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!”