Activism and the Internet

Sometimes I feel as if I am on a roller coaster of information awareness about the usefulness of media/technology/mass communication tools. In this week’s reading, the focus is on internet activism, but those specific arguments reflect the entire trajectory of the internet as a tool (and perhaps even the entire progression of mass communication tools).

With Good Comes Bad: When the wheel was invented, insects experienced a new way to be crushed.

Both schools of the overarching thoughts about Internet activism have valid arguments. On one hand, we’ve never been able to organize so quickly across a geographic location. On the other hand, that just means a different combination of people are gathering—it doesn’t always mean a better combination. For every argument there is a responding one. Once again I turn back to Hegel and his theory about opposing truths. And then to Neil Postman and his views that technology changes us. I can add to those the ideas Nicholas Carr presented about tools being nothing without humans behind them. Which he himself pointed out the reactive argument for: Even though the tool is useless without us, from the moment the tool is created, we are shaped by it too.

This is all to say that these observations come together to demonstrate cycles of being concerned about and excited by communication possibilities.

With activism, we want to be excited, like Evgeny Morozov pointed out in “Facebook and Twitter are just the places revolutionaries go.” We want to know that something we spend so much time doing can be a tool for good, for change, for DEMOCRACY and freedom, etc.  The opinions of those who disagree are not what we want. But they ring true with Postman and Carr. Morozov writes that we just need to look to history to see that people worry about communication in political movements for only a brief time before moving on. You know what, he says it better than I do:

Today, the role of the telegraph in the 1917 Bolshevik revolution – just like the role of the tape-recorder in the 1979 Iranian revolution and of the fax machine in the 1989 revolutions – is of interest to a handful of academics and virtually no one else. The fetishism of technology is at its strongest immediately after a revolution but tends to subside shortly afterward.

But what Morozov and Malcolm Gladwell (who he references) do over and over is point out the problems with digital communication. With the problems come the benefits, yes, but we must not ignore the problems.  Once again we’ve learned that different is different. So I guess my question becomes, what is different in this case and how can we capitalize on it to promote the most amount of positive change?

I think part of it is maintaining a positive attitude. It’s very hard to work toward something when you’re being told that the action could have harmful consequences. A common argument in the vernacular of activism is that it’s better to do nothing than to do something wrong, so we should do nothing.

To me, that’s like saying, we’d be better off if, after inventing the wheel, or fire or whatever, we had called it a day and never touched it again. Does anyone prefer that we rewind that far? I doubt many would, anyhow, and I think that’s worth considering. If we look broadly over time, changes in mass communication stand for progress and progress stands for the possibility for things to get better. Because over all, haven’t things gotten better?


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