[iDC] Introduction: The Internet as Playground and Factory

davin heckman davinheckman at gmail.com
Mon Jun 8 15:47:52 UTC 2009

I was at a barbecue about a week ago, chatting with my brother-in-law,
who's a labor organizer.  He's less concerned with swelling the ranks
of a particular union than he is with talking to working people about
how they can, by talking with each other, improve their situation.

As a teacher, I was interested in picking his brain on how I could use
some of his work to help my students talk about their lives, formulate
their responses, and organize themselves around issues that matter to
them.  Naturally, the talk turned to social media as a possibility and
an obstacle for such organization.

His advice to me, based on anecdotal evidence, was to advise students
against using social media for organizing until they had strong
face-to-face relationships.  And then, only use it sparingly, as a
tool.  His experience, based on work with 20-50 year old working folks
was that attitudes quickly devolve into patterns consistent with the
consumption of entertainment--you do it when you have time, when it is
fun, and with the multitude of available channels of information it is
too easy to avoid bare-knuckle conflicts (even when exchanges become
hot).  In his view, the contexts which require organizing the most are
those which are going to be risky--where you might lose your job, face
retaliation, and, in some cases, get beaten.  And so, you need a tight
social relationship in which people are willing to sacrifice for each
other.  His efforts at organizing online were weak...  they generated
good talk among those who participated...  but they did not translate
into a strong group, unless the group was rooted in face-to-face

The view he articulated to me was basically the one that I had been
moving more closely to over the years--watching students organize an
organization with 200 members on facebook, and then showing up to an
empty meeting.  On the other hand, groups with no online presence can
have very active meetings.  Part of me wonders if there is a divide
between social media use in large metropolitan areas, where there are
lots of things going on... versus life in smaller cities and towns,
where people have more limited activities to choose from and less
money to spend on entertainment.  Maybe in big cities or among certain
demographic groups, social media "works" better.  Where I live and
teach, it tends to fall flat.  If I want someone to help out with
something, I have to put in face-to-face time.  I've lived in places
where you could choose from several Critical Mass bike rides to
attend...  but then there are huge swaths of territory where people
say, "Critical Mass?  What's that?"  And then, when you explain, they
say, "Why would you want to do that?"

To finally get to my point, and I'm not trying to say there is
anything wrong with Web 2.0 stuff, but I do think in terms of social
potential it requires the user to approach it with a certain set of
priorities, a certain consciousness, and a learned orientation.  IF
the learned orientation is geared towards a rudimentary form of
consumption, the space is going to be filled with similar priorities,
perhaps with a bit more detail and elaboration.  But it does not
inevitably lead towards anything utopian, except in the kind of
watered-down neoliberal sense where we call fun "utopia."  On the
other hand, if people habitually have robust relationships that are
tied to consequence, they are more likely to place those expectations
onto any medium that they are invested in.  Even if consumers become
"green consumers" or "hipsters" (or whatever the thing to do is)...
as long as "the good" is framed primarily as an enlightened approach
to individual consumer choices...  it will be hard to respond to
employers and corporations who coordinate their decision-making in an
integrated way, facilitated by market research, lobbying, finance,

In general, contemporary critical theory is frightened of tackling
concepts like guilt, sacrifice, duty, responsibility, etc.  Such
concepts are toxic to neoliberalism (except in those cases when they
can be exploited, like when neglected children learn to nag their
overworked parents into buying shit to make up for their absence), and
consequently, generations of people are afraid of these feelings.
But, if social media is going to work, it needs to be able to carry
consequences in proportion to risks.  If they are going to translate
into material effects, the virtual actions must be tied to embodied

How do we do this?  Well...  my brother-in-law does a great job
organizing people.  Educators have an opportunity to connect students
to this reality.  And, artists can do this in their work.
Unfortunately, there aren't enough organizers, artists, and educators
doing this.  It requires active effort and hard work by people who are
conscious of the problem.  More importantly, we need to imagine an
entire education which is geared towards fostering an ethical view
that is capable of seeing systems of power beyond individual

If the Internet is a factory, then maybe we should follow the model of
past efforts of successful organizing....  And this usually takes
place when the workers are off the clock, when they can have candid
discussions, and when they can get to know each other personally and
intimately.  Especially in the case of the web, where people can get
so caught up in posturing and image-management, it might be doubly
powerful to be cared for and accepted in the flesh, where we feel a
little flabbier and look a bit more blemished, where there is no
backspace to filter out a personality flaw.


Davin Heckman

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