Much has been made of the role social media has played in both the Arab Spring and the subsequent Occupy movement. Some argue that social media has been a revolutionary game changer. Others argue that Facebook and Twitter provided indispensable tools but that these were of a mere logistical nature. While they spread news of the revolution and rallied people around it, the genesis of revolt was entirely independent of them. The truth, however, most probably lies in a convergence of both views. To grasp the importance of logistical tools that bypass state control and allow control of one’s own narrative, you just have to remember fax machines were banned as recently 1989 in the West Bank and Gaza. Social media proved indispensable in rallying crowds and providing a picture of a reality rarely seen on state or mainstream media.
Throughout history tyranny feeds off lies. The tyrant distracts his oppressed people by spewing propaganda that demonises some ‘other’. But now truth can counter lies. People can communicate with each other. With communication comes empathy and understanding. Empathy and understanding erode the foundations of tyranny. The rise of Al Jazeera could be attributed to the fact that it was one of the very few conventional media outlets whose coverage was in sync with the reality portrayed by digital media. There is, however, another more subtle but perhaps far more revolutionary force at play behind this digital drama. Just like the printing press in its day, social media is reshaping how we access and process knowledge and thereby our whole relation to society’s constructs. French philosophers Gilles DeLeuze and Felix Gauttari have argued that structure of Western knowledge and the power which stemmed from it was hierarchial, vertical in nature. With limited access to knowledge, you arrived at a subject, planted yourself and then worked your way upwards to greater awareness; the dynamic was like a tree. This notion is conducive to the idea of the superior, of looking up to the leader. The digital age is changing all this. With the computer link one processes knowledge in a horizontal fashion. The French philosophers coined the term rhizomatic for what they saw as this new approach. You don’t move above others in a horizontal trajectory. The idea of superiors, those on top, does not make sense here. The much vaunted ‘leaderless’ nature of the Occupy movement can be seen as a manifestation of this new reality.
Although in its infancy, some see the grounds for greater democratic promise within this new reality. The either/or world view of the old hierarchial body politic is being replaced by the more inclusive both/and of the digital age’s more democratic horizontal nature. Others argue that there is revolutionary progressive potential in the unprecedented speed and scope of today’s transmission of ideas.
Occupy as meme
BBC Newsnight Editor Paul Mason sees the nature of the Occupy movement as mirroring an internet meme. A meme, Mason says, is an effective action that transmits itself independent of any democratic structures and party political hierarchies. “A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices….so what happens is that ideas arise, are very quickly “market tested” and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes”. Today’s global village features the compression of both time and space and this is plays a crucial role in how we, the global populace, share ideas, interact and conduct politics. With internet-mediated forms of collective action we see a massive ‘speeding up’ of how social symbols and practices are produced, reproduced, adopted and internalised. “We can think of the internet as a bank of ideas, and the really successful meme occurs when one of those ideas chimes massively with the population it encounters, summing up a shared or individual experience or viewpoint to the extent that users wish to perpetuate it as somehow representative of their position, often amending it slightly on it’s way.”
The printing press as previous ‘software’ change
Some dismiss this notion of the Occupy movement as a meme as mere mystification of technology. Far from challenging the very nature of our body politic, cynics argue that digital innovation has given us little more radical than the ability to watch Glee on a smart phone sitting on the metro. But it is early days yet and trivial use by no means negates serious and revolutionary potential. English writer Aaron Peters notes one could have adopted a similar dismissive attitude to the revolutionary nature of the printing press. “Bear in mind that after the arrival of the printing press the first pornographic novels came about within a few years, while the first regularised scientific journals took a little over a century,” Peters says. The last time we changed society’s ‘software’ was when we ‘switched over’ to the printing press. “The changes we will see with how the distributed network impacts the existing social and political apparatus through its impact on political, cultural and social memes could be as big as those it affected the last time the ‘software’ changed with the rise of typographic print and the printing press.”Like the internet today, the printing press led to a qualitative speeding up of memetic reproduction of symbols and practice. “The consequences were the Reformation, the nation-state, scientific rationalism and the formation of the Habermasian public sphere.” The effects were seismic, giving us the modern world as we know it. And now the modern world is facing another seismic change.
We are on the threshold of something potentially epic as “the institutions built in previous eras of information scarcity will increasingly no longer make sense as we enter the era of the internet’s information abundance.”
A challenge to national, parliamentary democracy itself.
“My impression is that the last year, as well as subsequent years to come, will show that how the ‘people’ make demands on political power is changing beyond all recognition. Where it ends is possibly with a challenge to national, parliamentary democracy itself.” Peters says. “The software is obsolete; things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.”
Kevin Barrington 6.1.2012