Revolution in the Digital Age

Oct 03 2010 Published by under Blogging, politics

Check out this article at the New Yorker. Read it all the way through. It will be worth your while. [via Slashdot]

The author challenges the assertion that social media can foment and hasten social and political change in a society. The author contrasts the loose ties of “networks,” with the structure of “hierarchical organizations” and examines how each of these function to illustrate his point. He also cites examples from American history – the fight against segregation, and the movement to end the Vietnam War. Segregation was not defeated because people got together to merely say it is wrong. They undertook boycotts, sit-ins, and protest marches. The Vietnam War did not end because millions of people just professed the belief that it should. Organized groups of people stopped it. Large chunks of the population mobilized to take action against a government that failed to listen to the will of the governed.

I agree that social media in-and-of-itself does not represent an upgrade in the tools of political activists. I will add that social media hampers not only total upheaval, but even intermediate levels of change. It preserves status quo. Real change in a society’s power structure requires that at some point individuals have to take action directed against those who hold power. People need to organize and establish a real-world physical presence in order to even contemplate this possibility.

Social media accomplishes zero in the area of organized action. There is nothing active about it. It keeps people locked at the level of merely expressing opinion, which others ‘like’ and ‘re-tweet,’ but no one ever ventures out from behind the computer to take real action. Social media allows people to express an opinion, and build agreement around that opinion, but there is no link to click that attacks the system. It can create consensus, and bring together like-minded individuals, but it offers nothing in the way of tangible action. While social media may give a voice to the oppressed, that voice grows hoarse if the oppressed cannot take action against their oppressors.

Look at the current state of political affairs in the United States. There is no leftist activism. In the country where the people organized and successfully overthrew segregation and forced the government to end the Vietnam War we now offer no resistance to a complete takeover by Wall Street and a complete failure to provide a health care system. The only activism in the U.S. now comes from the right. Consensus-building on social media usually follows some sort of meme, rather than challenging anything at any level of importance. Social media promotes views that support the establishment, or lend themselves to preservation of status quo in the power structure, while it suppresses the views of the disenfranchised.

Social media can be used to achieve mass-agreement on an incorrect fact. Such as the practice of calling our Christian, union-busting, no-health-care-providing, bank-bailing-out President a Socialist. It’s not factually accurate, and yet it is swallowed hook, line, and sinker by millions, and repeated often. We can thank social media for creating mass consensus on an opinion that could only be formed out of an ignorance of facts and an absence of common sense. I still can’t decide which un-factoid scares me more – that people think the President is a Socialist, or that people think Socialism is bad. Or should I be worried more that so many people can repeat something without understanding it, or even trying to understand it, first.

I’ve said before that technology and social media are important tools for social and political change. However, I don’t believe these tools in-and-of-themselves offer a radical new way to organize people to action or protest. By themselves they do not make revolution easier or even more likely. Like all technology – a computer, a PDA, or a hammer – social media can only be as effective as the person wielding it. However, the maximum capability of social media stops at building loose networks of people who share an opinion. At some point individuals need to take the relationships built through social media and further develop them in the real world, using a mix of emerging technology grounded in a solid base of traditional tools of change.

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