Power Over, It's Complicated

In their best-selling book, Freakanomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner explain that the deadly business of crack dealing in American inner cities has such attraction because it is a tournament. In a tournament hundreds of desperate youth will put up with danger, low wages and dreadful work because they believe they will start from nothing and rise to great power and wealth. Young black men see the cars, cash rolls and bling of the bosses and risk everything to be them. Likewise Canadian Idol contestants line up in the rain and face failure and humiliation because they believe they will be the next Taylor Swift. As long as you believe in the tournament, the tournament has incredible power over you.

The flipside is, of course, that once you realize the game is rigged, that the drug bosses lease their cars, wear gold-plated jewelry and dupe their underlings, you quit the tournament, and it no longer has the power to control you.

And, ideas themselves can also possess the same kind of “power over” as a crack tournament. And that brings me to a another book, one I’ve been reading this week - Dana Boyd’s exhaustively researched It’s Complicated. Boyd, a social media scholar, deconstructs and debunks myths about how youth uses the Internet and social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

I’ve been a fan of Boyd’s work for years. She’s surgically dissected the wooly thinking behind the Web as a dank cellar crawling with predators or that today’s teens are using smartphones to disconnect from human interaction or that kids are naturally digital natives. In her book Boyd points out that many of the notions fearful parents have invested in are phantoms born of an overprotective and technically naive generations own issues and preconceptions.

And that brings me back to the “power over” of tournaments and ideas. That power is binary. It is either all on or all off.

Once a teenage girl realizes that the odds are never in her favour she, like Katniss in The Hunger Games, stops playing and, at best, starts playing along without the fervour of a true believer. She might even start a revolution.

Once a young man realizes his label is playing him for a fool, he walks away and nothing a manager can say will hold sway. The switch has been thrown.

I think a lot of people, particularly older folks and parents, are in the thrall of ill-informed ideas about social media, the Web and mobile devices. As Boyd points out, they believe that by joining Facebook and following their children they will protect them, when in fact they’re just driving them to new platforms where they can be with their friends. They believe online spaces are more dangerous than real world ones, when, in fact, orders of magnitude more sexual abuse and predatory behaviour takes place in the real world, by the friends and relatives their children already know. They believe their children are disconnecting on their phones, when they’ve actually limited their children’s opportunities to socialize in real life.

I’m hoping that a book like Boyd’s, which is aimed squarely at them, will throw the switch. And, that, when the power is cut to those notions, the folks that I call “jubilant Luddites” will bring a deeper, more nuanced and more open attitude to their deliberations about how technology should be used, rejected or embraced.

Who knows. They might even start a revolution.