IN 1970, the late, great, soul and jazz poet, Gil Scott-Heron told the world, “The revolution will not be televised.” The phrase is now an anthem for those people whose aspirations fall outside the narrow limits of “acceptable politics.” For many years, “The revolution will not be televised” did indeed describe a reality where the mainstream newspapers and television broadcasters largely ignored the suffering of oppressed communities in the United States and around the world, let alone what they might be saying.
MANY THINGS are as true today as they were in 1970 when Heron began performing that poem. Fewer and fewer conglomerates, owned by fewer and fewer people, dominate the media landscape. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire includes Fox News, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Daily Telegraph (Australia), and B Sky B (UK) just to name a few. This concentration brings a particular uniformity of message along with it.
However, as the Internet and social media have burst onto the scene, new channels have opened along with new possibilities. Some have called the ouster of Egypt’s Mubarak in February 2011, “The Facebook revolution.” Other struggles, like the protests following the disputed 2008 elections in Iran, have taken on similar memes.
Millions, maybe billions of people have access to cell phones, text messages, and Internet cafe’s. There is an oft-repeated claim in the mobile marketing world that there are more cell phones in the world than toothbrushes. It turns out this might actually be true.1
Rupert Murdoch may not televise the revolution, but will it be tweeted? Is the Internet a playing field tilted in favor of the powerless? Have the tables turned?
Following the 1979 Iran revolution that overthrew the Shah, and especially in the aftermath of 9/11, US generals and politicians from both parties have been looking for any reason to discredit and overthrow the leaders of the Islamic Republic. In June 2009, large street protests broke out over widespread irregularities and accusations of fraud in the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It is no surprise that the US media took notice of the protests and reported on them with unrestrained excitement. With Twitter and Facebook as popular as ever, it’s also no surprise the protests found expression there too. On Twitter, in just one week following the disputed election, more than two hundred twenty thousand tweets from over fifty-five thousand people used the hash tag #IranElection. In that same week, nearly three thousand photos were tagged on Flickr with either IranElection or 1388, in reference to the year as it appears on the Persian calendar.
Twitter users from around the world changed their location to “Tehran” on their Twitter profile in an attempt to confuse the Iranian police about the origins of protesters who were actually tweeting from inside Iran. Most dramatically, YouTube videos showing the murder of a twenty-six-year-old woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, killed by a sniper from the Basij, a pro-government militia, while protesting in the street, spread worldwide only hours after it happened. The incident spawned its own hash tag, #Neda.2
On December 17, 2010, a young, Tunisian street vendor, Bouazizi, set himself on fire in protest of harassment by municipal officials who had also confiscated his merchandise. The following week, relatives of Bouazizi posted a video online of a peaceful protest led by his mother outside their local municipality building. That YouTube video was picked up by Al Jazeera off Facebook and aired on the satellite news channel that evening.
Protests spread throughout the northern cities of Tunisia in the coming weeks. A small number of activists began posting videos and messages on Facebook showing the growing protests. Their evolution was reflected in the shifting Twitter hash tags spreading news of the struggle. At first, #bouazizi was most popular. Then #sidibouzid, the hometown of the young street vendor, became the hash tag of choice. Finally, #tunisia became the most popular hash tag to find news of what had become the Tunisian revolution and the beginning of the “Arab Spring.”3
On June 6, 2010, two police officers dragged twenty-eight-year-old Khaled Saeed from an Internet cafe in the coastal city of Alexandria. He reportedly had possession of a video showing police selling illegal drugs. They proceeded to beat him to death on the street in broad daylight. After a morgue photo of his bloody, bruised body was leaked on the Internet, the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page was created by five activists, including the now famous Wael Ghonim, who was head of marketing at Google in the Middle East and North Africa and living in Dubai at the time.
This Facebook page helped organize a number of “silent stand” demonstrations, where activists would stand in silence along the Nile River, facing the water wearing all black. Activists would stand a few meters apart to avoid breaking Mubarak’s “emergency laws” which forbade public gatherings of more than a few people.
In probably the most famous Facebook event in history, this same group of Internet activists created an event for a January 25 demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, titled, “The Day of the Revolution Against Torture, Poverty, Corruption and Unemployment.” More than eighty thousand people replied, “attending.”
As word spread through Facebook, Twitter, and across the blogosphere, twenty-six-year-old female Egyptian activist Asmaa Mahfouz posted a video on YouTube, calling on Egyptians to turn out on January 25, that went viral and even appeared in the mainstream US media. Video, pictures and updates poured out over Twitter as the struggle intensified. The #egypt and #jan25 hash tags were among the highest trending topics on Twitter for weeks.
