Saturday, December 11, 2010

Part 6: Living Locally and Globally: The Revolution(s) Will Use Appropriate Technology

I hate Facebook.
Well, actually I don't but those of you who do hate it are now at attention, and those of you who do not are fuming.
Is this to be the big divide in our adult lives- whether we use social networking tools or not? (Because I just don't believe the Tea Party thing is gonna turn out to be the new revolution.)
Let me just say that I worry for those of my friends who buy any new thing or follow every new trend, but I also worry for those who pooh-pooh ideas before testing them. And I find myself in both places at different times, so I'm with you all on different days. Remember, I contain multitudes.

Some clarity came to me recently when a writer with whom I am too often in agreement talked about Twitter. (It's just that I just fear being in agreement with anyone all of the time, especially another in a long line of New Yorker magazine writers). The writer, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote about the Iranian revolution and the reported use of social networking tools at the time to further the cause. Even that some reporters took to calling it the Twitter Revolution. Overstated was his conclusion. He just didn't find it. Sure activists outside of the country were using it, but on the line folks, not so much.

If that was the end of the story, I might have started to think more negatively about things like Twitter et al, but as usual Malcolm went further, adding social theory and mass communication and history lessons. First, he took the story back to the civil rights sit-in movement and shared the information that most of the young people that were sitting together waiting for who-knows-what to happen behind them at those lunch counters knew each other beforehand. Knew each other well as a matter of fact. Were roommates or long time friends. So in that era, he concludes Twitter would also not have mattered.
But before you "aha!" me (you FB haters) he goes on to explain why and thereby changes the story.

In his context, the question is whether that particular activist moment calls for strategic organizing with long meetings and teamwork and leaders on call, or if it needs to build a network of peers to keep up with and share information quickly. Serious support ( like top-secret, password-giving, face-to-face strategy meetings or lessons in how to link arms for hours to stop police from taking some away) is necessary in the type of movement where you need backup and comfort (like Iran or Greensboro circa 1960). In sociology language, high-risk activism is a "strong tie" movement. And on top of that, discipline and strategy are necessary in high-risk activism. Certainly not two words that apply to social networking.

He wrote the story to dismiss social networking, but ends up actually showing its use when he went on to point out (via sociology research) that it is often through acquaintances and not close friends (weak ties) where we get NEW information. He even talks about the diffusion of innovation as the hallmark of any internet based communication. And that leadership is shared.

So, not high-risk activism, but you do find adaptive activism and (oh be still my heart) NON-hierarchical networks in internet or social networking. He dismisses networks as messy and chaotic, but doesn't that describe democracy itself?
(He also overstates the need for complete consensus in networks. He may not know that there is often allowable dissent in group decisions with methods like "stand-aside" or "with reservations".)

So it seems to me that for campaigns that need innovation or ways to keep up with constant information (like an neighborhood-obliterating hospital development, or a consumer campaign to stop a city's water privatization) you might find these tools an excellent strategy.
In other words, based on your campaign, use the appropriate tool and technology needed. And to go back in history, the Free Speech Movement or the anti-nuclear movement might have been helped by the type of tools available to activists today. Lack of information was the killer there, not baton-wielding thugs.

Those who mock FB or Twitter or smart Phones may be the spiritual children of those who mocked the old-fashioned telephone (the one attached to the wall), or fancy schmancy telegrams, or The Pony Express. And while it is true that all of those tools started out as expensive and only for rich people, do remember: long distance calls can be made for free now, the telegram is now an email which can be sent for free (yes, once a computer is found), and the Pony Express became rural free delivery or a postage stamp.

Recently, I found an old book (probably someone's thesis) in a used store. Using the Progressive intellectual movement of the early 20th century, it showed how these individuals used communication strategies to further their movement. Dewey's education movement, Jane Addams' immigrant settlement houses and so on.

They did this because they came from small-town America and so "recognized the forces undermining primary communities (in cities) and sought a replacement for neighborhood solidarity in the form of impersonal controls." (italics added). The author also found that these activists thought that "...Through the new means of communication,the values of intimacy and immediacy would permeate the whole structure of society."

The author used another phrase that struck my ear pleasingly: intimate community.
I hear social networking in that phrase: a type of informal talk that mimics the small town Main Street where everyone would pass at some point in their day or week. Main Street where conversation as small as talk about weather rested alongside of 'hey, watch out for that horse!" warnings.

Why is this important? Because in order to know who carries what information and how trustworthy it is, one needs to have lots of conversations. Lots of small, quick and some not so quick conversations with more people than we have time to call or stop on the street and talk to for 20-30 minutes a day or even once a week. Because we live in a much larger village (and travel at different times of the day now that we don't use daylight as our timepiece) and therefore our tools need to match the speed and the many different paths that our world has for us. And because (One of the areas that Malcolm does not cover) we have to find creative ways to know what the other side knows and share it fast. And the front lines for that is not hierarchical media, but messy Wiki everything.

So, if you find yourself on the front line of a police state protest, I hope your old, true friends are on either side of you with full prior knowledge of what you both must do. And I'd say put down that phone.

And, if you are working to find a way to insert some citizenship in your daily hectic life so as not to lose a cherished building or to take the time to uncover corporate crime, I hope someone has a phone handy with emails of those who could help and a Twitter or a FB account to start posting updates.
Because we need both of those revolutions.

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