Monday, March 28, 2011

How the Internet Aids Social Change and Revolution

What is it about the internet that makes it so powerful? And what are its positive and negative aspects?

Demonstrators face police lines on Aveunue Bourguiba, Central Tunis by cjb 22

The internet has proven without a doubt its potential as a tool for political revolution, terrifying dictatorships around the world and also worrying political elites in representative democracies. Why?

The internet creates a state of constant chatter, that is, the people who use the internet find themselves in a state of continuous chatter and linking. This creates a high level of information exchange, dialogue and debate. This condition has never happened before in Human history.

Horizontal connections
Secondly, the internet promotes “horizontal” connections, that is, connections between ordinary people and their groups. Vertical connections abound with news sites, the sites of personalities and other such “authorities” and these are important for the retrieval of “true” information, important opinions and useful theory.

But the horizontal connections are most important, and this is what the internet excels at, it creates millions of links, some which develop into true bonds and relationships with ordinary people, lay people. This is something that establishment media cannot do for it specializes in a special authority form of communication that is one way, top down -- though it may have a pretense of followers.

The Universe of content
Prior to the internet, one had to physically go to a political event, find a radical newspaper or someone passing out a flyer, look for table or booth to talk to someone, sign a petition and so on. In between events you were disconnected and out of luck. The action or festival was the key means to connect with other people, activists and followers and others wanting to become activists. In the world of the internet all is available to you, if you search long enough you will find interesting information, ideas, people and connections. The internet does not take the place of physical events but it does provide an electronic supplement to these activities that speeds up the process of radicalization.

Real time evolution
The internet provides information as it happens, we have no lag as with news services, newspapers, journals, magazines or television. Activists can react immediately in quick moving situations. This gives them an advantage that they did not have in the past, for in the past era, the elites, the state and intelligence services had access to the most current information on unfolding events and a superior general picture than an insurgent movement had. Today a movement can develop its own form of “intelligence” that centralizes and spreads relevant information to activists far and wide.

In a world of real time, activists can respond immediately, organize and launch the next tactic or pause, rethink and flexibly adjust to a changing situation. The speed of response to events is rapid, the ability to create events is increased and the power to lead events is greatly improved – and in periods of great social upheaval one needs most of all to gain the initiative, initiate an offense and control events. 

Viral process and triggers
The internet as we know manifests viral behavior -- viral marketing for example. In addition, a political event can be a trigger or spark that sends waves of ideas and emotion through the web. A despondent man selling vegetables in Tunisia burns himself to death as the ultimate act of protest against a system that gives him no hope. This event sends an electronic tsunami through the internet. This very disturbing event not only occurs in real time but the internet actually amplifies the event as more people are affected by it. This infectious process multiplies to the point that this solitary event by a despondent individual resonates in the hearts of millions causing them to break with their ordinary activities and enter the streets in protest.

Call to Action
The internet is the perfect place to make a Call to Action, the call is spread far and wide quickly. If the timing is good, then the call is widely heeded and tens of thousands or even more will show up for a protest, march, festival or ritual. Never before has there been such a tool for activists.

Networking, planning and organizing
The Internet is perfect for contacting people, linking, networking, doing collective planning, forming organization and teaching. The web allows a young movement to quickly self organize, the process of evolution is sped up. In the past people had to connect with each other at a physical event, so the process of pulling together a movement was much slower and gapped. The concept of “Outreach” in the pre-internet world was designed to supplement the physical event or action. Outreach continues in the internet age but it reaches many more people on many more issues, and is continuous and real time. Now on the internet, the activists can find each other and organize much more easily.

For the reasons above and more the internet is a wonderful and effective tool for reform or revolution.

Internet as revolution without a center
One of the most interesting and powerful features of internet activism is that it produces a different mode or personality of revolution from the past, the 20th century for example with its stress on centralism and control and discipline.

The internet has no center; it is an infinite network of links. The preponderance of horizontal links over vertical links creates a new phenomenon. This produces a condition where revolution would have no center either. The web lends itself to diverse united fronts and expansive social movements united by general principles, but not by singular, commanding parties and individuals.

Activists using the web engage in a kind of organized chaos, a process that includes both disorganization in the sense of many atomized individuals and groups, and organization in the sense of agreement on general plans, programme and actions.

