Activism and the Monitor

I have always regarded it as positive that the internet as a medium permits its users a greater degree of active participation than most other media, but during the discussion at this past Saturday’s Dinner and a Doc, I found myself questioning this assumption.  We had just finished watching The U.S. vs. John Lennon, and we were asking why the war in Vietnam had produced such a strong and sustained opposition while the war in Iraq has not generated a similar level of response.  After all, the activists of today have technological advantages that those opposing the Vietnam War did not, and these technologies should theoretically enable them to network and to share information far more easily and far more effectively.  Perhaps, I suggested to the group, the more active experience of using a computer actually dissuades people from becoming active in more practical ways, so that they respond to an issue by signing an online petition, or by writing a blog post, or by sending a mass email, or by contributing to some relief fund, but they never make the transition from internet activism to physical activism.  Their drive to engage in issues becomes satisfied through the monitor and never finds expression beyond it.

To be clear, I am not at all arguing that real activism cannot be accomplished online.  I am merely suggesting that the internet often allows people to engage with issues in ways that provide only the illusion of activism and that it frequently functions to satisfy the need for active involvement in political issues without really addressing these issues beyond the level of the monitor.  Rather than enabling activism, the internet comes to replace it, limiting the ways in which people are willing to be politically active.

The answer to this problem is obviously not to abandon the internet as a tool for activism, because it is simply too effective a means for communicating and networking and organizing and raising awareness.  The answer may, however, involve reimagining how we use the internet and how we promote activism through it, so that we do not content ourselves with online petitions that nobody sees at the expense of actually feeding the hungry, defending the oppressed, and protesting injustice.  I am not sure that I have any specific suggestions as to how this might be accomplished, but I would encourage you, the next time you are confronted by a cause in your online wanderings, to see what it is exactly that you are being asked to do.  Is it the kind of activism that stops at the monitor, or is it the kind that only begins there in order to go much further?

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4 comments
  1. John Jantunen said:

    A question was asked tonight why we don’t have an John Lennons today and, after some consideration, it occurred to me that we do have at least one, Michael Moore, and I think he’s been just about as effective as JL has been in regards to initiating real change and much for the same reason. Instead of trying to address the underlying power dynamics that allow such things as The Vietnam War/Gulf Wars they have merely utilised (in JL’s case) and created (as MM did) a culture of personality around themselves to promote their causees believeing that publicity will be enough to sway the forces of history in their favour. Unfortunately, as demonstrated by our inability to come to terms with the much publicised environmental catastrophe that has yet to directly impact out lives, it takes the intrusion of real life (say Nova Scotia under water or the collapse of agriculture), before we as a people get the message. This isn’t to say that nothing can be done before it’s too late but it does indicate that getting something done is a lot harder than giving a bunch of dissafected youth an excuse to mill around smoking pot and spitting at cops. It requires first, the will to do something followed by the patience to develop, initiate and stick to a carefully measured strategy based upon a reasoned examination of the world in which we live. One cannot underestimate just how difficult something like this would be to get started, much less brought to fruition, and the skeptic in me might even go so far to say that it’s impossible if it were not for the knowledge that there are people out there working to accomplish this very thing (Canadians David Suziki, John Raulston Saul and Thomas Homer Dixon spring immediately to mind). What these thinkers require is the support of a large enough body of informed citizens willing to force a suitabley large governing body to start listening to their ideas and then incorporating those ideas into public policy. This is what our system was designed to do, that’s the beauty of it, but for it to function it requires engagement at every level from the personal to the professional to the social and all realms in between. We simply no longer have the luxury of compartmentalising our frustration, which is what protests do, we have to allow it to infiltrate every aspect of our lives and proceed on the premise that what we feel really, truly does matter.

  2. Isaiah said:

    I don’t want to sound like a broken record but here goes:

    Michel de Certeau’s distinction between the production of something and it’s use is valuable here. The way the internet is produced, or at least widely functions, is not identical to it’s potential use.

    I think the question is: how can we intentionally USE a medium like the internet?

    I suggest that it is quite possible to be USED differently than it is now. I suggest perhaps being conscious how you blog, facebook, email etc and realizing that is a form of networking and communcation and not direct activism. If that distinction is made I think it would be of great help.

  3. Isaiah,

    I agree with you entirely that the internet, and every medium for that matter, can be used differently than it is commonly used, but I would suggest that each medium also produces certain tendencies in its users, simply because of how the medium functions, and that using a medium differently often means using it against itself or at least against the tendencies that it creates. This means that using a medium differently is not always or even often easy, and that creating a widespread change in how a medium is used is very difficult indeed.

  4. I think mainly we don’t see the same activism because there are several factors regarding this war that are extremely differentiated from Viet Nam:

    The biggest factor is the vendetta features- there is a convenient image of the nine eleven incident looming over everything- most Americans, thought some do speak out don’t want to be unpatriotic and don’t know how to go about denouncing the war. Others don’t want to, and others see the incident and don’t know how to respond.

    Factor two, no one is being drafted and forcibly indicted to attend the arena of conflict, and without our family and extensive amounts of our immdediate neighbours around us going off to war and dying, though so many are dying, there’s not the same affectation as in the sixties and early seventies.

    Factor the third, Voyeurism, Luke you spoke of this some time ago when dealing with Inglorious Bastards- and in the short of it, by way of film exposure and realism we’ve come to believe war is not a terrible attrocity but something to justify us, entertain us, give us catharsis, and secretly touch ourselves discretely but inappropriately deep inside while we sit and listen to the radio in our car or while watching the news- it gives us our banter.

    Fourth, the mindset of north american culture has changed drastically in terms of material and education- now we get education not a pursuit not as something to fulfill us, not as something we believe or is essential to our souls- but as process and ends to means to at the end of the day consume material. The intellectual class, which led the charge of the sixties has been appeased and seduced to need things it doesn’t need- and indeed as the monitor does, to be satisfied with technology and acquisition in our own lives rather than affecting the world around us- we don’t have time stop to help people, we have to get to such and such location before it closes- we don’t have time for protest because we might miss the movie friday night- even those who once would study history and philosophy and believe it are now only doing such things for an end to a means- and lets face it if we are to succeed in our pursuit of career who has time for beliefs?

    The depression and WWII era attitude that we must support one another that we must get out there and get this done is gone- and frankly we believe someone else will do it for us- our industrialization post WWII in countries that are not our homes for cheap expense and extravagant profit has reduced our society to one who doesn’t have to worry about shoes- because we don’t have to build them- we have lost the actual working class idea of labour, perhaps for the reality that so many of them actually died in Viet Nam.

    I think the biggest factor is the lack of Zeitgeist. There is not actually any celebrity coming out and instigating anything- I mean some of the sixties was not celebral, but as Jim Morrison points out in his essays- the real objective of a crowd is the achieve collective orgasm and alleviate their frustration. In short there exist no songs and no figure heads to instigate a bunch of sheep the fill the ranks- particularly because their are just too many celebrity diffusion in the world- no one would come out now in large numbers of active protest unless agged on by Ozzy or someone- and frankly he’s probably the only one who could, with a wonderful buffer that not being American he cannot be antagonized as anti American. There’s just no one who could achieve the subconscious desire of fore play to come out and make noise to be effectively fucked for world change.

    Lastly there is just such a diffusion of activism in the world pulling everyone every which way with so many taught and tumultuous issues its impossible to rally people in the same way.

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