Sunday, May 16, 2010

Online Activism

Here is an interesting bit from a conversation between Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky on the Edge website:
MOROZOV: But my concerns also have to do with how the Internet is changing the nature of political opposition under authoritarianism. I don't know if you've read Kierkegaard, but there are quite a few subtle undertones of Kierkegaard in my critique of Twitter-based activism. Kierkegaard happened to live during the very times that were celebrated by Habermas: cafes and newspapers were on the rise all over Europe, a new democratized public sphere was emerging. But Kiergeaard was growing increasingly concerned that there were too many opinions flowing around, that it was too easy to rally people behind an infinite number of shallow causes, that no one had strong commitment to anything. There was nothing that people could die for. Ironically, this is also one of my problems with the promiscuous nature of online activism: it cheapens our commitment to political and social causes that matter and demand constant sacrifice.

SHIRKY: One of the funny things that Habermas says in Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (from a not-long list of funny things) is that newspapers were best at supporting the public sphere was when freedom of speech was illegal, so that to run a newspaper was an act of public defiance. Similarly, a protest which is relatively easy to coordinate at relatively low risk is not only less of a protest, but potentially draws off some of the energy that could go elsewhere.

MOROZOV: I am also not sure that bloggers make for great symbols of anti-government campaigns. The kind of ordinary apolitical people that we are talking about — those who eventually muster up the courage to go and defy authorities in the streets — they need to be led by people who are ready to take a brave stand, to sacrifice themselves, to go to prison, and become the next Havels, Sakharovs, or Solzhenitsyns.

SHIRKY: The question of does a movement need a martyr, does it need an intellectual focal point that's willing to take a hit in order to make the point? And the second question is does that have to be one person? You know, the martyrization of Neda [Agha-Soltan] happened after the fact. We had no idea what she thought or meant to do. She could have been out on the street with her friends because this seemed like an interesting and important moment, but with no thought for risk, much less fatal risk. And so is that enough? Is it enough to have a Kent State, or does it have to be a Sakharov which is to say someone who intentionally puts themselves in harms way before harm comes their way.

MOROZOV: Well, I do think that the mass protest needs a charismatic leader — i.e. a Sakharov — to truly realize its potential. My fear is that a Solzhenitsyn would not be possible in the age of Twitter. He would probably end up in prison much sooner — and for much longer period — than he actually did. I am not sure that Twitter would help him become a stronger and more charismatic public figure or to gain the courage to write the first page of his book.

SHIRKY: I think that the thing that's worth fighting for here is the ability of citizens within a country to communicate with one another, and I remain convinced that that will have political ramifications. I don't think we just sit around waiting for the economies to fall apart. I think that to the degree that citizens can communicate with each other, that actually matters much more than access to information, or than communication with the outside world. What we should be worrying about is freedom of speech, lower case "f", lower case "s", not as a political right, but as just a daily capability. To what degree is that flourishing? Because in countries where that flourishes I think that the world will be better off even if non-Western norms develop in the population so served.
The above is just a snippet. There are a lot of important points raised in this dialog:
  • Social media - the role of newspapers in the rise of democracy and the question about new social media in the current age.

  • Signal vs noise - how danger can help focus a social movement and give rise to leaders while "softer" times means social unrest gets diffused into "less significant" concerns (compare mid-1960s to the early 1970s).

  • Leadership - moral beacons vs intelligentsia vs bottom-up mass movements. Charismatic "leaders" versus more democratic mass movements.

  • Communication - how the medium shapes the message. Newspapers encourage opinion with nuance and argument. Twitter encourage flash mobs.

  • Authoritarianism - will the Internet successfully undermine the powers of state with its top-down control, its ability to propagandize and censure?

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