Twitter will set you free to Occupy

Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere

Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere by Paul Mason, Verso, 237 pp., $19.95.

I’m pretty conflicted about computers and the Internet these days.

On the one hand, I run an internet magazine, build websites for small businesses and local good causes alike and even get paid to help people use Facebook and Twitter. It’s fun too, since we all know that the web is the ultimate instant gratifier. Where else can you write an article or make a change to a visual design and, within minutes, hear back about it from somebody halfway around the world? It’s all too easy, it’s all too quick and it’s all too cheap.

On the other hand, I worry that I spend too much time online under the delusion that what I do there matters more than it perhaps it really does. Sensible people caution that the “friends” you make while staring at a screen can never be very close. Does the online activism I do with these friends really make the world a better place?

Weak ties vs strong ties

As Malcolm Gladwell has argued, Tweeting and Facebooking may feel like doing something, but real activism requires comrades connected by “strong” bonds in the physical world. His example: young black men  in the 1960s were only willing to sit in at lunch counters in the South and risk arrest, beatings and worse because they grew up in the same towns and their families went to the same churches together.

Unlike much internet activism, Gladwell claims, the civil rights movement actually achieved something in the real world. And it could only succeed because its activists were connected with each other through deep trust built the old fashioned way, not by “sharing” on Facebook but by sharing physical place and historical culture.

The Occupy movement seems to prove Gladwell wrong, at least according to BBC economics editor Paul Mason. Mason’s new book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: the New Global Revolutions, surveys activist actions and encampments from Tahrir to Syntagma Square in Athens to Zuccotti Park and finds that each one was driven by a group of overeducated and underemployed young people jacked into technology like no revolutionaries since The Matrix.

For Mason, @littlemisswilde, who ran the Occupy Twitter feed at University College London and has since become a celebrity blogger, is typical:

She could write the story of her life through social media, she tells me: Bebo as a kid, MySpace as a teenager. Her sisters know nothing else but Facebook and move around it frighteningly unconscious that it’s new: “For me it’s second nature — I tweet in my dreams. I can’t imagine where it’s going next, but it’s completely inseparable from my personality. In the future, when a child is born, it will be given a Twitter account.”

The network will triumph in the end

Mason makes a good case that without social media’s ability to offer a democratic alternative to TV and other media controlled by oppressive regimes, the upheavals of 2011 might not have happened at all. Even further, Mason predicts that social media is now creating a global network effect that may be activists’ most powerful tool in the future.

Sounding like a tech start-up CEO speaking at a TED conference, Mason posits that a network, such as a group of youth activists connected by social media, will always defeat a hierarchy like a repressive government or a big corporation. Already, he writes, the prevalence of various networks online and off has started “to erode power relationships that we had come to believe were permanent features of capitalism: the helplessness of the consumer, the military-style hierarchy of boss and underlings at work, the power of mainstream media empires to shape ideology, the repressive capabilities of the state and the inevitability of monopolization by large corporations.”

Inspired by the open-source software movement, Mason goes on to predict that hyperlinked activism could help create a new kind of evolved human consciousness in the future that’s more about sharing than owning and could help solve some of the world’s biggest problems, starting with the liberation of the 99%.

What about the limits to growth?

As a guy who already feels guilty for the eight or ten hours a day, six days a week, that I spend online, it’s hard for me to follow Mason quite this far. But when I also consider that  the physical limits to human expansion on a finite planet could make global economic growth at current rates difficult to maintain in coming years, I wonder if the world will continue to become ever more wired. Is it posible instead that communications advances may slow, stop or even reverse as the economy comes under pressure from climate change, peak oil and other natural limits to human growth?

Mason doesn’t sound too worried. Though he briefly alludes to a coming energy crisis, Mason seems to agree with @littlemisswilde that fetuses of the future will Tweet from the womb.