When Twitter reported their year-end roundup of statistics in December 2011, #egypt was the number one most popular hash tag, beating out #tigerblood and #justinbieber. #Jan25th was eighth on the list. Cairo and Egypt were the most-referenced city and country and Mubarak’s resignation was the most discussed world news event—topping the death of Osama Bin Laden.4
Anyone who was watching the revolution unfold on Al-Jazeera English’s streaming Internet video could see the communications command center in the middle of Tahrir Square with its tangled mess of charging cords. Many around the world set up “Friends of Egypt” Facebook pages to organize local solidarity efforts.
Behind the firewall: Iran
There is no doubt that Egypt was one of the most “wired” revolutions in history. However, one doesn’t need to deny this to also take issue with the ridiculous hype that we saw in the US media. We should seek better explanations of why these struggles succeeded where others, similarly “wired,” have failed.
It turns out that Twitter had much less to do with the actual organizing of the Iranian protests than the hash tags suggest. The first important detail is that the Farsi (Persian) version of Twitter, along with Arabic, Hebrew and Urdu, were released in the early months of 2012, almost two years after the protests had subsided. Most of the Twitter posters, at the time, were Iranians living abroad, tweeting for an English-speaking audience. Throughout most of the protests, sites like Facebook, LiveJournal, and many blogs were completely inaccessible for people in Iran. The government effectively shut down the Internet for days at a time in many major cities.
As protests subsided, the government took the offensive, using the electronic trail left by activists to locate, arrest, and presumably torture them. They took photos posted on social media of protests and crowd sourced the identities of people in the photos. In the Iranian case, social media was, at best, a mixed blessing. It served the role of publicizing the protests to people outside Iran and drumming up international sympathy. On the down side, it may have actually aided the government in finding opposition leaders and decapitating the movement much faster than it might otherwise have been able to do.
Behind the firewall: Tunisia
Just as in Iran, social media did play a role in the revolutionary movement, but this has as much to do with the economics and political stupidity of Ben Ali’s security services than the inherent value of social media.
Tunisia happens to be one of the most “connected” countries in Africa, with 3.6 million Internet users—36 percent of the population.5 Amazingly, the censors failed to block Facebook. Ben Ali’s regime just didn’t see it as a threat in the lead up to his ouster.
Despite its accessibility, most within Tunisia didn’t dare to share or even “like” protest videos until it was clear Ben Ali was on his way out. It was a small, but solid core of revolutionaries and activists, usually the ones also organizing the real-life demonstrations, who risked the surveillance and consequences that kept the rest of the fearful Tunisians informed of developments.6
Spreading news of the protests to the western world, Facebook did play a significant role in breaking the fear barrier within Tunisia. It did give confidence to people that joined protests as news spread of Ben Ali’s imminent demise. However, it is debatable, at best, how much social media played in the planning, execution, and success of the strikes, protests, and direct actions that toppled Ben Ali’s regime.
Behind the firewall: Egypt
When Google Executive Wael Ghonim was released from prison on February 6, 2011, he reported to numerous media outlets that while being interrogated, he was visited by Egypt’s interior minister, who told him, “No one knows how you did it.” Skeptical of the power of Facebook as well, his interrogators concluded that it must have been outside forces. The theory of “outside agitators” became the official narrative of the Mubarak regime in the following weeks.
The Wall Street Journal ran an article on February 11 titled, “The Secret Rally That Sparked an Uprising,” which suggests the real source of the initial protests. According to the Journal,
[Protest Organizers] met daily for two weeks in the cramped living room of the mother of Ziad al-Alimi. Mr. Alimi is a leading youth organizer for Mr. ElBaradei’s campaign group.. . . Those present included representatives from six youth movements connected to opposition political parties, groups advocating labor rights and the Muslim Brotherhood.
They chose 20 protest sites, usually connected to mosques, in densely populated working-class neighborhoods around Cairo. They hoped that such a large number of scattered rallies would strain security forces, draw larger numbers and increase the likelihood that some protesters would be able to break out and link up in Tahrir Square.7
These organizers were not connected, at least formally, with the group who ran the “We are Khaled Said” page and had called for the January 25 protests.
They launched their plan in the early afternoon of January 25. All twenty sites successfully produced large marches through the streets, but the police reacted quickly and prevented all twenty from reaching Tahrir Square. But there was a twenty-first site, whose location and time was only known to a couple among the small group of organizers.
The Bulaq al-Dakrour marchers—the secret, twenty-first site—were “the only group to reach their objective, and they occupied Tahrir Square for several hours until after midnight, when police attacked demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets.”8
Footage of the police attacks were spread through Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, and it surely inspired many to return to Tahrir on the following Friday, where they retook Tahrir and held it until Mubarak was driven from power.
