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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.