Sunday, October 16, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, Direct Democracy, Social Media: A Thumbnail History of Media and Politics Since Ancient Athens

The role of social media in triggering and facilitating the now world-wide Occupy Wall Street protests - of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google+, and kindred systems in getting word out about Occupations, and documenting them for the world to see and join - has been remarked upon so often as to almost seem a cliche.  But the link between social media and direct democracy is true and profound, and is the current culmination of an evolution of media and political expression that began in ancient times.

Back in the city state of Athens, in the time of Pericles, direct democracy arose, in part because of the new literacy that allowed citizens to be informed of public events and the views and actions of their leaders.   The words that these people read were handwritten, which meant that anyone who wanted to write and be read could do so.  Writing and publishing were just as about as easy, in other words, as reading.  

All of that changed dramatically with the invention of the printing press, which had the wonderful result of spreading the written word to millions, but the anti-democratic effect of greatly reducing the ratio of published writers to readers.   Millions of people became accustomed to reading words written by a handful of others.   Unsurprisingly, when democracy slowly re-emerged in the Renaissance and the Age of Reason, it was not the direct democracy of Ancient Athens.  Instead, it was a representative kind of democracy, in which elected officials made all the decisions, and all the people could do was vote the representatives up or down.   This was almost exactly parallel to the transformation in information production and reception brought about by the printing press, in which all the people could do is read and agree or disagree with a book or manifesto or pamphlet, and in no way write or produce it, unless you were in the less than one-percent of the population fortunate to have a monarch's or a printer's (later publisher's) favor.

This inequality of producer and consumer - few producers and legion consumers - was not only continued but exacerbated by the advent of broadcast media, which reduced the number of producers (harder to get your views on radio and television than in newspapers, which at least has letters to the editors) while increasing the number of consumers.   People in representative democracies became better informed, but the information was created by fewer and fewer people.  In some countries, such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, this inequality was masterfully mined to do away with democracy altogether.

The introduction of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in the first decade of the 21st century shifted that ratio back to a more even distribution of producer and consumer for the first time since the handwritten manuscript held sway in Ancient Athens.   These new media live online, but they were unlike other new media like Amazon and iTunes, which still run for the most part like traditional publishing media, with few producers and many consumers.   In contrast, any one can Tweet, post a status on Facebook, upload a video to YouTube - any consumer could become a producer.  That's why I say these new social media are not just new but "new new media".

People in the streets, demanding freedom and justice in the Arab Spring, and redress of economic grievances in the United States, Europe, and Asia, are the healthy and long-overdue political expression of the revolution in social or new new media.  The Occupy movements are expressing a dissatisfaction with others making decisions for us - with our elected representatives doing the bidding of banks rather than the people who elected them.

With means of expressing one's political views in almost everyone's pockets and hands, the age of mass media and representative democracy may well be in irreversible decline, replaced by the more equitable system of direct democracy in which the majority not only truly rules, but in which everyone's views can get a public hearing, and everyone can vote at any and all times.   Campaigns such as Dylan Ratigan's to "get the money out of politics" may be well meaning, but miss the point that it's representative democracy itself that must go or be transformed into a system of democracy that always moves to the people's views.

I talked about all of this a bit more and led a discussion after the 7:15pm screening of Tiffany Shlain's new movie Connected, at the Angelika Film Center in New York City this Wednesday, October 19.

I also discussed many of these issues on Good Day Street Talk, Fox-NY-5, on a panel taped on Thursday October 20 and broadcast Saturday October.   Video is here:

Occupy Wall Street Chronicles, Part 1
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