Just as in every other major uprising, the spontaneous uprising is not quite spontaneous. Activists who had been organizing for years, many facing long stays in jail and torture, used their experience and organization to play crucial roles in the “spark” and the defense of Tahrir. This story was repeated in city after city around Egypt and this type of activity continues in Egypt today.
Facebook revolution or Wall Street hype?
During these struggles, the US media filled its airtime with the commentary of social media executives, experts, and pundits promoting the revolutionary democratic spirit of the new electronic activism. However, this explosion of interest was not simply about filling airtime. The US media was primed for the heroic portrayal of Facebook and Twitter by factors years in the making.
The starting point is clearly the astounding consolidation of the Western media into fewer and fewer hands like the Rupert Murdoch or Silvio Berlusconi empires. As part of the logic of neoliberal, free market transformation, these new media empires cut staff to the bone and avoided confrontation with the powerful in exchange for access. The upper levels of management stopped talking about the “fourth estate” and began referring to their job as producing a “news product.”
The logic of this strategy meant that the commercial breaks between the news slowly crept into the newscast itself. The pinnacle of this phenomenon was the “video news release,” where a corporate advertisement disguised itself as a professional broadcast without disclaimer.
Today, at least in the West, the challenge for the public is not only getting news without corporate bias, it’s about getting news itself. Given this transformation, there are legions of reasons why headlines like “the Facebook revolution” are irresistible to the news directors at CNN, MSNBC, and the Murdoch outlets.
It is much cheaper, and more profitable to simply do an Internet search from the studio’s back office than send journalists to a potential war zone or maintain foreign bureaus round-the-clock. It took months before anyone on the major media outlets questioned why all the tweets they were reporting on from Iran during the 2009 protests were in English instead of Farsi. In the past year, outlets like CNN and NBC have decided to send on-air talent into war-zones again, but the general trend still holds true.
If a revolution happens to be in a place that the US government has marked for “regime change,” the corporate media will reliably promote American capitalism and culture. As the technology critic Evgeny Morozov put it,
By emphasising the liberating role of the tools and downplaying the role of human agency, such accounts make Americans feel proud of their own contribution to events in the Middle East. After all, the argument goes, such a spontaneous uprising wouldn’t have succeeded before Facebook was around—so Silicon Valley deserves a lion’s share of the credit.”9
Exaggerated ideas about the potential of the Internet are nothing new. A prime example is Frances Cairncross’ best-selling 1997 book “The Death of Distance.”
Free to explore different points of view, on the Internet or on the thousands of television and radio channels that will eventually be available, people may become less susceptible to propaganda from politicians who seek to stir up conflicts. Bonded together by the invisible strands of global communications, humanity may find that lasting peace and prosperity are underpinned by the death of distance.10
Unfortunately, the decade following its publication saw the largest escalation of violence by the US military since the Vietnam War, all facilitated by the very technology Carincross suggested would usher in an epoch of peace. The use of unmanned aerial drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen instead bring death from a distance.
Such predictions continue with frequency and reached a fever pitch, coming not just from media pundits or academia, but also from activists themselves during the revolutions of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Like the medium it promotes, the proponents of the cyber utopian outlook are disparate and usually brief in their grand proclamations. Confined to blogs, tweets, and an occasional magazine article, a critique of these ideas is challenging, as it does not exist as a coherent theory yet. However, one book does rise above the noise to combine a series of observations into what resembles a broader argument; journalist Paul Mason’s, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions.
Mason spent nearly a year visiting protests across Europe, the United States and the Middle East, interviewing activists along the way. The result is a wonderful chronicle of a truly revolutionary year, which everyone should read. It is also a prime example of the cyber-utopian position.
