By Tim Hardy
(Image by Miriam Christensen. Source: Mark Poster (2001) in Debating Civil Society: On the Fear for Civic Decline and Hope for the Internet Alternative, by Peter Ester and Henk Vinken,International Sociology, vol. 18, no. 4. )
The effects of the internet, says Mark Poster
are more like those of Germany than those of hammers: the effect of Germany upon the people within it is not to make them Germans (at least for the most part); the effect of hammers is not to make people hammers… but to force metal spikes into wood. As long as we understand the internet as a hammer, we fail to discern the way it is like Germany.
The optimistic premise is that we can bend the arc of the internet towards democracy. It is not the technology itself, but the way we use it and build it, that matters. The way that skilful activists are using the internet and digital media today, especially mobile technologies, favours those who are seeking to express themselves and to organise their peers, not those who are seeking to close down debate and to prevent crowds from gathering in the streets.
Virtual architectures, like physical ones, shape discourse although the possibility of subversion is always present. In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse warned of the danger of automation in that a technical elite might simply reproduce the status quo through the tools they build. When we build online platforms, we need to remember this: we are not making hammers but engaged in virtual nation-building.
Too often online debate degenerates into hate speech with the worst abusers usually the first to hide behind hypocritical claims to “freedom of speech” as they attack those who genuinely defend such freedoms.
Real world debate is little better. David Cameron’s insincerity when he claimed he wanted an end to “Punch and Judy politics” is painfully clear from the way in which this bully handles Prime Minister’s Questions, using casual transphobia and other ad hominem attacks to humiliate those who disagree with him. Perhaps our online structures for discussion have already reproduced the status quo. It is undeniable that they often resemble the bucks-locking-antlers aggression that passes for political debate in parliament.
Marketing has a role to play in this too. I find Morozov tiresome because he has many brilliant ideas yet squanders them by courting controversy, presumably to generate publicity and drive book sales. Discourse, particularly online, is tainted by advertising. Micah M. White of Adbusters goes as far as to express deep cynicism about online activism because he fears that the structures of marketing are too deeply embedded.
Clicktivism is the pollution of activism with the logic of consumerism. Activism is debased with advertising and computer science. What defines clicktivism is an obsession with metrics. Each link clicked and email opened is meticulously monitored. Subject lines are A/B tested and talking points focus-grouped. Clicktivists dilute their messages for mass appeal and make calls to action that are easy, insignificant and impotent. Their sole campaign objective is to inflate participation percentages, not to overthrow the status quo. In the end, social change is marketed like a brand of toilet paper.
The fundamental problem with this technocratic approach is that metrics value only what is measurable. Clicktivism neglects the vital, immeasurable inner events and personal epiphanies that great social ruptures are actually made of. The history of revolutions attests that upheaval is always improbable, unpredictable and risky.
This is, however, a cynicism that identifies a problem without looking for solutions.
One needs only to watch this nauseating video about marketing to see the kind of ways in which the web is infected by the industry for the manufacture of artificial desire.
What would the late, great Bill Hicks have said to this?
Hicks is extremely funny but no poster boy for calm discussion.
Compare all this to the gentler consensus model of debate where assent is won through sincere, respectful conversation involving all participants and not by the biggest thug enforcing their will on the group. Now ask yourself if we can do better online. I think we can.
If we can build structures into the internet that guide participants into less antagonistic discourse then we can help build a stronger, more inclusive, civil society worldwide.
After 26 March, Beyond Clicktivism will be looking at ways in which to create platforms for online discussion that more closely resemble the consensus decision-making process. Thinkers, non-technical and otherwise, are all invited.