Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Revolution for the Post-Modern Age

       The next revolution will certainly be televised, but when it is, it will already be old news. Long before the cameras and the reporters arrive in the midst of the action, it will have been Facebook-ed and tweeted and Instagram-ed around the entire planet, probably even before any one has any idea what's really going on. It will enter the incessant global data-dump alongside pictures of cats, status updates about "goin out wit da girlz", and news-feed sports statistics, where it will be left for the sifting by ordinary people, journalists and governments alike.

       In a way, this makes it all sounds cheap: the story of people in some distant country facing armed police repression being prioritized just below those comforts and mindless indulgences of privileged youth. But in another way, what could possibly be more authentic, more free? What has the capacity to generate more potential social-energy, and around the entire world, not just in some urban square or on a single university campus?

       What would Trotsky think?

       Speaking as a member of this young generation, a thoroughbred child of the technology age, it seems almost unimaginable to try and conceive of a world without such limitless capabilities. And yet, social media are simply the newest manifestations of the already explosive monster that is the internet. We've become used to having our news, whether merited or inane, in less than an instant and are enraged when it is not. 

       How quickly the world owes us something that didn't even exist 5 years ago. 
       
       However, this is more than just a technological surrogate for social interaction or another source of inexhaustible entertainment; or at least it can be. While yes, most of us are still preoccupied with the innocuous details of our everyday life, and while yes, most of the internet is pornography (perhaps the truest and most blatant representation of human priorities), there is a whole other facet to this phenomenon and that is how social media is being harnessed by youth as a weapon against oppression and injustice.

       The world is shrinking through globalization and commodification and neo-liberalism, but if we ever had any delusions that such comprehensive and unbalanced economic and social changes would spread across the world without a stir, let these past few years be our evidence to the contrary. We have felt such a backlash before, in any number of countries and theaters, and the mighty US military has responded in kind (with variable support form the UN, NATO and our allies). But the game is changing and there are not enough bullets or bombs in the world for what is coming.

       The internet is the Trojan horse of the new-age revolution, but instead of Troy, it is the household and the consciousness of any and every person with internet access that is being infiltrated. These are the new unexplored frontiers, the wild and uncharted depths of human democracy with no one holding the reins. There are no more gatekeepers.

       But don't get me wrong, it is not for lack of trying. The laundry-list of scandals, from Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, the work of Anonymous and now the latest with Edward Snowden, show just how easy it is for any person with basic knowledge of a computer and a legitimate bone to pick to severely disrupt the government's attempts to command and manipulate the flow of information. There is just so much information out there, being multiplied exponentially on a daily basis, that the only way to try and control it all is by adopting increasingly authoritarian and invasive measures. 

       In the old days, a government's propaganda department printed and disseminated just the information it wanted, subtly silencing those dissenting voices (union workers, communists, anarchists, etc.) by other means. Today, such a feat is absolutely impossible despite the best efforts of the Obama administration or anyone else. The number of "dissenting voices" has grown beyond the limits of activists handing out pamphlets in the streets. Dissent itself has been re-born in the modern age, baptized into the secular cult of the internet along with WikiLeaks and Facebook. Amen.

       The internet has opened a new arena, an Emma Goldman-type anarchist space in both structure and function, and, in that sense at least, perhaps the purest democracy in the world. It is building bridges across continents, connecting causes, creating relationships, and raising consciousness to the point that the traditional role of the state in this area and many others is being slowly renegotiated and not on its terms. On ours.

       For the powers that be, in the absence of effective top-down approaches to information control, the best alternative is a flanking maneuver that strikes at cultural and human weaknesses. It's a let-them-eat-cake sort of philosophy, and, in at least some cases, it does well to take up the slack that autocratic measures inevitably leave behind. By indulging our inclination for entertainment over self-awareness, our love of concise answers that don't challenge too radically our well-constructed and fragile world-view, this other method has proven quite potent. The idea is that instead of controlling the information-flow, any particular government, regime, or administration will simply add to it, but with a louder, more appealing, and well-funded voice of its own.

