Harrison Bergeron as the personification of the internet child

Where's your free will at?When I was in Mr. Duffy’s high school English class, he assigned a short story that altered the course of my life forever. Harrison Bergeron it was called, written in 1961 by a witty old fart, Kurt Vonnegut.

You see, at the time, I had been growing increasingly skeptical about whether any of my peers had free will. It concerned me that it seemed somehow that I was the only one in my whole high school who could manage an original thought in his head.

It’s not like I was an egomaniac or anything like that, it just didn’t make sense to me that my classmates could complain so much and so often about having to come to school and yet they’d keep coming anyway. I mean, I had my qualms with compulsory education too, but I preferred complaining to my teachers about things like education standards, inequality in the classroom and other such noble ideas that I had no business talking about.

But such as it was the fashion to keep on complaining while doing the work, getting the grades, and planning for college, any real questioning of the status quo was summarily disregarded as futile and an utter waste of time and attention.

So when I read Harrison Bergeron, something snapped like celery. It was like Mr. Duffy’s reading assignment had short-circuited my mental handicap radio.

Here’s what I think is so interesting about this: when I first read that story, it was an awakening of a first order. I really didn’t know about free will before I read that story, but once I awoke to the notion — and had a story to explain what it was all about — well then I could go around telling other people about it! And now, I’ve gone and had a similar intellectual revival.

Steven Garrity posted recently about (I’m paraphrasing here) how the petri dish in which you develop determines what kind of intelligence you as [bacteria] might have. In other words, he was talking about how growing up on the net has the potential to radically expand what people (especially young people) think they are capable of compared with the previous generation of kids who grew up primarily on a strict diet of TV, hormones and carbonation.

He was responding to something Peter Rukavina wrote. Check this out (emphasis mine):

…I do think that one thing that Internet + weblogs have allowed us to realize is that there are other ways of organizing our societal affairs, be it work, education, or otherwise. … It’s not so much the utility of the web, as what the web allows to, inspires us to, demands us to think.

When I first read Steven’s post, it further crystalized my thinking lately that I am, much like my recent successes, a product of the internet’s “Harrison Bergeron effect”. I’ve been in San Francisco for nearly 10 months and if someone told me I’d be doing the things I’m doing now back then, I never would have believed it. And I only have the internet to blame. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if the web didn’t exist. It’s that simple.

In fact, I never would have met Steven Garrity or read this post, which kicked off my whole trajectory towards open source and living a life online. If I’m anything, I am the perfect example of what he’s talking about — about how the power of the internet for people is that it exposes you to a whole new world of possibilities and gives kids like me with determination, energy and time the ability to become a superempowered individual (stealing a term from Friedman) simply by participating.

The legacy of this generation will be to show what’s possible for the next; to proclaim in the face of the sunsetting guardians of the status quo: “watch me become what I can become!”

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Author: Chris Messina

Product guy, friend to startups, inventor of the hashtag, proponent of bots and conversational apps; Xoogler and X Uber.

5 thoughts on “Harrison Bergeron as the personification of the internet child”

  1. But in “Harrison Bergeron,” handicapping kept Harrison in chains until he broke out of them. He was the only one in the story who would.

    I don’t understand the connection between the internet and the story. Are you saying that the internet is a way of breaking chains that have been placed on previous generations, and that only those who use the internet will be able to break those chains in the future?

  2. Well, I’m primarily pointing out and reiterating Steven’s point that the environment in which you are raised has a great amount of influence on how you will behave later in life. It’s not that “being online” necessarily will enable you to break the chains any better than anyone else — only that when you’re made more aware of the vast world out there sooner in your pre-adolescent life, it seems less likely that you’ll truly ever be chained down to mediocrity.

    Take open source for example. It’s an incredible meritocracy where the best ideas put forward are often adopted by the community for the benefit of the whole. If this were not the case and everyone was deprived of expressing their natural talents, the community would be very boring indeed! Instead, it represents a myriad array of ideas, beliefs and viewpoints that are all worthwhile.

    So it’s not about the internet enabling anything per se. It’s about what having the kind of access and connections to the world means in how today’s children are being raised and socialized.

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