A fundamental shift

This thread is a mess, filled with too many analogies and lofty idealistic rhetoric that is appropriate to the dramatic circumstances but fail to help us think clearly through them.

Forget this consciousness stuff, it isn’t helping.

Let us start again.

On the one hand, we have Uglycat arguing that we are experiencing a fundamental shift in social organization, a shift made possible by the democratizaton of incredibly powerful networked technologies.

On the other hand, we have Petey’s much more moderate claim in the main Revolution thread:

Petey posted:
– social media played some unknown but presumably nontrivial role in both a) spreading the word about the self-immolations among sympathetic citizens and b) facilitating the organization of collective action protests

I think everyone will agree with Petey about the nontrivial role of social media and internet organization. The operative question in this thread is what substantial role these new technologies have played, and does this represent a fundamental shift in the narrative, or is this just a continuation of old themes in slightly new packaging.

I think the key to understanding this is being specific about what would count as a ‘fundamental’ shift. I’m going to point to Deep Hurting’s latest comic to give a sense of what fundamental means in this context.

Ignore Deep Hurting’s political comment for a second, and just think about the appropriation of the famous painting of Lady Liberty in the throes of revolution, holding a smartphone in her outstretched hand. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the protestors today is their use of these social devices. It is a badge of self-identification, it distinguishes and marks off as unique the revolutions currrently underway from those in the past. The causes are the same (liberty), but the defenders of that cause are equipped differently.

In the original painting, Liberty carries a musket in her hand. A musket in the hand of an individual during the previous revolutions was above all a sign of individual autonomy and independence from the tyranny of oppressive power. It was as important to their conception of freedom as the press. It is coded into our basic understanding of individual rights.

The people today have come to recognize an additional right, a right they consider absolutely essential to their conception of freedom and their vision of a good life, a right they are willing to fight for when it is threatened. In many ways access to the internet is an extension of rights we have previously fought for, rights to speech and privacy and information. But this new right also carries with it a new kind of identity that is marked off by the possession of these devices, and this identity can unite the movement in ways that were simply not possible in previous generations. Importantly, it is a global identity, one that people all over the world can not only identify with, but also participate in. Recognition of this kind of universality is strong evidence that we are dealing with something more fundamental than a temporary fad of technological circumstance. It is a kind of community that is only possible in a digital, thoroughly connected world. In the same ways that the previous revolutions were made possible by, and thus structured by, their printing press and their guns, ours is being structured by the internet.

I think Uglycat’s goal with this thread is clearly idealistic, and the idea is exactly this: that if our struggles are being structured by the internet, then in order to understand that structure we should reflect on the internet, and what it has changed about our social and material circumstances. And in exactly that sense this is a fundamental shift: it is a shift in the perspective from which we can best understand ourselves. This is a perspective that simply could not have arisen in generations and revolutions past, but it is one we must take up to understand this world. It is not that the causes have changed, or the pressures of power and violence, but that our material circumstances (that is, we) have changed. And our best shot at any self-understanding to help us cope with the change is by understanding the mediums through which this change is occurring.

I think that even if you don’t buy into this idea, it is still quite obvious that these conflicts are clearly and distinctly unified by their use of this media, and even if that role is ‘trivial’ it does represent a coherent thread in a big knot of forces that will be important to note as we try and disentangle the rest of it. Either way, it is senseless to try and ignore or downplay the role of internet-enabled technologies in the struggle for freedom in the 21st century. The network matters, and we are increasingly recognizing that it is worth fighting for as part of our basic freedoms.

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