Visible but isolated
Trying to change the world from behind your computer is nowadays not a crazy idea anymore. It even has a certain romantic notion to it as seen in many movies. But I do wonder if this electronic mediation of activism –- this fighting for change from a distance — will indeed promote collective and interconnected action.
City-sociologist Richard Sennet somehow reinforces this thought of mine in his critique of man and modern life. He says that electronic media embodies the paradox of isolation and visibility—an empty public domain. The more we are connected in our homes and offices, the more we are actually isolated from each other:
The mass media infinitely heighten the knowledge people have of what transpires in society, and they infinitely inhibit the capacity of people to convert that knowledge into political action. You cannot talk back to your TV set; you can only turn it off. Unless you… immediately telephone your friends that you have turned out an obnoxious politician and urge them to turn off their TV sets, any gesture of or response you make is an invisible act. (Sennet 1974: 282-283)
But this pervasiveness and intrusiveness of media, and the need to convert responses into political action are exactly the reasons why media activists consider media a terrain of struggle. Verzola does recognize the politics (and even political-economic nature) of information. The struggle for shared information and technology is as political as you can get. The adage, “Information is power” speaks volumes about information’s political nature: if someone who possesses information has power, then those who don’t possess information are without power. The struggle between the powerful and the powerless: politics. In the Philippines, the rich families who used to be landlords are now ‘cyberlords’, according to Verzola. They are the “…owners of a body of information, or the material infrastructures for creating, distributing or using information”. The supposedly decentralized nature of new media is, in a way, being subverted by these cyberlords. Information and access are still concentrated in the hands of the elite. Despite the fact that an information product is produced at little cost (marginal unit approaches zero) in comparison to agricultural or industrial products (which are material and energy intensive), these cyberlords have commodified information to make them richer and even more powerful. Given that new media is used by cyberlords to further their interests, the activist can also use new media as another terrain for protest. But never on its own. This is Verzola’s point: it’s just one way to protest and subvert the actions of the dominant sectors. It will always be a part of a greater whole. To portray cyber activism as the major means to change society is flawed logic, because the issues addressed by activists are still deeply rooted in the socio-political and economic spheres, especially in underdeveloped lands. Protesting, whether via weblogs or demonstrations is the easy part. The actual rebuilding of a just and free society – which is the goal of activism – is the harder one. How to lower the price of eggs so that more people can buy it and be fed: that’s the challenge.
However, recognizing cyber activism as part of a greater whole does not mean trivializing the main issues it tries to confront. The crucial issue of “the commons” is a pressing matter that all activists should address. The digital commons – the shared means of producing, utilizing and developing knowledge and information among communities; the struggle for open and democratic knowledge and information space – affects both the ‘on- and offline’ peoples of the world. Intellectual property rights and monopoly control of information and knowledge has impacted both the ‘connected’ and the ‘disconnected’.
Public interfaces as venue for activism
I believe that the challenge now for activists, both in developed and underdeveloped countries, is how to design and develop public interfaces for interactive media that will engage people in socio-political processes. How can we, for example, subvert the symbols used by corporations and governments and transform these into metaphors of change? How would these metaphors of change move people and hopefully raise their awareness of the world? Think of the Twin Towers which has now been brilliantly metamorphosized by America into symbols of American freedom, patriotism and righteousness; and how the conservative government weaved stories (and spun a war) to give birth to a new breed of politics: the politics of fear. This power of metaphors should be harnessed and utilized by interactive media and transformed into concrete action. Take for example the project BeamMobile that was conceived by the Dutch design collective DEPT. Using a strong beamer, political images and messages were projected around Amsterdam (Kluitenberg 2004). I can imagine this also being used in other urban environments, like Manila. Billboards have sprung up like mushrooms and people are bombarded everyday with this form of advertising. One way of subverting this mind-numbing advertising would be a campaign ala-BeamMobile. It’s cheaper than renting an advertising space where you can make your own political statement, and more importantly, it’s mobile and unique. I think this is a creative way of posing questions and inversing perceptions in the public sphere.
A change in activist strategy is thus needed. The notion of a disembodied cyberspace and the lone cyber activist should be discarded; and at the same time, the radical potential of new media should be appreciated. Creating a better world, after all, does not only come from changing the unjust political and economic structures. Culture and consciousness are also charged terrains of struggle, wherein new media can make an important contribution. Changing leaders and governments, fighting against unfair economic trade, protecting human rights, and nurturing the environment: all these go hand-in-hand with media activism. By trying to make media a venue for dialogue; promoting the use and protection of the commons; and engaging people in socially meaningful interactive processes, cyber activism can share common ground with the greater movement for change. Hopefully, through this process, media can empower people to imagine the world as how they would wish it to be.
2004 Connection in Visibility: Reconnecting the Space of Flows Unplugged. Paper presented at Art + Communication 2004 – Transcultural Mapping. Riga, Latvia.
2004 Over Mediatheorie: taal, beeld geluid, gedrag. V2_Nai Uitgevers. Rotterdam
1974 The Fall of Public Man. W.W. Norton & company. New York/London.
2004 Cyberlords: Rentier Class of the Information Sector. In Towards a Political Economy of Information. Quezon City, Philippines: Foundation for Nationalist Studies, Inc.
2005 Interview conducted in his office at the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement. Quezon City, Philippines.