Some Concerns About the Internet as an Organizing Vehicle
For reasons I don't totally understand, I was somewhat late in getting on line. About five years ago the small organization I coordinated - the Cuba Information Project - went on line, but usually the other staff person handled the email communications. It was clear right from the beginning that this technology was amazing and offered, incredible possibilities, the most direct, cheapest, fastest means of sharing information back and forth with people in Cuba. Especially in a context of working with limited resources, the internet quickly became an indispensable tool. But I don't need to convince this readership of the merits of this technology.
But this commentary is about some of the problems and limits...some of the challenges to social change organizers... presented by the growing internet usage. Starting with what is probably the most obvious concern, let me quote a few excerpts from an AP story dated July 8, 1999:
"ONLINE RACIAL DIVIDE GROWS "The disparity on the Internet between whites and black and Hispanic Americans is growing toward a "racial ravine," in many cases even after accounting for differences in income, a new government report said Thursday.
"'The Net is increasingly becoming part of our national heritage - for some people,' said Larry Irving, a Commerce undersecretary and President Clinton's top telecommunications adviser.
"Most troubling for government experts were indications these disparities can't be blamed solely on differences in income. Among families earning $15,000 to $35,000, for example, more than 33 percent of whites owned computers, but only 19 percent of blacks did - and that gap has widened nearly 62 percent since 1994 despite plunging computer prices.
"The government survey also found, predictably, that as income rises, the likelihood of PC ownership and Internet use also rises. Families with incomes above $75,000 were more than five times as likely to own a computer at home and 10 times more likely to have Internet access than families who earned less than $10,000. And the gaps in computer ownership and Internet use narrowed between white families and blacks and Hispanics earning more than $50,000.
"Other key findings: -About 47 percent of all whites own computers, but fewer than half as many blacks do. About 25.5 percent of Hispanics own computers, but 55 percent of Asians do. Asian families also are most likely to have Internet access, with 36 percent online. -A child in a low-income white family is three times more likely to have Internet access as a child in a comparable black family and four times more likely than a Hispanic child. -People with college degrees are more than eight times more likely to own a computer and 16 times more likely to have Internet access than people with elementary school educations."
In addition, even if everyone had equal access, the internet, even in some of its more interactive uses, flattens communication. Communication is much more than just an exchange of words. What happens when you are in a live, in-person conversation with someone, or more than one person for that matter? Yes, the words go back and forth, but there's tone and volume and emphasis; there's body language and looking into another person's eyes. Every email looks the same. The reader doesn't even get to decipher someone's handwriting or admire the choice of postage stamp.
Some of this hit me a while ago when I first taught a class in the Left On Line University, a project of ZNet which I hope we will get up and running again sometime soon. The basic idea was very straightforward: once a week for ten weeks I (and the other people teaching) would post a "lecture". The students each got an access code for whatever courses they had signed up for and anytime during the week they could read the lectures. Then there was a section for students to make comments, ask questions, respond to what I had written or to each other, etc. The teachers all had access to their discussion sections and interacted as much as they wanted or needed to.
The class I taught was on ORGANIZING. While lots of material was covered in the ten weeks, several basic themes kept repeating, such as: organizing is about working with people, engaging people in a political process, helping people think in new ways and in turn learning from the people you struggle with. I'm concerned that there's been a lot of slippage in the past decade or so. All too often it seems that direct mail and advertising have replaced old-fashioned knocking on doors and talking to people directly. In the midst of this I realized how strange it was doing an on-line class about the need for direct contact and connection with people!
Another concern is the isolating nature of the activity. The actual sending and receiving is something just you and your computer do, whether writing to and getting material back from one person or scores of people. The isolation issue because even greater because of the amount of time more of us find ourselves working at these machines, trying to keep apace with the influx of messages and postings. There's a tension here, between the ability to simultaneously communicate with large numbers on the one hand, and the solitary nature of the process on the other hand.
While organizing is about one-on-one, direct interaction it's also about bringing groups of people together, building solidarity through a shared process and collective action. All that unfolds in one-on-one interactions is multiplied and made more complex in group dynamics. And all, certainly most, of that drops away when the internet is the communications vehicle.
This last point is especially important in the context of social change organizing. I start from the premise that a process that directly involves more and more people is best. In other words, I believe in the power of mass movements, even though I know how cumbersome they can be. Yes, there are countless stories where the individual act made a difference, and we each need to keep encouraging one another to find those unique moments when our action will make a difference. But in the long run, our strength comes from our ability to work with others, to find the common ground....not the least common denominator but the common ground.
As more people find themselves on the keyboard more hours of every day let's not forget the importance of live, in-person contact. And if strong race and class politics inform our organizing decisions, the AP article quoted above should sound an alarm.
Then, on a more practical level, there is the issue of the amount of time we spend on the internet. There are days when I feel trapped by the email. In order to not end up with hundreds of messages waiting to be dealt with, I have to spend significant time each day processing what's come in: what need's immediate responses, what do I need to respond to but can put off for a day or two, what do I want to read but not right then, what can immediately be deleted, etc. I know I've brought some of this on myself having signed up for several listserve's. Maybe I'm just interested in too many things? But it's not just the volume, it's also that people now seem to expect - even demand - speedy replies. Everything seems to move faster and faster in this culture, and so it's no surprise that communication is also speeding up. A fax machine that takes 30 or 40 seconds to send something half way around the world now seems slow!
I'm concerned that even these practical issues have an impact on organizing. No, I am, not saying that we should only approach organizing in the "old" ways. Clearly that's stupid. But I also don't want us to dismiss organizing methods which still work. The challenge is to use the internet as intelligently as possible, as one of our tools in the fight for justice and peace.