An in-depth analysis of Twitter from a radical perspective.
I created a Twitter account during the planning phase of the protest surrounding the 2008 Republican Nation Convention. I had heard about it's text-to-phone cababilities and thought it might be useful to help organize the protesters and provide them with up-to-the-minute logistics while they were in the streets. This still seems like a potentially viable use of the system (capable of bringing flashmobs to a whole new level), but I had neither the time nor the technical understanding before the protest to make a serious push in this direction. I simply posted a prescient "tee hee" tweet and abandoned the endeavor.
Since then I have learned more about Twitter.com and I have revived my account in an effort to increase my web presence and spur discussion about radical politics. I continue to network with other radicals and enjoy sharing and spreading useful and interesting information.
Twitter from a revolutionary perspective...
A problem I see with this, particularly as a radical political activist, is that there still exists the very real possibility (in the conceivable future) of a very totalitarian and fascistic crackdown on revolutionary organizing and dissent. Twitter is not wholly responsible for this, of course, but it is a part of the larger technical communication apparatus which evermore seems to be recording all publicly expressed opinions and the networks of friends who may share those opinions. With this in mind, I wonder if radicals are exposing themselves too carelessly and I wonder if their use of computerized mass communication systems actually serves the greater good in the long run.
Many of the people who use Twitter probably don't care one wit about the greater good -- some may not care about anything, even themselves. But even amongst those people who do care about their fellow beings, and the global environment, etc., a question remains... Are they imbibed with a true understanding of the world's problems and do they have the focused skills to do anything about them?
General Technological Problems
I'll get back to a more Twitter-specific analyis in moment, but first I want to point out that several dire problems of civilization continue to get worse despite our technological know-how and our advanced communication systems.
In part I believe this because destructive forces/actions often trump sustainable activities like the europeans invading the new world. For a couple more examples to make my point... it only takes one person (or organization) dumping poisonous dioxins into the local water supply for that supply to be wholly and completely ruined -- even if everyone else in the community was very conscientious about living sustainably and not doing such things. Similarly, in the the extreme possibility, it would only take a small group of people launching nuclear weapons to bring about an unspeakable catastrophe -- even if the vast majority of people in the world had no desire for such an event to transpire. Even without great numbers, our technological capabilities have made it possible for a smaller group of committed individuals to greatly change things for the worse (my apologies to Margaret Mead). So all social justice movements and environmentalist groups would be rendered completely irrelevant if they were overpowered by the advanced weaponry of a much small group (or if that group created and released an imminently destructive force upon the environment).
A second problem, related to the previous, has to do with Thoreau's famous axiom that "there are thousands hacking at the branches of evil to one who striking at the root." As we sail today on our technological Ship of Fools this has never been more true. People form groups and write passionately about not kicking puppies, rising tuition costs, and stopping spousal abuse -- and all of these things may be very important -- but pre-eminent bodies of scientists and Nobel laureates have warned us that humanity all but faces extinction in the next 100 years. Hundreds of millions are starving RIGHT NOW, wars ravage the lands of millions more, and this hardly begins to touch on the hundreds of millions more who are literally toiling their lives away in sweatshop factories. These problems have become more prevalent during the advancement of techno-industrial civilization and yet some of us still cling to the discredited idea of progress.
You'll have to forgive me if I've gotten a little riled up, but here I sit in front of my computer listening to Crass songs with a visceral feeling of disgust and hypocrisy. But regarding my hypocrisy... that doesn't mean I can't or shouldn't recognize the problems and at least I recognize my complicity while owning up to it.
More On Twitter (& computer networks in general)
As mentioned earlier, Twitter is the latest advancement of George Orwell's "memory hole" concept. For the majority of proles this will never matter but, evermore, our ideas and networks of friends are permanently recorded on massive hard drives in the bowels of massive skyscrapers. The problem with this isn't so much that you'll fail to get a job because of some risque old Myspace picture but, rather, that you might have expressed an idea that a future regime doesn't like -- or perhaps you seem to have associated too closely with someone who expressed those ideas. It's like the problem with widespread surveillance camera's... The problem isn't that they reduce crime or make us act like puritans -- the problem is that an extremely repressive regime may someday come to power and then have total control over the surveillance apparatus previously installed.