But even if Mason isn’t able to imagine a lower-tech world, the wired activists he celebrates can imagine it. Some of them even seem to desire it. Many young people have responded to the youth unemployment that Mason finds to be a key motivator to Occupy — running as high as Spain’s 46% — not by occupying urban public spaces but by at least partially opting out of corporate-run consumer culture through simple living, urban homesteading or the Transition movement.

Other young people, such as the farmers profiled in the film The Greenhorns, have gone even further and have decided to get the heck out of Dodge.  Young farmers may still keep up their Twitter feed. But if you listen to today’s back-to-the-landers, transcendence will not come via the Borg but by getting dirt under their fingernails, installing a wood stove or growing heirloom tomatoes.

Escape from New York

Mason is correct that Occupy is essentially an urban movement, staged like most traditional dissent in the global megacities “in which reside the three tribes of discontent — the youth, the slum-dwellers and the working class.” But to achieve the goal of Occupy, to free the 99% from control by the 1%, it won’t be enough to take back urban space. We need to occupy the countryside too.

Perhaps unquestioned dominance of the city over rural areas is a problem that Occupy should address. After all, farms, villages and small towns are where most people lived before the rise of industrial capitalism — for a period covering, say, 99%, of human history. And as John Michael Greer recently argued so convincingly in his book The Wealth of Nature, the countryside is where the source of all real economic value in the economy originates. The city is merely a place to collect the products of nature and turn them into money.

Remembering this self-evident truth, I wonder if the time I spend online publishing, re-Tweeting, friending and liking is very well spent. And if a man as wise as Wendell Berry still refuses to type his manuscripts on a computer, then I can’t help but be skeptical that social media will do much to make us better people.

However, Mason is right that social media can help those who care about politics become much better informed and provide an egalitarian and supportive community based on sharing. So I’m willing to be convinced that the network effect may have some beneficial effect on human consciousness, even if a person who wants to be whole can’t live on Tweeting alone.

And even if you don’t share Mason’s enthusiasm for technology, his book provides a useful overview of 2011’s greatest hits in activism,  filled with many fascinating clarifications on that important recent history (fact: no lovers of democracy, the Egyptian military had its own self-interested reason for supporting the students who ousted Mubarak). Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere shouldn’t be missed by anyone who cares about the Occupy movement.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    That’s good writing, Eric. “Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere shouldn’t be missed by anyone who cares about the Occupy movement.”
    I’m losing my interest in the Occupy movement because they are occupying the System of systems: demanding that the rich “do something” to share the unearned wealth with the masses of people who demand to be considered “valuable” to the System of systems.
    Meanwhile, the dirt needs caring for, and there are plenty of things that can be done by motivated groups that don’t require systems or money. Too many people are afraid of doing nothing at all, when, for the most part, that is exactly what most people should be doing most of the time.

    • says

      I’m really taken by Occupy even though I know that fundamental changes to our lives today will be required by peak oil, climate change and the other ecological limits to human growth. As we contract our economies, re-localize and get closer to the land again, I think fairness and equal opportunity will be crucial.

  2. says

    It’s great to see all this contemplated, and I am a big fan of Transition Voice. But I feel compelled to – if not scold – at least encourage Erik to look into limits to growth more seriously. This statement: “the physical limits to human expansion on a finite planet could make global economic growth at current rates difficult to maintain in coming years” indicates he hasn’t given this a lot of thought or investigation. Transition is in so many ways the perfect response to our civilization’s bumping into the limits. The evidence we have hit the limit is everywhere. I expect Transition Voice to be more certain about this. Watch my film, Erik!

    The Occupy Movement is, in many ways, a response to the cold , hard reality that the pie we all share is not getting any bigger. In fact, it is shrinking because we have been busy liquidating the Earth of its natural capital for the past few decades. That is why the inequitable distribution of the pie has become so painful. Limits to growth are very real, they are a fundamental source of Occupy dissatisfaction, and we should not expect economic growth – at ANY rates – to continue going further, other than perhaps in a few fits and starts.