The argument begins with a claim that the Internet will reveal the Truth to millions of people, a notion similar to Carincross’ notion of a people less susceptible to propaganda. Mason writes, “Sure, you can try and insert spin or propaganda, but the instantly networked consciousness of millions of people will set it right: they act like white blood cells against infection so that ultimately the truth, or something close to it, persists much longer than disinformation.”11
Again, similar to Carincross, Mason also argues that the Internet or “the network” will bring a new revolutionary sense of community to the isolated masses:
The network’s usefulness is not limited to half-hearted reform struggles that aim only to shock and disturb. It can achieve those elements of instant community, solidarity, shared space and control that were at the heart of social revolutions in the early industrial age. It can be, as cooperatives were for the workers who launched the Paris Commune of 1871, a space to form the bonds that would take them through an insurrection.12
Mason’s scope widens further:
If you are an anti-utopian and want to build a socially just society starting from the most modern and advanced forms of capitalism, what exactly is that most advanced form? What if it turns out not to be Microsoft, or Toyota, or another highly profitable corporation, but instead this emerging, semi-communal form of capitalism exemplified by open-source software and based on collaboration, management-free enterprise, profit-free projects and open access information?13
In a final flourish, Mason questions whether class struggle as envisioned by Marx is even the central question anymore. “It creates the possibility that the real ‘contradiction’ in society is not so much about economics but about shared human knowledge versus ‘intellectual property rights.’”14
This line of argument inevitably leads to a questioning of the fundamental way people have sought to organize resistance in the past century. “Forms of protest,” he argues, “can [now] change rapidly. Whereas the basic form of, say, a Leninist party, a guerrilla army or even a ghetto riot has not changed in a century, once you use social networks the organizational format of revolt goes into constant flux.”15
For Mason, the revolutions and struggles of 2011 show that the Internet and social media have changed the very dynamics of capitalism away from the economic class conflict as envisioned by the “old Left” and more toward a struggle of the individual against tyranny, rendering unchanged formations, like the Leninist party, unable to keep up.
Mason’s book brings together three general positions that make up the cyber utopian position:
- A faith in the power of the Internet to reveal “the truth” to the knowledge seekers.
- A belief in the power of the Internet, or more accurately “the network,” to build community and develop social ties that capitalism has otherwise prevented.
- A conclusion that the Internet and social media have altered the central contradictions of capitalism, possibly resulting in a peaceful resolution or complete transformation in favor of the oppressed.
Seeking the truth
It’s true that “truth” has found many new ways to reach the masses. Wikipedia has slowly replaced traditional, and expensive, encyclopedias and studies show it might even be more accurate.16 WikiLeaks (and the heroism of Bradley Manning) is certainly an affirmative example of the Internet speaking truth to power. Sites like Change.org and online petitions have a real effect on winning reforms or even freeing political prisoners in places like Zimbabwe.17 The role of YouTube and cell phone videos in exposing police brutality cannot be understated. Sometimes, online video evidence is the only thing standing between a young Black man and years in prison. Occupy Wall Street was partly triggered by a viral video of a police officer pepper spraying a peaceful protestor. The Internet can be an asset for activists in ways not possible in years past.
The problem is that the truth is not alone. We are also more prone to hoaxes and misleading information. In late May 2011, The “Gay Girl in Damascus,” a blogger claiming to be a young, lesbian activist named Amina Arraf, lit up the Internet with tales of the Syrian government’s crackdown on Arab Spring protesters. After about a week, it was revealed Amina was actually Tom MacMaster, a forty-year-old man from Georgia who had faked the whole thing for nearly two years.18
Who can forget the Kony 2012 video that swept Facebook in March 2011 exposing a horrific warlord who abuses children? The video conveniently glossed over important facts about the conflict in Uganda in favor of a narrative that advocated US military intervention, but not before receiving forty-six million views by October 2012. Astroturfing (the practice of creating grassroots “sounding” groups that lobby for all manner of reactionary causes but are wholly created by wealthy individuals) is immensely easier online.
It’s also true that the Internet connects people in ways unimaginable just fifteen years ago, but as anyone who has used Facebook knows well, the Internet can also be a vile cesspool of racism, sexism, homophobia, and general nastiness. The recent scandal involving a female IT worker who tweeted the identities of two male PyCon attendees telling sexist jokes and was subsequently fired herself, shows that the Internet also has a dark side.19
In fact, the Internet can be a destroyer of communities just as easily as it can create them. During the height of the civil war in Iraq in 2007, Shia and Sunni groups regularly posted videos and images showing desecrated bodies and sectarian imagery, intended to instigate retaliation. A group that calls itself the Jewish Internet Defense Force (JIDF) regularly launches cyber-attacks on pro-Palestinian websites. The group has sought to have Palestinian villages that were emptied of their residents during the 1948 ethnic cleansing removed from Google Earth and campaigned against the description of “Palestine” as a country.20
The digital trail left by tweeters and bloggers makes it easy to track down and “crowd source” the identities of leading activists. Friend networks on Facebook give the authorities easy targets to link activists to each other. Governments may have been slow out of the gate, but when they got in the game, they utilized the preexisting power imbalance between the state and those resisting it. “Cyber-warfare” isn’t science fiction anymore. It’s happening on a global scale. Whether it’s to steal secrets from China, inject viruses into Iranian nuclear centrifuges, or unilaterally enforcing patent protections for US corporations, the game is on.
