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Opinion: After Kony, should kids decide our morals?

By Andrew Keen, CNN contributor
March 14, 2012 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
  • Keen: Tens of millions of innocent kids have found a new Jerusalem to liberate
  • Keen: All it takes to join the crusade is a click of a mouse and $15
  • Millions have watched the "Kony2012" movie spotlighting the horrors of Joseph Kony
  • Keen: Should we trust children to make moral decisions with minimal world experience?

Editor's note: Andrew Keen is a British-American entrepreneur and professional skeptic. He is the author of "The Cult of the Amateur," and the upcoming (June 2012) "Digital Vertigo." This is the latest in a series of commentaries for CNN looking at how internet trends are influencing social culture.

(CNN) -- In June 1212, some 30,000 people, most of them children, massed in the center of France. This mob of Christian kids - remembered by historians as The Children's Crusade - was on its way to Jerusalem to liberate it from an infidel who, it was rumored, ate children.

Eight hundred years later, the connected children in today's Facebook world have it much easier. Today, in what we might dub the Children's Crusade 2.0, tens of millions of innocent kids have found a new Jerusalem to liberate.

It's called Africa and their liberation vehicle is the "Kony2012" viral video commodifying innocence that has been watched 80 million times since its release last week.

This time though, the kids don't even need to leave home to go on their crusade. All it takes is a click of a mouse and $15 to liberate the world from an infidel who catches, disfigures and eats children. And this time, they might even get a bracelet and an "action kit" to memorialize their participation in this struggle against almighty evil.

Yes, Africa -- and specifically Uganda -- has been reduced to a meme. An online meme spread like a rash by hyper-connected kids on global networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

It's no coincidence that "Kony2012," part "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and part "Star Wars," begins with the video of a birth.

Andrew Keen
Andrew Keen
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Our Facebook world changes everything, the movie promises its audience of children. We are told that "the game has new rules." The world has been turned upside down by social media, the eschatological video explains, and now "a bunch of littles can make difference."

"We can change the course of human history," "Kony2012" promises its audience of littles. We can do that, it promises, by creating a network of millions of kids who will catch Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord described by Gavin, the deliciously blonde, four-year-old star of the movie, as a "big bad guy."

"Kony abducts kids just like Gavin," the movie's narrator, Jason Russell -- who just happens to be Gavin's dad --- tells us. Joseph Kony forces kids to kill their own parents and mutilate people's faces. He is the personification of evil, the antichrist of Christian eschatology, the sort of monster who, 800 years ago, inspired 30,000 kids to leave home and set sail to Jerusalem.

"Kony2012" may be in poor taste, but it's rich in irony. And it's particularly ironic that the most viral YouTube video of all time was made by a non-profit group called "Invisible Children". Children are many things these days, but they certainly aren't invisible -- especially on the Internet, where it is the kids, these adolescent messengers, who are becoming the McLuhanite message of our networked age.

The glossily seductive "Kony2012" was explicitly designed for kids. In defense of his movie, Jason Russell said on CNN that he thinks of "Kony2012" as being owned by children because "the youth of the world" has funded it.

Invisible Children's CEO, Ben Keesey, even acknowledged to the Wall Street Journal that the movie was made to appeal to children.

"How do we make this translate to a 14-year-old who has just walked out of algebra class?" Keesey said of Invisible Children's thinking behind the movie.

And the kids of the world, those millions of innocent 14-year-olds who walked from their algebra class to the nearest screen, have repaid Invisible Children by turning "Kony2012" into one of the most viral products in history.

Yes, outraged celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Rihanna, who unselfishly showed off her breasts for Invisible Children, helped spread the word.

But it's the children who have transformed the big mustachioed Joseph Kony from a has-been Ugandan warlord into the second-coming of Adolf Hitler (whose little mustachioed face is, of course, also featured in the video).

Even the most informed bloggers on the Internet, like GigaOm's Mathew Ingram, A-list blogger Jeff Jarvis and Columbia University's Emily Bell all discovered "Kony2012" through their kids.

"I am watching ' my 11 yr old:'oh I've seen that: I've already emailed it to my grade'.This is the new news cycle," Bell, who heads up Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism, tweeted last week.

In a way then, all the messianic promise of "Kony 2012" is eerily prescient. The world has been turned on its head and the game does, indeed, have new rules. In our radically democratic age, it's the kids rather than the grown-ups who are curating the news, identifying the bad guys, perhaps even architecting the moral thrust of U.S. foreign policy.

Writing in the New York Times at the weekend, the cultural critic Douglas Coupland observed: "In the past decade that we appear to have entered an aura-free universe in which all eras coexist at once -- a state of possibly permanent atemporality given to us courtesy of the Internet. No particular era now dominates. We live in a post-era era without forms of its own powerful enough to brand the times."

Coupland is right. But in what he calls "our new world of flattened time and space," I wonder if we are also seeing, alongside the radical democratization of time and space, the flattening of age. In a post-era era world of "Kony2012," with its harrypotterfication of reality and its transformation of Africa from a complex, infinitely nuanced society into a manichaean Madison Avenue fantasy of good and evil, are we all now becoming teenagers?

I hope not. 800 years ago, back in 1212, the Children's Crusade ended in shipwreck and enslavement. Today's digital version of that innocent crusade, led by the pied-pipers from Invisible Children, probably won't end so tragically.

But should we really be empowering children to make moral decisions about a world in which they have little experience?

Should we entrust the innocent, that "bunch of littles" who have made "Kony2012" such an instant hit, to architect our brave new connected world?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrew Keen

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