       In the US, it seems the major news agencies have been co-opted (hijacked and violated is more like it) by corporate interests, which by happy coincidence happen to mirror the government's own interests. They provide their castrated, doctored versions of news, call it thorough and impartial, and sell it like they would a cup of Starbucks coffee (and at as equally an absurd a price). The false controversy they present as "unbiased reporting" mimics the perverted and catty nature of our own bipolar political system, but like any reality television show where the caricatured participants fight over scraps of cheap, momentary fame, it adequately satisfies the needs for entertainment and so we go seeking no further.

       It is a coordinated effort between governments, corporations, and our own complacent dispositions, and it is very effective. Still, it is impossible (or at least imprudent) to ignore the fact that there are many corners of this world where such an inflated message is drowned out in the light of bigger forces. Take the recent protests in Brazil and Turkey, for instance.

       As opposed to the protests and civil disobedience that characterized the US during the civil rights movement and Vietnam war, and the independence movements of former colonies following World War II, this new age of protests seems to be less centralized on a specific issue, less organized and more spontaneous. These characteristics can be good or bad, depending on a number of factors, but regardless of their merit, this seems to be the reality of modern social upheaval.

       The protests in Brazil and Turkey were both set off by relatively minor issues (rising bus fares and the bulldozing of a park, respectively). These seemingly insignificant problems mushroomed into mob protests against government corruption, authoritarianism, globalization, poverty, inequality, racism, and oppression, literally overnight. It took a small crack in the government armor to open the flood-gates to enormous nationwide explosions of pent-up popular discontent. There was no planning, little warning, and hardly any preparation on the part of either governments or demonstrators. These protests, in both their spontaneity and comprehensiveness, would likely not have been possible without the communicative capabilities of social media and the internet.

       This is the power that an ordinary person now has at hand: a high school kid in the West Bank can video tape Israeli brutality against Palestinians on his cell phone and upload it to Facebook in an instant. Before that offending soldier even gets back to base there is an international scandal with human rights groups and a couple hundred thousand views. This is unprecedented individual power, unimaginable social potential, and we are all still learning, governments and citizens alike, how to capitalize on this largely untapped vein of energy.

       Here is another example, one a little closer to home for me. I am a Peace Corps volunteer serving in a remote and isolated community in the relatively unheard of South American country of Paraguay. In my community electricity is sporadic, running water unreliable, poverty ubiquitous, and education nominal at best. And yet, thanks to modern cell phones and cell phone towers, I can access the entirety of human history and culture without leaving my little brick hovel. Any one of my neighbors can do the same with a cheap Korean-made laptop and a jury-rigged internet modem. In the backwaters of underdeveloped and impoverished countries, people are coming online in huge numbers. The internet is no longer just a luxury of the privileged elite, it is increasingly becoming the forum of disenfranchised people as well, the very marginal populations onto which this world has externalized its most egregious costs.

       I am not trying to say that all the information being put out there on the internet is somehow inviolably valuable or true or inspired. But somewhere in that massive chaos of information sharing exist nuggets of clarity, of reality, of truth. It might be buried or obfuscated or overshadowed by an amazing amount of disinformation, but that is the case with any truth anywhere. History textbooks go out of date as fast as Science textbooks, and that is saying something.

       What we can say about this new information age is that never before has the truth existed with such abundance and variety and possibility; and at the same time, never has there been so much untruth heaped on top of it to cover it up. But combine that truth with the human-energy that social media has released, and the result is bound to be real Truth.

       What the Arab Spring showed us, what perhaps these new protests in Egypt are showing us (led by the fearlessness and defiance of art), is that while success is not a guaranteed outcome of these new-age, internet-sparked revolutions, it is a definite and undeniable possibility. The unstoppable reality is that the world is getting younger, smarter, and more connected; the future doesn't look bright for the dictators, autocrats, and entrenched powers of this world.

       The vanguard of political control has always been education, information indoctrination from the earliest age. As the US continually de-funds and destroys its educational system and as education in many countries remains locked in a traditional "pedagogies of oppression", the shackles are being circumvented in other ways thanks to the internet. It is fomenting a social-geology that thrusts up from the core a million little active volcanoes that aren't definitively going to erupt, that might not even be that dangerous if they do, but just as well they may lay waste to our political order like a modern day Pompeii.


       Whether this internet-phenomenon becomes complacent like Huxley's Brave New World or authentic and revolutionary is yet to be seen. One thing is for certain: it will not be contained. It will writhe against the bars of any Orwellian dystopia that might try to control it.

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