On the domestic side, the US government has been busy building a surveillance regime that would make George Orwell blush. Beginning with the Patriot Act following 9/11, the US military, justice department, and intelligence services have enthusiastically discarded any notion that Americans have a right to privacy or presumed innocence. NSA whistle blower, Edward Snowden has recently confirmed what was first reported back in 2005. The US government, specifically the NSA, is monitoring the communications of millions of Americans (and every communication from foreign sources) every minute of every day—warrants be damned.21
Backed by a rubber stamp FISA court, the most shocking revelation is that most of what they are doing appears to be legal. Congress, Bush, and now Obama have quietly rewritten decades (or even centuries) of legal precedent and passed laws to make near total surveillance completely legal. It must also be said that none of this would be possible without the close collaboration of the telecom and Internet monopolies: Verizon, AT&T, Google, and Facebook. They are likely being handsomely compensated for this collaboration, or at the very least given preferential treatment in future contracts with the government (maybe even infrastructure gigs in invaded countries?). The telecoms’ artificial monopolies largely rest on beneficial laws and regulations that keep competition low and profits high. Device and software manufacturers rely almost exclusively on the US government (and the US military) to enforce their patent claims overseas.
Finally, contrary to popular belief, Google and Facebook’s users are actually the product, not the customer. Their REAL clients are the advertisers feasting on user data and they would die for access to the kind of customer information the NSA is centralizing.
These corporations, and their senior level employees, have every incentive in the world to play ball with the surveillance state. Case in point: after a year of overseeing Facebook’s collaboration with the NSA’s PRISM Internet spying program, chief security officer Max Kelly left Facebook to work directly for the NSA.22 As media scholar Robert McChesney put it, “No one, except a handful of civil liberties lawyers, is making a dime slowing down surveillance.”23
If the Internet was a threat to the profits of traditional telecom or media corporations early on, they quickly adapted and with an army of lobbyists, wrote laws rigging the game in their favor launching an era of deregulation starting in the 1980’s and continuing today. Far from promoting competition and decentralization, it is quite shocking how fast Google, Facebook and Twitter have established monopoly domination over their markets. For example, according to SearchEngineWatch, Google commands 66.7 percent of the US search market as of May 2013. If you count the next two competitors, Microsoft’s Bing (17.4 percent) and Yahoo (12 percent), 96 percent of all search requests by Americans go through Google, Microsoft’s Bing (17.4 percent) or Yahoo (12 percent). 24
Robert McChesney paints an even starker picture of monopoly: “In 2012, four of the ten largest US corporations in terms of market valuation, including number one and number three, were Internet giants Apple, Microsoft, Google and AT&T. Add IBM and that is five of the top ten. If one goes down through the top thirty, the list then includes Verizon, Amazon, Comcast, and Disney as well as Intel, Cisco, Qualcomm and Oracle.” He concludes, “In short, the Internet monopolists sit at the commanding heights of US and world capitalism.”25
This begs an important question: If Facebook and Google are free, how are these corporations making so much money? As any Marxist will tell you, it’s all about production.
Connection to any of these services requires a device of some kind, a device that must be produced by someone. The drive to mine coltan, a mineral composed of two elemental metals (niobium and tantalum), tungsten and tin, which are extremely important for making cell phones led to one of the bloodiest gold-rushes in world history. Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has “at least 64% of worldwide reserves of coltan.”26 No mining conglomerates are able to dominate the DRC’s reserves as they do in the other major producing countries: Australia, Brazil, and Canada.27 Already weakened by economic collapse and political instability, these factors led the DRC further into civil war and poverty in the 1990’s and into the 2000’s.
Every militia or warlord was able to fund their operations from the sale of the easily mined minerals employing slave labor and unbearably unsafe working conditions, poisoning a generation of Congolese. Mining is so lucrative that, according to researchers Celine Moyroud and John Katunga, “across the east of the country, formerly surplus producing areas no longer grow enough to feed their populations.” This is because, in combination with widespread violence, the “short-term benefits of mining have encouraged some farmers to abandon agriculture.”28
If mining the raw materials wasn’t dirty enough, phones, tablets, and computers are produced in giant sweatshops the likes of which Charles Dickens couldn’t have imagined, the most infamous being the Foxconn factories in China where iPhones are assembled at breakneck speed. Conditions were so bad, in 2011, “around 150 Chinese workers threatened to commit suicide by leaping from their factory roof in protest at their working conditions.”29 Foxconn’s response was not to meet their demands, but to install large nets to catch any workers who might attempt the jump.