    Dave Gardner
    Director of the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

    • says

      Dave, thanks for the gentle scold. To paraphrase Danny DeVito in My Cousin Vinnie, sometimes I NEED a good kick in the ass…

      Seriously, though, I agree that industrial society needs to find another way to prosper besides economic growth. And I also agree that the Earth’s limits will stop growth whether we want to or not. But I go with John Michael Greer that the future of growth globally and across industries is uneven — it will stop or reverse in certain areas, and may continue for decades in others.

      For example, I work with a company that develops solar energy projects. Our business has doubled over last year and we expect it to double again this year. The whole industry is also seeing rapid growth by every measure, from sales to rate of panels installed to jobs created.

      Anyway, I love Growthbusters. I saw it with a crowd in a rural area that hasn’t seen the kind of suburban sprawl that your town in Colorado has, so we had an interesting time making the leap to other kinds of growth that we could relate to.

      I can heartily recommend the film. And also thank you for the push. Your personal example of engaging in local politics has helped inspire me to run for city council in my town in Virginia!

    • says

      Dave and Erik,
      I agree that we need to be far more certain and definitive about the consequences of the internet, social networking and the democratisation of information.
      The occupy/ transition/ cooperative housing/ permaculture/ ecovillage/ collaborative consumption and other movements are all part of a fundamental shift in the way our societies are constructed. Remember that that the reason why towns and cities were originally constructed by humans was to create a cooperative environment. The central gathering place for trade and and political association was the town square. We no longer use physical cities in the same way as both economics and politics function more effectively and efficiently online. Re-localisation allows us to cooperatively satisfy our immediate needs, food, housing, human relationships and connection with nature, while online networking and collaboration can address more complex needs and associations.
      The internet and social networking will have a more significant impact than the printing press, which was the principal factor in the ‘Enlightenment’ of Europe, in undermining the Church and triggering the Reformation, in constructing Western Rationalist government structures and through subsequent education significantly facilitated economic growth.

      • says

        I’ve seen the analogy with the printing press and the Gutenberg revolution before, but your mentioning it here now makes more sense to me, especially in context of cities and town squares as meeting places that are now migrating, in effect, online. You may well be right that social media is even more revolutionary than the printing press was. So far, it’s still new, but it’s already helped topple several dictators and hopefully make some bankers quake in their Gucci loafers. Let’s hope it will not only show that corporations aren’t people but that peak oil and the limits to growth are urgent issues.

        • says

          I agree that the speed of change is amazing… it took generations for the printing press to have a real impact but the internet spreads ideas far more rapidly. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point for all the elements needed to trigger change and the way it happens… essentially like an epidemic.

          The other parallel, in terms of information revolutions, was the Christian revolution. Just like the information super highways, Roman highways linked all the then known world. The Pax Romana (or Roman Peace) had just been established and Roman soldiers guarded all the roads to facilitate trade… allowing ideas to travel freely. The Christian Revolution was primarily a revolution in the way in which people lived. Rather than relying on the ‘semi-global’ Roman economy, Christians chose to live communally, sharing their assets and emphasizing personal and community development rather than economic growth.

          • says

            Good point about the Christian Revolution. I’ve never thought of it as a technology revolution, but maybe roads and other material culture of classical and early Medieval Europe helped it spread, thus changing the way people thought and lived profoundly.

    • says

      Very gracious response, Erik. Glad you saw the film and I appreciate your recommendation. I agree that the future will see companies grow and companies contract, companies born and companies die. But global economic growth on average is over.

      And kudos for running for council. It may take awhile in some places to populate local government with enlightened sustainability advocates, but we have to get started! That is really awesome, man.

      Any Transition Towns wanting to show GrowthBusters have my full support!

      Dave Gardner
      Director of the documentary
      GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  3. Maggie says

    Awesome piece, Erik–deeply thoughtful and encompassing necessary breadth of vision.

