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Technological Perspective on OWS


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.

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

    • DrDick

      I think it was actually the printers. Pamphleting was a vital part of colonial (pre-postal system) America.

      • PhoenixRising

        Flyers reproduced by mimeograph, the modern pamphlet, were a vital part of organizing the Montgomery bus boycott. Some of Rosa Parks’ sister NAACP members risked their jobs sneaking into the HBCU office and running those things off in purple.

      • I guess I was thinking that colonial America wasn’t the United States of America. I don’t know what I was thinking. Just a ditzy girl, I guess.

  • DocAmazing

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

  • 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.

    • dave

      I’m still wondering what large movement with any influence has ever been mobilised using internet media.

      • Barack Obama’s campaign

        • I would not call Barack Obama’s campaign a social movement. It had the potential to be a social movement, turned out to just be a political campaign.

          • Well, in hindsight, yes, but at the time, no one knew that.

      • The Arab Spring? The ousting of Mubarak?

    • c u n d gulag

      Uhm, the Civil War?
      Didn’t both sides mobilize and plan by effectively utilizing the telegraph.

      Maybe the Tex/Mex War? Though that was right after the invention.

      If you mean social movements, my guess would be either the nascent Suffragette movement, or the fairly well established Abolitionist one.

      • I don’t know that a war counts as a social movement. I think Hogan’s point about centralization, that you had to go to a Western Union office to send and receive telegrams, is a pretty good one. Sort of put the clamps on mobilization

        • Yeah, you are probably right about the limited ability of social movements to use the telegraph because of its centralized control.

          • There is actually a book on Google books that talks about this, but of course, the one section that discusses the impact of the telegraph as social media either hasn’t been scanned in or was skipped because the book is still available on Amazon

    • Hogan

      Too centralized.

  • DrDick

    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.

  • 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.

  • Auguste

    I learned a new word today!

    • Auguste

      That was supposed to be a reply to J. Dunn and “sousveillance.”

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