My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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with great privilege comes great responsibility

Just as the Olympics was a spectacle of physical prowess, the Democratic National Convention has been a spectacle of political aspiration. As best demonstrated by my preference for Fantasy Congress over Fantasy Football, I’m much more of a sucker for the political. And this week’s convention was most definitely a 10.0.

Each speech addressed a different American anxiety around Obama’s candidacy. Michelle Obama began by taking back the idea that Republicans have a stranglehold on the meaning of family. Hillary Clinton’s brilliant articulation of the need to rise above individual candidates and move forward as a united party went straight at the efforts by Republicans to leverage a divided party. Bill Clinton reminded us that he was attacked by Bush Sr. as being the young upstart with no experience. And then Barack, oh Barack…

Barack articulated the problems that we are currently facing and the costs of the last 8 years. He made light of his “celebrity” status, noting that his experiences and connections to people aren’t quite what one might imagine a celebrity lifestyle to be like. He then offered concrete moves he intended to make as president, dead-on facing the attack that he’s all dreamy and not-at-all concrete. And then… oh and then… He laid out why dreaming and moving towards a higher purpose is more than political bullshit, making it clear that government cannot fix society alone. He asked everyone to take responsibility for their actions and to work together to make this a great nation. He set out what government can do and what people must do. He asked people to engage and promised to work for them in return.

In my work, I am constantly reminded of the costs of hyper individualism. The publics that we know are driven by consumerism, not collective goods. The politics we live with are power-games that capitalize on sound bytes and psychological diversions. The information culture we inhabit is driven by fear and sensationalism. I’m not looking for nationalism, but I wouldn’t mind a culture that recognizes that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. I would like to see a culture that concerns itself with the public good, that makes decisions that and words towards what benefits the collective. This can’t be done with policy. It must be done through inspiration and mindfulness. And good policy must be integrated with efforts to right ourselves in this direction. Barack’s speech asks everyone to realize that politics as usual comes from our collective apathy and obsession with minutia. Details are important, but we must be moving towards a meaningful goal for any particular policies to matter.

Policy is important, but that’s not why this election matters to me. I don’t think that the intricacies of politics can be laid out in a policy speech and I don’t think that being an informed voter is about policy. I think that it’s about the direction we are headed, about the higher goals, about the things that we all have a stake in and can contribute towards. I want a leader who can lead, not just one who passes laws. I am interested in the philosophical question of how you can motivate a population to work towards a common good and achieve great things.

I know not everyone is inspired by Barack, but what excites me is how many people are. I see people engaging for the first time. I see young people getting excited that they can do something. Of course, I also see a lot of bitter, angry, and cynical people. I’m not sure if Barack is going to be able to help them turn those attitudes around, but I am confident that he’s going to try.

At the end of the day, I live in a country with tremendous wealth, power, and privilege. And thus, I’m reminded of the Noblesse oblige: with great privilege comes great responsibility. Many individuals have used that call to drive them to do good, but now I think that we must find a way to make that our collective mission both domestically and globally. My hope is that Barack’s candidacy (and ideally presidency) may help people recognize their place in this networked world and their responsibility to it as well. Whether we’re talking about the environment, terrorism, education, health care, or the economy, we need to be talking about networks and networked peoples. These are systems and systems cannot be managed individually.

So…

I have a dream… that one day the people of this nation will open their eyes and see their neighbors as brethren once again and work to make sure that they too are happy and prosperous.

I have a dream… that one day the people of this nation will let go of their selfish desires and work towards the collective good, caring for those who are in need, and helping other achieve to their fullest potential.

I have a dream… that one day the pursuits of knowledge, innovation, and happiness will be the gross national product we seek to maximize.

I have a dream… that come this November, we put a halt to being an arrogant, controlling, greedy, and aggressive global actor, that we ask our allies for forgiveness, seek humility, and work to right the wrongs that we have inflicted on so many peoples for so many years.

Let communities rise… Let people come together as one… Connected at last.

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4 comments to with great privilege comes great responsibility

  • Thank you. One of the advantages of having lived in difference cultures is that one can tease out the individual myths that each culture holds and examine them from a distance. The libertarian, individualistic strain of American life is so deeply embedded inside the roots of the culture that it can often be hard to get people to realize it’s even a bias. And it frustrates me to see analyses of the political and cultural problems facing America which ignore such an obvious factor.

    To me, Obama’s talent in inspiring people to see a viewpoint they were not even aware existed could not have been used for a better purpose than this.

  • This conveyed my feelings exactly after the convention, especially Obama’s speech. Going into it, I was convinced that the goal was to defeat the republicans, going out of it, I was convinced that the goal was to heal these deep divisions. In particular, I really like the last part of the dream, that we can develop some diplomatic tools besides war.

  • The quote that I like to use is:

    “With great power comes great responsibility.”

    Benjamin Parker

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Parker

  • Steve

    I compare Obama to a comic book character whose super power is to speak and be liked.

    But having a super power doesn’t make you a hero.

    I do not believe he is the person he pretends to be.

    _Steve