In an long review of Paul Mason’s new book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere Andrew Flood of the WSM discusses some important aspects of the changes in communications structure in the last number of years, and his reflections of how those changes have affected politics and activism. This review is extremely interesting not only for the insights into the book itself but also for the examples of the activist use of communications tools as experienced by the author himself.
Here critical media review will highlight some of the more communication specific aspects of the review, including Andrew’s own experiences and the theoretical section on the ‘networked individual’. The original review is of course much less media centric than these short extracts and as such should be read to be fully appreciated.
A theme throughout the review and book is that of networks and the networked individual; much of which echoes Manuel Castells Network Theory. Beginning with…
…the discussion of the role of networks, a discussion which is central to the book and which runs over a few chapters. He begins with an explanation of what is referred to as the ‘network effect.’ Basically the more people that use a network the more useful it is. If you were the first person in the world with a phone, it would have been of no use. When two people had a phone it would still have been of very limited use to either of them. The more people had phones the more useful they became to each individual with a phone. They become most useful to everyone in the phone network when everybody not only has a phone but has it on them at all times. That ‘network effect’ is the reason so many of us are stuck using Facebook even though we dislike its corporate greed, unethical methods and use by the police and other state forces as a surveillance tool. Almost all of us make the judgement that these disadvantages, all of which are significant, are outweighed by the advantage of not only being able to reach out to hundreds of similar activists, but also thousands or even hundreds of thousands of random folk. There are attempts to set up alternative activist social network sites, but very few of us use them because the only people there are a rather small minority of other activists.
Giving the example of the Corrib ‘rape tape’ Andrew continues:
It’s easy to lose sight of the potential impact this network effect allows and the way it has already transformed the potential for communication. As an example, I was part of the Shell to Sea media group that broke the story almost a year ago in April 2011 when women campaigners who had just been arrested accidentally recorded the arresting police joking about threatening to rape them as an interrogation technique. State media initially refused to broadcast the recording, but using Facebook and Twitter the recording we put online was listened to by 70,000 people in the first 12 hours, which spurred the state media into finally broadcasting it.
An article I’d written explaining what had happened was shared by over 2,000 people on Facebook in the same period. Close on 20,000 people read it in the first 48 hours. This genuinely new development in communications allows any one individual with something to say but without access to the mainstream media to communicate relatively easily with vast numbers of people. This happens because hundreds or thousands of other people make the small and low commitment decision to click ‘share’ or ‘retweet’ on an item in their feed and thus recommend it to their friends. Compare this to a pre-internet situation where we would have had to not only print 20,000 copies of an article up, but had to find 100’s of people willing to distribute them and get the leaflets into 20,000 individual sets of hands. This was only possible for large organisations or those with the financial resources to pay for such distribution; today the equivalent effect is potentially available to anyone with computer access.
Another aspect of modern communications system is a two way process where readers can ‘talk back’ to the media publisher; or even in a sense hold a three way where readers talk back to the producer and amongst themselves. On this the review goes on:
Mason argues that Twitter has also greatly undermined the old anchorman structure of the news where a very, very few well known news figures got to interpret, spin and twist the news for everyone. This of course still happens from Fox News to Newsnight, but now such stories and those putting them out can be challenged on Twitter. The status of anchors in the industry no longer protects them from criticism because their critics are no longer journalists worried about the impact making powerful enemies might have on their future careers.
Again, in the example of the police ‘rape tape’ we were able to use twitter to bombard the state media Twitter accounts with questions as to why they had not yet broadcast the recording. These postings would have been visible to other journalists as well as the general public, not only resulting in a public shaming in front of colleagues, but also undermining the credibility of the broadcaster with a section of the general public, causing cumulative damage to the ability of state media to perform its primary function
However without being overly ‘social media centric’ Flood reminds us:
These processes are powerful but, at least as yet, they are no substitute for the automatic reach the mainstream media maintains.
Moreover we are reminded that social media and mobile devices are not the causation of social unrest but rather an organising tool:
The internet also allows protests to organise and rapidly change organically. This Twitter for Iraq, Facebook for Egypt, the Blackberry for the August riots in London, no one centrally set which of these would be used as the key tools for the organisation of each revolt; they were simply the tools people used. This makes it hard for those in power to neutralize such organizing tools. For all the talk in London of shutting down Blackberries or the show trials and jailing of individuals who issued calls to spread the riots on Facebook, the reality was that this will simply result in a new form of co-ordination next time.
