The things we do not know | #3

When I graduated High School, certified by the State of Mississippi as proficient in the needs of Basic Education, there was no widely available internet – it would be 5 years before Netscape Navigator came on the scene, bringing us a mainstream web browser. In fact, my final high school report card was handwritten, as our school didn’t have office computers. No one I knew had ever seen a cell phone. Email was used only in academia. Nobody was on Facebook or Twitter, both more than 15 years away from being invented.

Now, 30 years later, it is so different from then as to seem almost like a different world. The internet is ubiquitous. We all carry powerful computers in our pockets. Social media can change the course of national elections. We are always on, always plugged in, always available – so much so that consultants make a living teaching people how to be “digital minimalists”.

It is a world no one prepared me for, and I am only 47. It’s only going to become more so. With the global pandemic currently ravaging the world, we are being pressed to learn new technologies, new ways of being in the world. Many of us have been on our first video conference ever in the last two weeks.

What this pandemic has made clear is what has always been true: To get beyond where we are, we have to learn new things. Nobody is going to teach you the skills you need to overthrow them.

We are going to have to be responsible for discerning what skills we need, and then for educating ourselves.

If there is a lesson to be learned for those of us committed to resistance during this pandemic, it is that there are a lot of tools we are not using, mostly because we haven’t known about them, or been afraid of them. For example, billion-dollar corporations have been using video-conferencing for more than a decade to connect remote workers, building truly global networks, whereas I know community organizers who refuse to check their email regularly, preferring the phone and face to face “like they were taught”.

When I bring this up, people love to parrot back the amazing Audre Lorde, who famously said that you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools – but who said these were his tools, anyway? Why is email his tool, but cell phones aren’t? Why is video conferencing his tool, but your MacBook isn’t?

These tools are available on the open market, available to whoever has the ability to learn to use them. Just because the Powers That Be use something like this doesn’t make it theirs, any more than the telephone or the laptop is theirs. And, as some of us learned this week, we can hold unlimited video conferences with up to 100 people at a time for $15 a month and a cell phone.

But a month ago, many of us didn’t know this, and what’s more, didn’t know we needed to know it. And right now, there are organizers and pastors and community leaders actively resisting learning these new things, because it is new to them. Because it is scary. Because they don’t want to be beginners after so many years of being masters.

And they, and the communities they lead and organize, are going to be left behind.

As of this morning, you can’t buy a webcam on Amazon.com. I mean, you just cannot. They are not there to be had. A friend works in IT for a large, multinational corporation, and he said that last week he bought hundreds of them for their remote workers and that many other large corporations are doing the same. They are not afraid of this new age – they embrace it. But then again, the Powers that Be have always been good at using technology, systems, and organization to accomplish their means.

One of the most important jobs of a revolutionary to learn how to learn. To be able to sort and find information, and to be adaptable to new realities. We have to be flexible as to tools and methods, while steadfast to our principles. To lean toward the new, while holding onto the lessons of the past.

As a mentor of mine once told me, the past is a useful reference point, but a horrible resting place. And, I would add, a horrible basis for an organizing strategy. If we are going to build a better world than the one we have now, we have to come to terms with the fact that we do not know what we will need to know. But we need to know how to learn it.

You can listen to the audio of this essay here.