There are also the giant server farms that house data for corporations and the state. “Cloud computing” conjures up images of low-impact data processing and storage. The reality is quite different. “At the heart of every Internet enterprise,” noted the New York Times, “are data centers, which have become more sprawling and ubiquitous as the amount of stored information explodes, sprouting in community after community.” Microsoft’s server farm in Quincy, Washington, for example, requires energy “enough to power about 29,000 American homes.” Whereas local residents and other local businesses used up 9.5 million watts of energy last year, the Microsoft facility used 41.9 million. In addition to tapping into the energy grid that draws power from dams on the Columbia River, the sprawling seventy-five-acre facility has several backup diesel generators, which “operated for a combined total of 3,615 hours” in 2010.30
If the mining of raw materials and the production weren’t dirty enough, the cruel “circle of life” for electronic devices ends back where they started. The drive to encourage consumers to “upgrade” their devices, in as little as one-year cycles has produced millions of tons of discarded electronics. This “e-waste” can release chemicals like “lead, cadmium, mercury, PVC plastic, highly toxic dioxins and furans” when incinerated, or can leech into the soil and food chain from landfills. This e-waste from Europe and the United States is being dumped back on Africa, India, and China. Greenpeace reported in February 2009, “In the US, it is estimated that 50–80 percent of the waste collected for recycling is being exported [to the Far East, India, Africa and China]. This practice (illegal in Europe) is legal because the US has not ratified the Basel Convention.”31
Given all of this, it’s absurd to claim that the pillars of capitalism have been fundamentally changed. This isn’t the first time a major innovation in communication has happened. It’s worth asking, is the change from analog to digital any more monumental than the change from ink and paper to radio and telephone? Is the invention of the Internet more “game-changing” than the discovery of electricity? Not only did capitalism survive those developments, it put them to horrifying use in the service of war, oppression, and profit. In some ways, this kind of dramatic innovation is the hallmark of capitalism, not an aberration.
The shock of the old
Most of the writing and ideas about the “revolutionary” character of social media carries an air of boosterism. They reek of shallow promotion rather than analysis. After all, it is quite beneficial financially for Silicon Valley to talk about how important they are. This is not to suggest that Mason or these activists are towing a corporate line. However, their arguments do seem to advance the same values advanced by Madison Avenue: “new and hi-tech” equals “good and useful.” British historian of technology, David Edgerton put it this way:
We are told that change is taking place at an ever-accelerating pace, and that the new is increasingly powerful. The world, the gurus insist, is entering a new historical epoch as a result of technology. In the new economy, in new times, in our post-industrial and post-modern condition, knowledge of the present and past is supposedly ever less relevant. Inventors, even in these post-modern times, are “ahead of their time,” while societies suffer from the grip of the past, resulting in a supposed slowness to adapt to new technology.
There are new things under the sun, and the world is indeed changing radically, but this way of thinking is not among them.32
Edgerton’s primary thesis is that capitalism’s constant need to expand and revolutionize the means of production produces a corresponding ideology that prioritizes “newness” rather than usefulness. He may not draw this connection himself, but it’s not a stretch to compare this idea to what Marx referred to as the “domination of exchange values” at the expense of use values, which essentially says that over time, how (and whether) an object can be sold becomes more important than how an object can be used.
The history of technology is largely written from press releases by marketing people with a financial interest to exaggerate their particular sector in the economy. So even our history of what was important in the past is likely to be skewed towards the momentary needs of capital.
For example, two of the most important pieces of technology, the two things that could save millions of lives and prevent the devastation of entire countries, are condoms and mosquito nets; to prevent the spread of AIDS the other to prevent the spread of malaria by mosquitos. However, you won’t find the shelves of Barnes and Nobles filled with books on mosquito nets or a rush of investors into the insect repellent market, like you will Facebook, because there is no profit to make off the masses of poor people who need them.
So, contrary to what Mason is suggesting, the fundamental processes of capitalism: exploitation, incessant expansion, war, class struggle, seems to be intensifying in the wired world, not dissolving in the face of the “networked individual.”
Do political parties matter anymore?
It must be said that not all the cyber utopians go so far to claim capitalism is now fundamentally different. The true point of commonality between the cyber utopians is that things have changed enough to render “traditional” forms of organization, such as revolutionary socialist organizations, or even groups who simply have elected leaderships, obsolete. Whether they have simply changed their mind due to developments or if they ever thought these organizations were relevant in the first place is not clear. Nonetheless, the unanimity with which this argument was advanced in the Occupy movement, for example, is reason enough to examine its merit.
At its core, the cyber utopian argument rests on a particular conception of how struggles breakout and develop. Put in traditional Marxist jargon, it is an argument about “spontaneity vs. organization.”
