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The sound of social networking jackboots marching

Here is a cross-post from the Tech Blog at our sister publication, GCN, regarding an "open letter" that several IT experts wrote President Barack Obama regarding social networking:

Could the government's reticence to use social networking lead to a rise of another Nazi-era Germany? Probably not, so why the urgency? This is what some readers are asking the authors of a recent op-ed for GCN, written by a number of IT researchers and academicians, An open letter to Obama, in support of social participation.

In this letter, the collective authors call on President Barack Obama to increase the amount of "technology-mediated social participation" done by government. Much like atoms smashing together in chain-reactions lead to the immense power of the atomic bomb, the authors argue, so too could government-led social-networking services lead to "human chain reactions" that would lead to innovation and greater democracy. 

The authors fashioned their letter after one Albert Einstein and Leó Szilárd sent to then-President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939. In that dispatch, Einstein urged Roosevelt that Germany could use the immense power of the recently-discovered self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction to do harm, when encapsulated in the form of a bomb. Historians argue that letter spurred Roosevelt on to commission the Manhattan Project, which sought to create such an atomic bomb before Germany could, in effect putting an end to World War II.

While most can agree that social-networking tools are probably a good thing for government (though the Defense Department is finding, they are anything but an unalloyed good), one GCN comment-contributor wondered if the authors' open-letter approach wasn't fully thought out.

"What would happen to the U.S. position in cyberspace if [social-networking tools] weren't used? Would we suffer a decline in knowledge that would give educational and competitive edges to the rest of the world that did use them?" asked an anonymous contributor. "Reread Einstein's letter, then try again. ..."

At least one other reader agreed with this assessment:

"To compare this drivel to Albert Einstein's appeal to President Roosevelt regarding atomic technology is ludicrous," Edmund Perry weighed in, before allowing the sorry possibility that social-networking technology may be the only technology the U.S. still possesses with any leading-edge superiority.

Of course, the Manhattan project gave the world's top physicists the vast resources and time to carry out their vital — and staggeringly difficult — research. So a cynic could point out that elevating social-networking research with a similar urgency would, no doubt, benefit those studying in that field:

"Of course ... the real goal here … is to get Uncle Sugar to extend the sweet deal that scientists and engineers get to software types. [Specifically to] aimlessly fool around in the lab/computer, satisfying your intellectual curiosity (and little else), on the taxpayer's dime," wrote another anonymous contributor. It should be noted that four of the six authors of this open letter work in universities and, presumably, might benefit from the increased research spending the letter advocates.

Ahh, the twisty path of progress.

Posted by Joab Jackson on Aug 05, 2009 at 12:14 PM


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