The internet creates something in between, a condition that has friction with hierarchical forms. New modes of organization result. This organized chaos or one could also call this “liquid organization” has an overall flow, it has currents, it has counter currents, it has periods that are choppy and calm. The internet leaves behind old modes of strict organization that we still see in big corporations, education, governments, factories and offices etc. The web is more comfortable with flexible and evolving forms full of diversity and individuality. Actually, the internet provides a mindset that is more in tune with Nature with its complexities that are processes.

The danger of organized chaos or liquid organization is that we can find ourselves in a pure chaos where nothing collectively can get done. In some situations or projects more chaos may be required, but when it comes to the success and health of a general movement, one needs organization, one needs some sort of flexible united front with leadership and plans. So the balance is the issue.

If a state of conflicting and disparate individuals, groups and issues were maintained, then we would pass into a state of alienation, sectarianism and eventually pessimism and apathy.

We should bear in mind that on the internet we are all “strangers” we only know each other through the electronic filter of the internet . We have not met each other in the physical realm yet, so we do not fully know each other, we do not have the benefit of the full range of communication created by face-to-face connection. Intimacy, relationship, bonding, care, loyalty and trust do not develop so easily on the internet. If we maintain a state of chaos then these very Human needs will not bloom at all, we will pass into disconnection, paranoia, hostility and more, because the negative side of the web provides fertile soil for these seeds to flourish too. But if handled well the positive potential will dominate, and we will leave the negative features to elites and manipulators who excel at fostering confusion, conflict and misery. 

A new system of strategy and tactics
The internet changes the rules of activism. The old paradigm of the 20th century is not deleted, it is modified and simply put under new categories. We now have at least two broad headings: electronic and physical, virtual and tactile, internet bandwidth and Human bandwidth.

Of course, the physical realm is not gone but now activists are looking for the ways that each realm aids the other and for the many specific interrelations between each. We now have a new “system” of behavior that must operate as a whole. In the past there was a newspaper and journal, a party and its center, now we have the web and a very diverse united front.

The internet in the end is a form of communication. We can have actions on the internet but the fundamental actions will take place in the “real” world in the tactile, physical world of protests, rebellions, seizures and the positive work of creating and building new institutions.

One, of course, cannot wage a revolution on the internet, what will you take over? Revolution or reform or any successful radical action still demand that you break with talk and then act. On the other hand the internet is an indispensible tool to prepare the way for actions and see them through to success. Ideas, information, dialogue and debate are essential behaviors that must parallel all actions.

The old paradigm that says that social change is indeed a material issue is still true. This Human truth still reigns. But it is not fair to say that activity on the internet neglects Human qualities or is outside the desires of Humanity. The internet is a very Human creation full of Human expression. It does not represent the full range of Human behavior but at the same time it fulfills a highly important need for Human beings – to communicate with each other when we are not physically close to each other.

Face-to-face connection and the acceleration of action
About some other points that were raised previously: In the past an individual had to be socialized, acclimated and educated through a process of social events, because this was the only way to come in contact with a new political or cultural movement. There were rallies, festivals and “teach-ins” where noted leaders and experts would speak. The internet seems to reduce somewhat the need for these physical events, and allows activists to more quickly move to organization and action. The old preparatory phase is now handled by the internet and cell phones, though not completely.

So this leads to possible conclusions:

First, that behavior outside the internet may consist more of Actions as the web has done its preparatory job of educating, connecting and motivating people.

Second, there might be a rising need for tactile activity, that is, a need to get away from the computer and enter the world of physical connection. As we spend a greater proportion of our time on the web in the world of electronic connection at a certain point we feel a longing, a great need for proximity to another Human being.

The core emotional desire is bonding because the internet cannot generally get us to this level of relationship though it can whet our appetite, tease us, promise us and ramp us up to the next stage of taking the plunge into a community, moving us from a kind of computer introversion to a touching-and-feeling extroversion.

The event can take on the characteristics of a reunion, a coming out party, a celebration, a holiday, a job orientation, a match making meet and so on. Special events may arise that focus on this need set up precisely to introduce people to each other, to aid them in finding potential colleagues, to lead them to a niche that best suits them, to make them feel part of a whole community and movement etc.

The introduction of the internet creates new issues to manage and problems to solve. It does not fundamentally change the basic rules, but it does completely rearrange our thinking and it requires a new handbook of revolution.

Cage Innoye

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