On my commencement day in 1974, we had no cell phones. Imagine! No Twitter to send second-by-second tweets of the pomp and circumstance — or the rain that sent us scurrying after the ceremony. No spontaneous hugging photos wafting through cyberspace. Heck, we didn’t have cyberspace. No Internet. No website for Trinity to post the official proceedings. I graduated in a time before email, voicemail, disposable cameras, digital cameras, Diet Coke, American Idol. “Law & Order” had not yet run a single episode. Star Trek was still an original television series — on a regular television network, cable TV not yet invented. Even then Mick Jagger looked like he was 150 years old. Richard Nixon was still president (but not for long!). In a world dominated by leaders who were mostly white men, save for the indefatigable Golda Meir in Israel and Indira Ghandi in India, we could not imagine women as Speaker of the House or Secretary of State, or an African American president of the United States.
Somehow, those of us who graduated back in those primitive dark ages managed to cope with the subsequent pace of invention, cultural and political revolutions. Raised and educated in simpler times, we learned we could not live without broadband, Facebook, HBO or Target.
Reflecting on the extraordinary changes in social, cultural and political life since my graduation from Trinity 35 years ago, I can’t help but wonder what changes the Class of 2009 will encounter in the years to come. Commencement season prophecies are part of our Trinity tradition at this time of year, so in my next several blogs I will suggest some of the changes the Class of 2009 should anticipate.
1. Radical Changes in the News Media
Perhaps this is too easy to predict, but it appears likely that the notion of the “morning paper” will be as quaint as the “evening news.” Vestiges of broadsheet newspapers will continue to appear on doorsteps of subscribers, but the choices will be fewer and the content will be far less varied than what will be available through the Internet.
I disagree with the solemn pronouncements about the impending Death of Journalism. So long as we have governments, we must have journalists. But as New York Times Columnist Frank Rich wrote yesterday, “…it’s immaterial whether we find the fruits of their [journalists'] labors on paper, a laptop screen, a BlackBerry, a Kindle or podcast,” what matters is that journalists will continue to probe, investigate, expose, write, broadcast, blog, twitter, communicate in myriad ways the critical news of the day. Wrote Rich,
“…we can’t have serious opinions about America’s role in combating the Taliban in Pakistan unless brave and knowledgeable correspondents (with security to protect them) tell us in real time what is actually going on there. We can’t know what is happening behind closed doors at corrupt, hard-to-penetrate institutions in Washington or Wall Street unless teams of reporters armed with the appropriate technical expertise and assiduously developed contacts are digging night and day.”
Newspapers may disappear, but news gathering and reporting will remain urgent and necessary to sustain the balance of powers in the democracy.
2. More Diffuse Citizen Activism
With the radical changes in news media already evident, we are seeing a rise in the power of individuals to express opinions and exert advocacy on just about any issue. Tens of millions of bloggers already jam the internet with their opinions (!!), and many appear to have considerable power in shaping the opinions of others. The phenomenon of readily available public citizen comment on blogs or Twitter or the “comments” sections of online news stories makes the need for accurate and factual news reporting even more urgent — the amount of propaganda that private citizens are spreading around is as serious a problem as government propaganda. Finding and reporting the truth becomes ever more complicated in an age when every citizen can have their own oped page.
While even more citizen activism is largely a good thing — the 2008 election was driven in large part by broad use of Internet tools to reach new populations of voters — the rapid growth of diverse interest groups can also pose dangers. Hate groups are proliferating through online communication; membership in private militia grows daily; the use of the internet for illegal and subversive purposes, including terrorism, is a grave danger. Governments will find it increasingly challenging to protect the freedoms of all citizens to organize and communicate as they wish while also ensuring order and security. The danger, of course, is that government will err on the side of protection at the risk of liberty.
The Class of 2009 will live in an era of unparalleled communication and connection, and large dangers to civil liberties as the government tries to figure out how to protect the society from the potentially destructive consequences of unrestrained expression. The government’s impulse to restrain expression in the name of national security is the very reason why the news media must continue to be strong, and why citizens who care about our democracy must be good activists and advocates for prudent and effective governance.