[iDC] Introduction: The Internet as Playground and Factory

davin heckman davinheckman at gmail.com
Mon Jun 15 15:20:56 UTC 2009

Not to keep harping on the same point, but I think the fine
distinctions are important here.

I think the examples that you refer to (Linux and P2P foundation), you
have a high degree of technical competence and a community which tends
to have a strong social investment in this technology arising in its
material consequences.  It makes sense that programmers, in the case
of Linux, who are able to recognize and discern the traces of other's
labor as manifested in code to their own livelihood, but then to also
suture those persons that they uncover back into prior social
experience.   My concern with a lot of the social organizing online is
that its theory tends to originate in people who have one set of
relationships to technology, and the bonding not only centers on
social activity, but on the idea of technology playing a role in
social activity.  The translocal activity is supported by the
certainty that the work is likely to produce consequences for people
who we "know" are real, who depend on our actions, and who are also
doing things for us.

On the other hand, many of the weak online social organizations do not
require the same degree of technical ability.  There is less
appreciation for technical virtuosity...  and so the level at which
people are using the technology, deconstructing, and "hacking" it
(thereby creating their own critical practice) is less probable.

To revert to talk about an old technology....  my students who read
and write a lot are more likely to use reading and writing as a means
of communication.  Furthermore, they are more likely to engage in the
critical practice of using tradition and innovation.  Currently, I
don't know that this level of literacy translates over to the web.
Sure, there people who are able to write in the new form, but for
most, tech. literacy is really a read-only proposition.  And the sort
of "multitasking," "short attention span" sort of literacy, while it
is widely celebrated as the revolutionary new way of being by people
with a vested interested in it, it also influences the opposition to
"vested interests".  Everywhere, we hear artists and educators talking
about this new way of thinking and learning, and the impossibility of
older forms of social organization...  Which, of course, is a
self-fulfilling prophecy.  The general result, is a sort of "gamer"
mentality, which harnesses people's boredom and dissatisfaction, and
says, well, you can do something about it, utopia is yours to create
or destroy, and the only cost to you is a little time, concentration,
and, of course, the pertinent fees.

I worry that waiting for the next bit of technology or the next
application is going to lead us where it always has.  It's probably
passe to reference Ellul, but Ellul's gripe with the "technological
society" was that we have such abundant faith in technology to release
people from suffering and injustice without any sacrifice or guilt,
that we miss the mundane things we can do right now.  In his day, he
was talking about industrial technologies to, say, solve hunger, even
as it was possible to feed the world with existing sources of food.

In our own time, I think the solutions and ambitions of our authentic
techno-utopians are more modest and incomplete (sometimes, purely,
intellectual and imaginary)...even as the actual technologies
(particularly in areas like genetic engineering, RFID, pharmaceutical,
and, as always, warfare) of the powerful are rather staggering...  I
find myself going back to Ellul in this regard.  Not to say that
technology has no place in this equation, but that it should not
distract from what we can do with our hands, feet, mouths, and minds.
If we will ever have power to change the world, we have it now.

Where this type of view might fit with the sort of work that you are
doing...  is not to discourage it...  but to ground it.  I would hate
to disparage the earnest efforts of people who are striving to improve
human life and agency in those areas where they are likely to have the
most impact.  But success resides in our ability to tie virtual
actions to real actions, and to avoid the sort of thinking which says,
"What is real, anyways?  It's all real!"  Because, there is a
difference between the sophistry which declares something "real" by
fiat, to prove its own importance, and those symbolic actions which
are real because they effect people at an existential level.  And the
baseline measure should not be the existential anxieties of people who
cannot tell the difference between the world and theory, the baseline
should be always the hard focus on the fact that through our actions
or inaction, people are dying, that existence itself is threatened by
the current trajectory of civilization.



On Mon, Jun 15, 2009 at 9:49 AM, Michael Bauwens<michelsub2003 at yahoo.com> wrote:
> Hi Davin,
> there is indeed a strong dialectic between the offline and online contacts, but I would insist that the internet has enabled a whole new layer of affinity based translocal organizing, which was perhaps possible before, but at a much higher 'treshold' cost, necessitating strong organizations which took years to build ...
> In the case of the p2p foundation, definitely the online came first, and on top of that, a community is being slowly formed, people are meeting each other, etc ... It seems Linux started in the same way, first by an online appeal, then by building a movement with people who would eventually meet ...
> Michel
> ----- Original Message ----
>> From: davin heckman <davinheckman at gmail.com>
>> To: Michael Bauwens <michelsub2003 at yahoo.com>
>> Cc: "idc at mailman.thing.net" <idc at mailman.thing.net>
>> Sent: Sunday, June 14, 2009 1:14:14 AM
>> Subject: Re: [iDC] Introduction: The Internet as Playground and Factory
>> I agree with you, actually.  (Which is why I am on this list.  I do
>> not know any of the people face to face, but I do feel a strong sense
>> of affection and solidarity, especially when exchanges get personal
>> and force us to be present, responsible, and accountable to each
>> other).
>> I think, however, that the prerequisite for strong online organization
>> is successful experience to some physical experience.  I am skeptical
>> about the idea online activism could precede "live" activism.  A
>> large, diverse, and successful political action is a very hard thing
>> to pull off....  and the rewards are often realized in subtle ways...
>> especially if you "lose."  The sense of danger, the feelings of
>> dependence, the way in which individual limitations are transcended
>> through solidarity, and how disappointments lead to other positives.
>> But through all this you learn how to be an activist.  It changes who
>> you are, becomes a part of your being.  (And in a small community,
>> especially, it marks you as a particular kind of person, which has its
>> downsides, but also ups the ante in a good way.)  And, then you kind
>> of have to seek other people out and connect with them....  which is
>> where, I think, social media comes in.
>> Peace!
>> Davin
>> On Fri, Jun 12, 2009 at 10:59 PM, Michael
>> Bauwens wrote:
>> >
>> >
>> >
>> >
>> > Hi David,
>> >
>> > I'm very sympathetic to your point of view, rooted in struggle and real life
>> experience, and indeed, social media is no panacea.
>> >
>> > However, it seems your example is rooted in local organizing, but what about
>> the translocal.
>> >
>> > I wouldn't want to overstate the community aspects of my own work at the P2P
>> Foundation, but I see it as a forum for serious discourse and exchange, aimed at
>> 'changing the world', and I have enough anecdotal evidence, emails sent by many
>> people, to indicate that is has sustained hope and strength in many different
>> people.
>> >
>> > So, actually, in the end, I do not agree, discouraging people from using
>> social media is pretty much like discouraging people from using TV, it won't
>> work, because it offers too many benefits. So I would rather say, go with the
>> use (no use to push people at all, they are all doing it by themselves anyway),
>> but try to change that use, by infusing consciousness, a sense of the possible,
>> and a sense that new futures can be co-constructed, both f2f and through social
>> media.
>> >
>> > But indeed, I also object to just "playing around", signing petitions that
>> have no effect at all, etc...
>> >
>> > There is I think something in between the two positions,
>> >
>> > Michel
>> >
>> >
>> > ----- Original Message ----
>> >> From: davin heckman
>> >> To: "idc at mailman.thing.net"
>> >> Sent: Monday, June 8, 2009 10:47:52 PM
>> >> 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
>> >> relationships.
>> >>
>> >> 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
>> >> decisions.
>> >>
>> >> 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.
>> >>
>> >> Peace!
>> >>
>> >> Davin Heckman
>> >>
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