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?