The debates between Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg and V.I. Lenin on this topic are essential reading for any activist.33 However, a more recent debate on similar ground took place between popular intellectual Malcolm Gladwell and NYU Professor Kay Shirkey.34 The essence of their debate revolves around two questions: Does social media make protest more likely than before? Does organizing through social media make victory more likely?
Shirkey answers in the affirmative to both questions while Gladwell is open to the first but decidedly skeptical of the second.
In an earlier, and now famous, article for the New Yorker, Gladwell stakes his skepticism by introducing the concepts of “strong-tie connections” and “weak-tie connections.” Gladwell writes, “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.” While admitting there are inherent strengths to this manner of organizing activism, Gladwell concludes, “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”35
Gladwell, referencing a study by Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam, compares the “[Mississippi] Freedom Summer dropouts with the participants who stayed, and discovered that the key difference wasn’t, as might be expected, ideological fervor.” McAdam found that those who stayed longer simply had more personal and social relationships with others already in the movement. “All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts—the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a ‘strong-tie’ phenomenon.”36
Gladwell is simply articulating what activists of some age have known for years: experience matters and fundamental social change isn’t a part-time endeavor.
There are, no doubt, some new and powerful tools available to activists. There may even be a higher likelihood that oppression and struggle can be generalized faster and more accurately than ever before. However, as the civil rights movement and now the Egyptian revolution has illustrated clearly, the mass protest is only one event in a long and protracted struggle. The moments in between the earth shattering ones were important to the direction of the struggle too.
In this effort, the Left must create a democratic space apart from the cold-war model of the “all knowing” party directing the movement from on high. To simultaneously reject the status quo and reject the antidemocratic practices of the old Stalinist parties is a difficult task.
However, the cyber-utopian vision does not offer satisfactory answers to this problem. In this instance, Gladwell is right. Prioritizing the effort to build weak ties at the expense of building strong ones is not a winning strategy. It is a strategy infected by capitalism’s insistence on marketing and advertising. It is an outlook that consciously and deliberately refuses to think about the day after the protest and labels attempts to do so as “antidemocratic.” In revolutionary situations that strategy can, quite literally, be suicidal.
“To make a comparison to precapitalist times, there has arguably been more technological change in the world in the week before you read these words than there was in any randomly selected century before 1700.”37 The current period presents a challenge for the Left. Everything has changed, yet everything looks so familiar. Billions of people have daily routines involving technology that barely resemble that of their parents or even their own routines just fifteen years ago. The rise of mass communications, a digitized financial system, and the superfluidity of capital are important developments. They raise important questions.
How should a movement deal with the inevitable economic sabotage that might be unleashed by a petulant wealthy class at the push of a button? How does the hyper individualism promoted by neoliberalism combine with digitized social interactions to affect class consciousness? How do we organize and communicate to challenge the state under a pervasive, digital, surveillance regime? These questions are only the beginning. The transformation underway cannot be ignored or underplayed.
Yet, any look beneath the surface of the digital revolution reveals the hallmarks of old capitalism: money, pollution, monopoly, inequality, exploitation, war, and oppression. Whether one emphasizes the continuity or the radical change may depend on the political moment, but the relationship between the two must be understood. Our theories and analyses from the past cannot be discarded wholesale, nor can they be applied without modification.
The research of three eminent political scientists recently found that political participation on the Internet mirrors the inequalities in society, rather than providing a method to overcome them. And far from undermining existing organizations, these—and, in particular, corporations and trade associations—dominate Internet traffic on Facebook and Twitter, as compared to any other type of organization that engages in political activity.38
There are implications for activism too. Social media and especially mobile Internet have permeated even the poorest neighborhoods and countries. One can’t avoid computers or the Internet, as intimidating as that might be for some people.
It would also be a mistake to confuse posting articles on Facebook or blogging with real debate and discussion with real people. Everyone will have their preferences and will need to experiment with new tools as they appear. Activists should think carefully and deliberately about what level of online interaction is required for their kind of activities. Ultimately, the Left will need groups of people who have trained themselves in the new technology who have an explicit aim of staying ahead of the authorities when they inevitably shut communications down. One can’t smash the state with a simple DDoS attack.
The Left will need large numbers of people skilled in a wide array of tactics and people who have memorized the lessons of the past. Online videos might spark solidarity rallies in our defense after a police beating, but careful planning, execution, and a solid understanding of how to win will prevent the authorities from breaking through our barricades.
Just as there is no way to avoid the tentacles of capitalism by unplugging from the grid, there is no way to avoid them by subsuming yourself within it. At some point, social movements will have to confront the highly centralized power of the state and the economic institutions it protects. We need to go beyond the “networked individual” and build the fighting ability of a global, networked working class.
