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Technological Perspective on OWS

[ 25 ] November 17, 2011 |

I gave an interview to a newspaper journalist the other day who wanted some information about Occupy Wall Street in the context of the history of American social movements. One question she asked was about how technology makes this movement different. And it struck me that while this movement is rightfully being lauded for its sophisticated use of technology, it’s also something we shouldn’t say is SO different from the past. Given Americans’ fetishization of technology, it’s hardly surprising that we talk about Twitter and YouTube as transformative technological achievements that separate our current organizing practices from those in the past. And of course, the internet is transformative, but it’s also worth noting that previous organizing movements also created incredibly sophisticated technological strategies using the available tools. Twitter allows one to get word of current events around the world in real time, but this isn’t that new; we’ve been shrinking space and time ever since the steamship. To take the I.W.W. as an example, these people used created tremendously effective propaganda using art, pamphlets, and songs and spread them across the country and world really quite quickly thanks to their strategies of organizing through the use of train-hopping. The telegraph and telephone still meant that people found out about information pretty much right away and while big technologies like television might mean that people mostly received versions of stories by the 1950s, the plethora of newspapers from all different perspectives allowed interested parties to receive a great deal of information very quickly.

This isn’t to discount the value of Twitter in organizing at all, but rather to say that it is part of a technological continuum, not a complete transformation of what our less advanced organizing ancestors were doing 10 years ago or 100 years ago.

Comments (25)

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  1. wiley says:

    I like the idea that the first IT specialists in the U.S. were the mail carriers.

  2. DocAmazing says:

    Now for the flip side: how are new technologies enabling today’s COINTELPRO?

  3. actor212 says:

    Question: What large movement with any influence was mobilized or effectively utilized the telegraph?

    I’m not trolling, mind you. I’m asking this as a serious question

    Undoubtedly, the printing press did and the telephone was so ubiquitous, eventually, that most movements would have died on the vine without it. The internet, television, and smart phone technologies certainly allow for instantaneous and mass communication, but I’m racking my brains trying to figure out how the telegraph could be used in this manner.

  4. DrDick says:

    I think I would argue that media consolidation and the homogeneity of voices/views presented in the mass media, as opposed to the diversity which characterized the media prior to this is one reason why “new media” have become so important.

  5. J. Dunn says:

    I’d say the more revolutionary thing in Occupy is the proliferation of camphones and livestreaming video for sousveillance. It ended up making Bloomberg’s attempts at a media blackout on the raid pointless, and also revealed many of the flashpoints (Tony Bologna pepper spraying those girls, the Scott Olsen incident) that got the movement into the national consciousness to begin with.

    Of course, this is much like the strategy the Civil Rights Movement employed to use television to amplify the violence of southern segregationist society. With that option closed off due to media consolidation under largely reactionary ownership, this new social movement is using the tools available to them to innovate around the obstacles. Nothing new, but still interesting and worth paying attention to. Though as with nearly everything else, it would be nice to see the technology issue put into context more often than it is.

  6. Auguste says:

    I learned a new word today!

  7. [...] Loomis has a post expressing skepticism that social media and organizing technology has had a substantial causal [...]

  8. [...] Yglesias argues: I share Erik Loomis’ skepticism that we should attribute an important social role to Twitter or other information technology in [...]

  9. [...] Erik Loomis and Matt Yglesias among others have noted that Twitter and the other social media tools shouldn’t be considered catalysts of the Arab Spring or OWS or other movements, and they are right to do so. It is easy to fall prey to the lure of novelty. But in folding social media up with other forms of communication, we shouldn’t overlook the unique characteristics that make social media powerful not just in terms of organizing protests but in other areas as well, like awareness raising. I think this was probably more true during the Green Wave when protesters in Iran had few other options to get their stories out than through Twitter. But it’s true here too. In the 50s, in order to use nudity to spark even a nationwide conversation, let alone a an international one, Elmahdy would have had to connect with a like-minded publisher who was, despite his profit motive and fear of reprisal, willing to promote her and her cause. [...]

  10. [...] and other digital communication technologies during recent international political movements. Eric Loomis has problematised the length to which social media has had a “causal impact” on the Occupy Wall [...]

  11. [...] media and other digital communication technologies during recent international political movements. Eric Loomis has problematised the length to which social media has had a “causal impact” on the Occupy Wall Street [...]

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