I remember being at Harvard in the basement of Annenberg and watching the war in Iraq begin on FoxNews. It was right before Spring Break and I was sitting there with an Australian guy who I rowed with. This Aussie was particularly opinionated and wasted no time in sharing his opinion with me that that the war was idiotic and would just end in disaster. He was with his roommate Mark who I barely knew and would only meet once or twice after that. We watched the footage for a while and then left to get lunch.
In March of 2003, America began its quest to bring democracy to the Middle East and would over the next several years spend hundreds of billions of dollars to that effect. Since those first bombs went off in Baghdad, countless people have dedicated their careers and lost their lives trying to bring about this vision of a free and representative mode of governing in these countries that have forever been ruled by autocrats. This has largely been to no avail. It is hard to force democracy on people. They need to want it themselves.
Over the last two months, something changed. The entire Middle East has woken up to the idea of democracy. For the first time the masses were able to effectively organize and express their desire for it in a way they had not before. This turn away from autocracy was made possible not by the bombs I was watching on screen that March day in 2003. It was made possible by my Australian friend’s roommate. The unassuming awkward kid with a hoodie. He gave them the fire that let them burn their regimes down and he never even left his room to do so.
While America was spending billions of dollars trying to change the Middle East through shock and awe, that kid in the hoodie was with a team of other people quietly developing a website that would more than anything else effect the end politics of those countries we were so desperately trying to change by conventional means. They did it with barely any working capital and very minimal expenses. It would take a few years but over time we would all know the name of the website and the name of the kid in the hoodie.
What we probably don’t fully appreciate though are the wide ranging series of cause and effect that his actions have helped bring about. When the history of this period of unrest is written, it will be said that Mubarak and the other despots fell not because of international pressure but because some of their own people took 30 seconds to put together a Facebook invite and were able to organize themselves in ways never thought possible through this new tool. A tool that was created by a kid in a hoodie.
At the dawn of the new millennium A&E ran a special trying to identify the most influential people of the last millennium. For their number one pick, they didn’t choose Napoleon or Hitler or any of the famous political leaders and despots who conquered great territories and started wars. Neither did they pick the great artists like Shakespeare or Picasso who shaped the way we speak and perceive beauty. They picked a quiet man who died unknown in an obscure part of Germany. This man was not a religious figure although what he did would certainly affect world religions and lead to great upheaval. He was not a scientific figure although again his actions would have great effects on how that world developed.
His name was Johannes Guttenberg and he spent his life quietly laboring to develop a successful movable printing type. He successfully did it, although he never got the adulation he deserved in his life time. Neither did he make any money off of it. He died broke. No one even painted a picture of him until 100 years after the fact. Yet without Guttenberg, you have no printing press, and without the printing press, you have no Reformation and therefore no Enlightenment and no Industrial Revolution and everything that came after. Perhaps it would have all happened in due time but Guttenberg’s invention like Facebook helped dramatically speed up the process.
Who knows how Facebook will be viewed a hundred years from now. The fact of the matter is though that anonymous kid in Annenberg would change the Middle East in more profound ways than any of the bombs we were watching on television that day.