It was several years after the net existed before i got an email address, and in that i was not alone. i remember the opinion of many activists, that the web was a silly fad, a distraction, a toy for privileged people that could not be used in the struggle. We thought it was silly when Love and Rage ran an article about this newfangled technology that we should integrate into our praxis, and sad when some comrades stopped producing their newsletter to focus more on their website.
Nor were all the criticisms moot; there’s truth in the sticker on my monitor, “the internet is ruining my subculture.” Or as Le Tigre tell us, “I’ll meet you in the street / Get off the Internet / Destroy the right wing.”
Today we live in the era of countless radical blogs and websites, but fewer, nor more, serious radical magazines and newspapers than there were thirty years ago. Indeed, the literary leftovers not consumed by the web tend towards zinedom, a format in which there is only so much you are expected to say and do. Not to mention the fact that the internet’s thorough absorption into imperialist culture makes yesterday’s watchwords for secure communications and clandestine activity seem less realistic and likely than revolution itself.
Technology is a byproduct of history, of people facing certain challenges, building on distinct possibilities, and seizing the chance to do something in a new way. Why? Simply because the social conditions of their time and place make this new way seem better. This may be a mistake, the choice is often made by one group in pursuit of its own interests and at the expense of everyone else’s, but it’s not always – or even normally – the result of a conspiracy to impose the (often unforeseeable) social conditions that new techniques bring in their wake.
And that is one key to this process: that the social ramifications of new technologies are often unpredictable. Not only because life unfolds in unknowable ways, but also because every new factor in the social equation is grasped at, fought for, gerry-rigged and retro-fitted, all based on the competing claims and visions of classes, peoples, and subcultures who can only guess at the relationship between what they like, what they want, what they need. (Much like the rest of us.)
Check out, for instance, this recent article from Germany, about a trade union organizing flash-mobs to disrupt business as usual at a shopping center where pay negotiations had stalled. Using the internet to summon people at quick notice, the flash-mob forms and does its business and can be gone before your opponent knows what hit them; in this case several hundred people filling up their shopping carts and then leaving them in the aisles.
It is clear to all involved what is at stake here, as different classes attempt to establish the legal status of this form of struggle, which is really just an Alinskyesque kind of social disruption with a 21st century twist. The legality of flash-mobs in industrial actions is headed to the constitutional court, with the Spiegel article explaining that “Business owners have also suggested that individuals who are not actually union members might participate in the flash mobs — the idea might appeal to extremists or trouble makers, they said.”
See also in this regard the following youtube interviews with Elliot Madison and his lawyer Martin Skolar. Madison in the NYC anarchist whose home was raided by the FBI earlier this week, after he was arrested during the Pittsburgh G20 mobilization for using twitter – the online microblogging service – to keep demonstrators informed about the danger of police violence. The tactics that the Obama administration lauds when engaged in by Iranian protesters are now being criminalized on the streets of amerika.
This is an important case, because what is being targeted is not twitter (which probably cooperated with police) or just the G20 mobilizations, but the ability to protest more intelligently, to raise our capacities above the low level that they have been kept at for decades.