Tectonic shifts are constant, though we only feel them when they intensify into earthquakes. Change, we all know and feel in our bones, is a steady truth. As we exit the age of television and find ourselves more and more digitally engaged with the form and content of the internet we can feel major changes in human politics, interactions and activism.
I have been organizing with a group of anti-occupation activists who are generally not from Israel and Palestine, but who live here now. It occurred almost naturally in a group of 15 or 20 people that we decided that we were interested in forming a collective as opposed to an “organization”.
These days, broad social movements such as Idle No More, Occupy, the Arab Spring and this small group I am organizing with are finding themselves defined by as well organized on platforms, as opposed to the 20th century model of finding space under one umbrella.
Over the last century organizations vied for space and influence over other organizations in their social movement umbrella. One need only look to the 1960s at, for example, the internal debates over strategy to end the war in Vietnam within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). To some extent, SDS became the umbrella for the anti-war movement and then fell apart due to lack of preserved space under the umbrella for various players who aimed to end the war using different strategies with differing analyses.
Harold Innis, the father of communications and media studies wrote in The Bias of Communication that “A medium of communication has an important influence over the dissemination of knowledge over space and over time…” Innis’ view, which his student Marshall McLuhan later echoed, was that our society’s interactions, knowledge and cultures are influenced deeply (to say the least!) by the ways in which we communicate.
The age of radio and television was an age of one-way mass projections of voices and images (ideas). It influenced coherent social movements that were organized under a flag, perhaps with a uniform, and headed by particular people. As television and radio give way to the internet we find ourselves less comfortable in organizations that reflect singular, unified pillars of thought and action. Until recently, we were communicated to - the internet has changed that.
The internet is a medium that has incorporated the technologies of television, radio, print and more. It is a medium that has allowed us to consume videos and produce responses in a matter of minutes and converse on videophone. It is a medium that allows an activist to send an idea to millions, and a government, corporation or amateur singer to do the same. In other words, the internet acts as a platform for multiple levels of communication.
It makes sense that as we find ourselves spending more time on the internet that we begin to build our spaces and frameworks in its image. I don’t have to silently listen to the news alone in my home anymore. I can yell about it in the “talk back” section or on facebook as I sit on the same faithful couch.
I can organize people through information networks like twitter and social networks like facebook. People can organize me there too. I can sign a petition or find out where the march is starting. That’s the internet.
Almost naturally, my fellow anti-occupation organizers and I found ourselves in a process of developing a brief set of agreements (the briefer the better we agreed), the opposite of writing a manifesto. We also engaged in a process of defining what we do in order to define who would join, as opposed to the often painful exercise of attempting to define who the group is, and who they are inviting to the table.
As well, we looked to blogging platforms like 972mag.com, which have a set of agreements that every author agrees to before they go off and write what they want. We have drawn from the successful experimentation, both calm and urgent, that is Occupy Sandy. We used these and similar platforms as inspiration for our idea of committees that act independently and look to full collective meetings for support for those committees - as opposed to as a space for ratification (unless it is necessary!).
We agreed that we wanted to be a collective of individuals, a balancing act and a hub for people to come together; activists engaged in direct action and organizers engaging others in this struggle. Without pinpointing exactly what we were talking about, we were building an organization in the image of the network of sites that make up the internet.
It is unclear whether these changes are good or bad for creating positive change in our world. Activist organizations, unions and revolutionary movements in the age of television used to be top-down more often than not, often stifling individual motion and multi-layered identity. Still, the organization that attempted to find a place under the movement umbrella, and could be easily organized to achieve a common goal, gave a sense of strong identity and unity.
Organizations in the age of the internet are finding themselves on platforms with much more space to operate, whether in partnership or apart. They are linking up in some areas with some groups and others with other groups. We know that the internet has enabled all kinds of movements and modes of communication that were once a dream or tools exclusively of those with the money to use them, but while we can interact with many more people those interactions are often shallow and lacking.
These shifts are continuous and we will have to keep looking at where we stand in order to get a glimpse of where we are going. We are left with many questions unanswered, such as what it means for us that both on TV and on the internet our interactions through media are owned, by and large, by corporate interests. What we can say is that the interactions, organizations and movements that we are building today reflect the media we use to communicate. Whether that is good, bad, or just is, remains to be seen through the kind of success we have in organizing ourselves to build a world free of occupation, capitalism, war and climate change.