged event put on by various European feudal elites to pursue their own particular political agendas. Almost eight hundred years later, I wonder who is behind this digital remix of the children's crusade. Is it the boy Obama -- who understand that by "seizing the medium" he can transform the imperial presidency into the always-on presidency? This isn't an insignificant question. As David Carr recognizes, this type of plebiscitory digital democracy is of immense historical significance:
There are implications going beyond November. If we stipulate that the modern American presidency is a permanent campaign, there is little reason to expect that if Senator Obama becomes president that the political arm of his administration would simply lock away all those millions of names they had gathered on a disk drive. A highly wired administration could go direct with both its base and its database in times of crisis or need.
Scary, eh? Just as the boys at Google are amassing unprecedented informational power, so the boy Obama might be doing the same "thing" in politics. The digital children's crusade is promising to transport us to a new Jerusalem. Like the original version, however, I fear that it will end in tears.