By Joe Trippi
updated 3/15/2005 1:51:40 PM ET 2005-03-15T18:51:40

Over my next four or five "Trippi’s Take" Columns, I want to explain why I think "The Information Age" is the wrong way to think about where we are as a society today. I think we are at the beginning stages of an "Age of Empowerment," and I'll be writing about what I think that means as we move forward.

We live in a top-down society. All of our institutions are top down: corporations, governments, political parties. And in a top-down world, information is power. People within these institutions tend to hold on to or use information to move up the ladder of government, their political party, or the corporation/business they work for.

But if information is power, and if technology, the Internet, and fragmented media channels are spreading information faster and penetrating more homes and nations than ever before, then it is not information that is being distributed— it is power being distributed.

For the first time in a long time, power is being distributed to the bottom. In a top-down world, power being distributed to the bottom is a very disruptive thing that brings with it waves of change.

Among the first signs of this Age of Empowerment in the United States was Napster. Napster became a platform (legal or not) for millions to combine their power and use the Internet to wreak havoc on a top-down recording industry.  The result?  The way music is distributed has been changed forever.

In South Korea, cell phones, text messaging, and the web based “Ohmynews” were credited for the citizen’s grassroots movement that elected new leadership from the “outside.”

The Dean for America campaign was many things, but at its heart, it was the bottom combining power to wreak havoc on a top-down political system addicted to big money contributions from both sides of the political aisle. 

Mainstream media is not immune to the sea change caused by bottom-up empowerment.  Conservatives on the Internet, using their newfound power to challenge and question the top, pulled Dan Rather and the four producers at CBS’s 60 Minutes program from their top of the rung perches.

It would be a mistake to not understand the powerful role that mainstream media has in the empowerment ecosystem.  Years ago in the United States, it was images of civil rights marches on television that helped to change our nation.  In the 1980s it was coverage of a citizen’s movement in Poland, and images of a changing Soviet Union that helped speed the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Now with more channels on satellite, and more dishes going up everywhere, it is the mainstream media images of the Iraqi people standing in line to vote, and the images of more than 500,000 people in Lebanon protesting to oust Syria and demanding democratic elections, that are finding their way into the homes of millions in the Middle East.  These are empowering images.  Images speak to the people, who look at them and say, “Change is possible.”

The key is to erase the words “Information Age” from your vocabulary and to see this all instead as the beginning stages of the “Age of Empowerment.”

It is media that connects and empowers us, and the Internet does that like no other medium can.

And therein is a lesson that mainstream media must learn: Yes, people everywhere want information with their news— but they also want to be connected and empowered to do something.

MSNBC’s "Connected Coast to Coast with Ron Reagan and Monica Crowley" is the beginning of a bold experiment on how to do this.  Can two powerful mediums, the Internet and cable television, be used in concert to air bottom-up views and dialogue, and add new voices and perspectives to the discussion?

How did that old saying go? If it makes you feel empowered, do it. Or was it view it?

Joe Trippi is a Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and is the author of the recent book “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised— Democracy, the Internet and the Overthrow of Everything.”

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