[iDC] Introduction: The Internet as Playground and Factory

Michael Gurstein gurstein at gmail.com
Mon Jun 8 17:14:35 UTC 2009

I'm very interested in Davin Heckman's observations but from a somewhat
different angle.  

I've worked quite extensively with aboriginal/indigenous people in various
parts of the world who in very many cases are seeing Information and
Communications Technologies (ICTs) as a powerful new instrument for
supporting their various initiatives to, for example retain land rights,
overcome the externally imposed artificial barriers of national boundaries,
support them in developing place-anchored services such as education and
health care particularly in remote and rural areas and so on.

Additionally, there are a number of instances of strongly (socially)
integrated place based communities particularly in Less Developed Countries
which are using ICTs as resources for developing local autonomy/empowerment
and to support local social and economic development. In fact, I and others,
working within the broad framework of what is coming to be known as
"community informatics" argue that these types of applications and uses are
among the most significant forms of "resistance" in an Information Society
and should be understood as in dialectical opposition to the technological
determinism towards the "networked individualism" of Barry Wellman and other
commentators on technology and culture in modern urban societies.

My own take on this discussion can be found in
and the overall discussion and related researech can be found in various of
the articles published in the Journal of Community Informatics



Michael Gurstein, Ph.D.
Director: Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and
Vancouver, CANADA
CA tel. +1-604-602-0624

-----Original Message-----
From: idc-bounces at mailman.thing.net [mailto:idc-bounces at mailman.thing.net]
On Behalf Of davin heckman
Sent: Monday, June 08, 2009 8:48 AM
To: idc at mailman.thing.net
Subject: Re: [iDC] Introduction: The Internet as Playground and Factory

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, etc.

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 responses.

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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