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Some Concerns About the Internet as an Organizing Vehicle


Leslie Cagan

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.

 

 

 

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