Again echoing Castells ‘Network Society’ theory:
Masons’ attitude seems to have radically shifted since he published his earlier book ‘Meltdown: The end of the age of Greed’. In that he bemoaned the refusal of the anti-globalisation movement to organize for power, here though he seems to have developed a more critical understanding on that question and writes: “The network, in short, has begun to erode power relationships we have come to believe were permanent features of capitalism: the helplessness of the consumer: the military style hierarchy of boss and underlings at work, the power of mainstream media empires to shape ideology, the repressive capabilities of the state and the inevitability of monopolization by large companies.” This is an important realisation as the orthodox left has tended to defend its authoritarian organisational methods by saying if you are fighting top-down authoritarian systems you can only win if you organize in the same way. Increasingly we are seeing this is simply not true.
However in an interesting take on the network society Mason sees the network replacing workplace and community solidarity and discipline:
In that context the use of social networks substitutes for the strong ties that used to exist amongst workers when we all left the same streets every morning to work in the same factories or down the same mine. Under such conditions the social pressure to stand by your fellow workers and act collectively was enormous, but your connections seldom extended far from that pit village or industrial district. You were dependent on the union or party leadership for coordination and information from afar. The ties generated by networks may be very much weaker; they require very little commitment but they also have a very much greater reach
Mason argues that the very tools discussed above, the internet and smartphones, are in themselves beginning to affect consciousness:
Mason argues that these possibilities are now open because technology has allowed the development of the ‘Networked Individual’ whose use of the internet and smart phones has resulted in “profound impacts on individual behavior and even consciousness” so that by 2003 “web use had begun to produce new attitudes and behavior away from the computer.” If he’d have argued this in 2010 most people would probably have scoffed at the idea. By early 2012, the role of Twitter, Facebook and smart phones in sustaining the movements in Tunisia & Egypt is clear, while Blackberry phones were believed by many to be responsible for the coordination of the four days rioting in London. Now this concept is starting to receive more careful attention.
The argument he makes here is not trivial: these technologies are transforming people. In the book he launches into a description of how the transformation of people who play multi-user online computer games affects real world interactions: “a woman tweeting at work or from the front line of a demonstration is experiencing the same shared consciousness, role-play, multifaceted personality and intense bonding that you get in World of Warcraft.”He is very much writing as an insider here even while trying to keep some distance. He follows up a listing of tweets (about Libya) that he received over ten minutes with the comment that this “beats any ten minutes of Counter-Strike ever played.”
Later in the chapter he returns to the theme, saying “observers of the early factory system described how, within a generation, it had wrought a total change in the behavior, thinking, body shapes and lee expectancy of those imprisoned within it. People grew smaller, their limbs became bent; physical movements became more regimented. Family units broke down. Why should a revolution in knowledge and technology not be producing an equally frantic – albeit diametrically opposite – change in human behavior?”
In part of Andrew’s own concluding remarks and on the role of communications in the revolutionary organisation he states:
What about building the organisation itself. Does this new ‘networked individual’ and the ease of one to many internet communications mean that the size of a revolutionary organisation no longer matters. That the three men and a dog organization ‘with the right ideas’ are as important as an organisation of thousands?
I’ve already explained why I think size still matters when it comes to organizing in real world meetings but I do think the new technology changes the way a coherent organization should operate. It now makes sense to see our work in network forms of organisation as also being a way of accumulating engagement over time with a very large number of people most of whom will never join a coherent revolutionary organisation in normal circumstances. To use the WSM as an example the 7,000 people currently following us via Facebook would have been impossible to find never mind retain contact with 20 years ago, As of now every one of them has the potential to see a link to each new article published on our site and to not only thus read it but also recommend it to their friends. Doing this via the postal system would have cost in the region of 3,000 euro and dozens of hours stuffing envelopes.
In the past these realities necessitated that volunteer based revolutionary organisations had what has been called an ‘engagement cliff’ between a very dedicated hardworking membership and the broad mass of the population. Leninist parties tried to get around this through ploughing a lot of resources into having their leadership as paid full timers. This gave them greater resources to maintain contact with a larger periphery but in doing so created very ossified organisations that magnified the problems inherent in centralized top down parties as that core group monopolized communications within the organisation and between the organisation and its periphery.