Such ideas, again, are nothing new. Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, in an obscure but fascinating address to the First All-Union Congress of the Society of Friends of Radio, imagined such an integration of class struggle and technology:
It is necessary that on that day when the workers of Europe take possession of the radio stations, when the proletariat of France take over the Eiffel Tower and announce from its summit in all the languages of Europe that they are the masters of France (Applause), that on that day and hour not only the workers of our cities and industries but also the peasants of our remotest villages, may be able to reply to the call of the European workers: “Do you hear us?”—“We hear you, brothers, and we will help you!39
- Nicole Hall, “Are There REALLY More Mobile Phones Than Toothbrushes?,” The Sixty Second Marketer; http://60secondmarketer.com/blog/2011/10....
- Andy Carvin, “In Iran, The Revolution Will Be Tagged,” NPR, June 19, 2009.
- Yasmine Ryan, “How Tunisia’s revolution began,” Al Jazeera English, January 26, 2011.
- Uri Friedman, “The Egyptian revolution dominated Twitter this year,” Foreign Policy, Monday, December 5, 2011, accessed July 9th, 2013, http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011...
- “World Internet Usage and Population Statistics: June 30th, 2012,” Internet World Stats, http://www.Internetworldstats.com/stats.htm
- Uri Friedman, “The Egyptian revolution dominated Twitter this year,” Foreign Policy, Monday, December 5, 2011.
- Charles Levinson and Margaret Coker, “The Secret Rally That Sparked an Uprising,” Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2011.
- Evgeny Morozov, “Facebook and Twitter are just places revolutionaries go,” Guardian, Monday, March 7, 2011.
- Frances Carincross, The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution Is Changing our Lives (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press; Revised Edition, 2001), 279.
- Paul Mason, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (Verso: January, 2012), 77.
- Ibid., 84.
- Ibid., 144–145.
- Ibid., 77.
- Daniel Ionescu, “Has Wikipedia Beaten Britannica in the Encyclopedia Battle?”, PC World, Mar 14, 2012.
- Nicole Colson, “Activism sways a Zimbabwe court,” Socialist Worker Online, March 22, 2012; http://socialistworker.org/2012/03/22/ac...
- Melissa Bell and Elizabeth Flock, “‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’ comes clean,” Washington Post, June 12, 2011.
- Editor, “Poll: Pycon, Playhaven, Anonymous, Adria Richards and online sexism. Where did it all go wrong?,” Independent, March 22, 2013.
- “Jewish Internet Defense Force”, Wikipedia; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_Inte....
- James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, “Spying Program Snared US Calls,” New York Times, December 21, 2005.
- Rebecca Greenfield, “Facebook’s Former Security Chief Now Works for the NSA,” Atlantic Wire, June 20, 2013; http://www.theatlanticwire.com/technolog....
- Robert W. McChesney, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (The New Press, March, 2013), 169.
- Jennifer Slegg, “Google, Bing Both Win More Search Market Share,” Search Engine Watch, June 18th, 2013, http://searchenginewatch.com/article/227....
- McChesney, Digital Disconnect, 131.
- Inés Benítez, “Two Children May Have Died for You to Have Your Mobile Phone,” Inter Press Service News Agency, Sept 14, 2012.
- “Coltan”, Wikipedia, accessed July 9th, 2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coltan.
- “Scarcity and Surfeit: The ecology of Africa’s conflicts,” African Centre for Technology Studies and Institute for Security Studies (South Africa, 2002): 171; http://www.issafrica.org/pubs/Books/Scar....
- Malcolm Moore, “‘Mass suicide’ protest at Apple manufacturer Foxconn factory,” Telegraph, Jan 11, 2012.
- James Glantz, “The cloud factories: Data barns in a farm town, gobbling power and flexing muscle,” New York Times, September 23, 2012.
- “Where does e-waste end up?”, Greenpeace International, Feb 24th, 2009, accessed on July 9th, 2013, www.greenpeace.org.
- David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (London: Oxford University Press, 2006), ix.
- The relevant texts are: Rosa Luxemburg, “The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Union,” The Essential Rosa Luxemburg (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006); Vladimir Lenin, “What is To Be Done,” available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/wo....
- Clay Shirky, “The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change,” Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2011.
- Malcolm Gladwell, “SMALL CHANGE: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.”, The New Yorker, Oct 4th, 2010.
- McChesney, Digital Disconnect, 46.
- Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba and Henry E. Brady, The Unheavenly Chorus (Princeton, N.J.; Princeton University Press, 2012), 483-533.
- Leon Trotsky, “Radio, Science, Technique and Society”, Marxist Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/....