“What has that got to do with the price of an egg?” was my father’s trademark question for politicians during symposia and lectures in the university where he taught. A political activist himself, words for him were only as important as the action they evoked and the effect they caused. Asking politicians how their theories can lower the price of eggs and feed more people was his way of shaking their theories off the clouds and testing them against reality. This question popped up again in my mind while watching a documentary on cyber activism and a few times more during the course of my Media and Cultural Studies class at The Institute for Interactive Media in Amsterdam.
I’m now living in a developed country where being online and mobile has been translated mostly to mean access and connection to society – and in a sense, power – and where, in school, I receive a weekly dosage of theoretical nourishment in media and culture. Here it’s easier to identify with the notion that connection and mobility is indeed power. Being disconnected from the Net or switching off your mobile phone or computer gives a sense of loss or detachment and even paralysis: as if you’re no longer at the center of things but at the margins. Everything has to be done manually and you have to wait until you’re connected again before you can actually do something. New media seems to have become so indispensable in both public and private spheres that it has now grown as an alternative and popular arena of protest in developed countries targeting corporate giants and governments. The image of the hacker (or what others would call ‘hacktivist’) single-handedly bringing a corporate giant to its knees seems to be more plausible in countries like the Netherlands. Launching an internet campaign on human rights issue or the environment seems to make more sense. Certain websites (which are in some ways subversive and as a whole definitely irreverent) like ‘Geen Stijl’ and ‘Retecool’ (with its ‘Foto Fuck Vrijdag’) have displayed the enormous organizing and mobilizing power of the Net after landing in national news several times already.
New media, new protest?
Individuals within the comforts of their own homes did all of these. One can argue, of course, that hacking and internet campaigns are all about networking and thus not just the works of individuals. However, I think that what attracts people to participate in these actions is the fact that they can stay in their homes, behind the computer, and can log-out, stop or switch off whenever they want. Unlike in the traditional parliamentary form of struggle, laborers and peasants have to be politicized, organized and mobilized to go on strike to be able to deliver a damaging blow to the company’s profits, or hamper operations in the farms. In protests utilizing new media, one can choose to skip these steps and just go directly to defacing the corporate website or emailing their representatives to act on certain issues. These trends seem to point out that cyber activism may replace social and political activism as the dominant form of struggle for change. Will ‘networking with the masses’ then be the new activist jargon instead of ‘organizing the masses’? Has ‘digital man’ given birth to a new consciousness of protest? Or aren’t all these musings just intellectual masturbation? Because I really wonder: what do all of these have to do with the price of an egg?
Media and consciousness
Looking into a definition of media might present some answers. The Dutch media theoretician, Arjen Mulder described it as technical resources that can expand the range of our senses, making it the body’s extension in both time and space. This shows the ability of media to intervene in the process of how people construct the world through registration and imagination. In other words, media has the potential to affect consciousness-formation as well as be reformed by consciousness. This is evident in its history where the spoken, written and printed word had all consequent effects on human consciousness. In an oral culture, for example, poetry or stories were shared and made by the community. In a lettered society, only those who learned to read and write can claim to be poets and storytellers. In today’s digital society, knowledge has even become legal properties of corporations and has totally disconnected itself with the culture of sharing that was dominant in the early communities. Technological advancements also influenced consciousness as seen by the modernization of society through the invention of the mechanical clock. The mechanization of time brought forth, among others, the notion of hours as units of the day whereby labor is measured and assigned the corresponding wages.
Continuing along this line of thought, today’s digital advancements shape, in part, the modern human. ‘Digital humans’ possess therefore a consciousness different from their predecessors. Not only has the way they view and interpret the world been changed, but also the way they criticize, protest and try to rethink and change the world. Does this mean that new media will occupy a prominent if not the dominant place in protest politics? Is activism now relegated to the realm of symbols and images? Will political movements be passé and transformed into virtual movements with the growing interconnectedness in the world? Will individual-based actions now occupy the center of activism instead of the collective?
Built-in ideologies of digital media
Roberto Verzola says no to the questions above. Not in the Philippines, at least. Certainly not now. Verzola, an information technology expert and media and social activist, would probably regard the above-mentioned notion of new activism in the same way that my father would: too much nestled in the clouds. During an interview with him in Manila, Verzola presented several examples of what he calls the built-in system and ideologies brought about by new media. One of these is the techno-fix mentality. This mentality regards technology as the panacea to the world’s problems. Everything can be fixed and improved by technological or digital interventions, even loneliness, depression, poverty, apathy, etc. Placing cyber activism on a pedestal reflects this sort of mentality. Activism addresses socio-political, economic and cultural issues in need of socio-political, economic and cultural solutions. Cyber activism cannot replace the actual efforts and impact of actually going out there to personally educate, organize and mobilize people on real issues. Any form of activism has to work within the concrete conditions of a country. Verzola points out that the Philippines, unlike Western Europe or America, does not have an information economy, only an information sector. And it’s not even the dominant sector in society. This is not surprising given that the majority does not own computers nor has access to the internet. Traditional media still occupies the dominant space. Trying to change the Philippines from behind your computer is not likely to produce the needed effect. I even wonder if this electronic mediation of activism – this fighting for change from a distance — will indeed promote collective and interconnected action.
— end part 1–
*A complete list of references will be published in part two of this article.