    I can’t help but see that in the very process of being an agent that links people all over the world, thus providing needed affirmation and inspiration to people working for Big Change, the internet is also becoming an agent of other kinds of change that are not at all beneficial to us, physically, intellectually, or emotionally. And certainly not beneficial for the planet. The 2 facets that for me are most disturbing:
    1. The very speed of comm that we lovelovelove about the net….life is not so fast (except for moments of sudden shift/disaster), and there are health reasons for it to be conducted at a slower pace. Our own health and the health of the planet as well. Nothing can be thoroughly-enough thought through, in the blink of an eye, no matter how many tweeters say, in the blink of an eye, an idea is really really cool. On the one hand, I understand that ‘time’ is but a mental construct…on the other, time is a real and necessary element of our lives as embodied beings who belong in/within an embodied physical reality. We are so entertained by the speed of comm on the net, never knowing what we might be *missing* in the time to think our own thoughts, and discuss things with others at a more measured, unhurried pace. It could be said that the very speed of gratification infantilizes us and keeps us stuck like Peter Pan–narcisstic and juvenile to the core.

    2. The exclusively mental/intellectual nature of the comm and ‘bonding’. It’s real in it’s own way and therefore valuable to us in one way–but it is not enough to nourish us fully. The more it is relied upon, the more we are saturated in the belief that it IS or CAN BE enough. But we are whole beings who need sound, touch, physical interaction not just with our near neighbors but with life itself. The people I know who most firmly believe, for instance, that the internet is literally our salvation and more human technologies (all wireless/computer based), are also the people with an utter absence of connection to the natural world. That is, they don’t know where their food comes from, and really don’t think there is any need to know–just to name one thing. They don’t like being asked to consider the ramifications for the Planet (including ourselves) in the continuing creation of technologies creating more trash (via speedy obsolescence/newest-gen techs and requiring ever-more capable energy systems to run them. They have forgotten that we are not just intellectual beings, but whole beings reliant upon life’s diversity even for our own survival. They see no problem in humans having totalitarian dominance over life, cannot comprehend that in that way we risk our own lives.

    AuntieGrav–YES! yes yes yes. Thanks for your straightforward and unabashed truth telling, we need it!

    Thanks too to other commenters, especially Dave Gardner, for all you’ve added to this conversation.

    • says

      Thanks back at you, Maggie. There’s so much emphasis on how cool technology is these days, but only a little discussion of the other side, what we might be losing or risking. This seems especially true of communications tech, which appears on the surface more friendly to the Earth and to political activism than hard goods from cars to weapons systems.

      But I share your concerns about the media of comms tech, even if the message is liberating. What kind of body-mind space does it put me in, for example, if I’m convinced that social media will create a bold, new consciousness? Will Tweeting replace meditation or prayer as my spiritual practice? Will I slack off on gardening to put more effort into Google+?

      It’s one thing to say that I’ll remain a whole person even if I invest more emotional energy into the Borg. But it’s another thing to actually do it. That seems to be the rub.

    • says

      I’m sorry if I sound over-zealous about the transformative impact of the internet and social networking.
      I couldn’t agree more with you about the pace of life and the importance of a more gentle approach to physical, intellectual and emotional stimulation that we all need.
      My hope is not that the internet will fill every corner of our lives and will become the sole means of communication. My hope is the at the internet will do the following things:
      1. Increase awareness of the global environmental, economic and social justice issues;
      2. Connect people on opposite sides of the planet, like you and I, who may in the past have focused on our differences, to realise the commonality of the human condition. The fact that all our fundamental desires across all cultures are identical, we all desire justice, peace, purpose, stimulation, joy, love…
      3. Be the tool by which individuals with common interests can connect, form an online community, then if they wish, build their accommodation creating a self-sufficient, self-determining, community capable of satisfying their immediate physical, intellectual and emotional needs, in the way and at the pace that they wish.
      4. Having satisfied basic needs, then, in their spare time, through ‘collaborative consumption’ aim to address and satisfy more complex needs.

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