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