But let's assume somehow that we will never ever get a (more) repressive government... There are still other social ramifications associated with the use of Twitter and computer communications in general.
Earlier I mentioned the idea of a small group wielding immense technological power over the general masses and this concept still applies even if they aren't intending to use that power for our immediate and utter annihilation. The endless promotion of consumerism, for example, is a problem in itself. You or I may or may not be susceptible to various forms of mass marketing, but the masses obviously are. The increased prevalence of personal computers has been ushered in with even greater levels of consumption. Marketing has never been a more exact science, delivery of products has become streamlined, and product production has been facilitated by internet communication systems. In the U.S., and abroad, consumerism has reached new heights and will likely survive all but the worst of economic collapses -- and at that point this article will seem hackneyed and passe. If humanity as a whole continues to consume as much as we can, as fast as we can... the environmental consequence are sure to be devastating. The prudent conservation of a few will matter very little. Moderate conservation will matter even less if we are still using computer networks that inevitably work to promote consumerism to our fellows.
Defensive Arguments of Technological Neutrality
One will argue that articles such as this one prove the potential good computer networks like Twitter can do. However... not only are we still faced with the widespread typical uses of such a system, there is still the possibility that this article is too tame (along with any similar articles that actually get read). This article might be too mild and fall ideologically short of the necessary critical assessment of our circumstances. Your less than humble author is, after all, still immersed in this system and is something of a product himself in that regard. Humans are the most domesticated animal and I worry that all those cartoons in my youth may have made me, and consequently this analysis, too tame.
This brings me to my next point... what is the broad psychosocial effect of this long immersion in these technological systems of media and communication? We can't just assume that the effects of the last 50 years of media immersion will stop being consequential simply because we now sit in front of monitors instead of televisions. For example... the standards of beauty created by the television studios won't simply cease to be our standard of beauty today. And that's a very physiological effect on our innate sexuality. More to the point... the ideological indoctrination will not cease to have an effect now that hordes of Joe Bloggers give us the same ideological perspective that has always been promoted by the corporate state in the schools, history books, and television studious. Sure, you can find ideological niches of liberation and social critique in some online circles but the shallow, the mundane, and the reactionary are still the norm -- even on Twitter.
The Technological Bias on Twitter and Beyond
One of the greatest ideological biases of out time regards the blind aforementioned faith in technological progress. Since the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and since the widespread acceptance of personal computers into the majority of American homes, technological criticism has become evermore lost in a virtual sea of advertisements for the latest gadget or pill.
One can hardly find a truly qualitative critique of technological advancement unless they look very thoroughly and with formal philosophical studies in their background to guide their assessments (of course why would anyone want to look for such a thing anyway?). Most of the critiques conclude that technology is a neutral tool and if we try a little harder to be moral then everything will be fine with it. Obviously I disagree and find that assessment to be overly simplistic.
On twitter such discussions are bound to be limited because most of the users have accepted the use of computers in our daily lives and have completely brought into the pro-tech paradigm. But one of my most telling online experiences regarding the technology debate took place around the wikipedia article about technology. There were two pictures on the page which I attempted to change in an effort to challenge the neutrality claims of the other editors. One was of an astronaut floating serenely in space (as the headline image) and the other was a picture of an idyllic old-fashion windmill with a nuclear power plant in the background. Respectively I tried to replace these with a photo of a mushroom cloud and a picture of the melted down husk of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. I feel like I made a strong case for these edits since e=mc2 and it's weaponized results were more significant than high altitude orbiting (and even contributed to space travel) while the Chernobyl image balanced the other benign, neutral, and positive images on the page. Not surprisingly, these edits didn't stick, but I do think they illustrated the lack of neutrality and the positive spin put on technology.
A Closing Look at Twitter
(If you've read this far, congratulations -- I'm surprised your technologically stunted attention span held out for this long. I'd be even more surprised if you retained any recollection of the points I was trying to make. It's somewhat improbable that you found this article at all.)
Twitter strikes me as little more than a large recorded chatroom. How anyone could possibly read all the links posted from even 100 average users is beyond me (perhaps they're already cyborgs and don't know it). I suppose one wouldn't have to read all the links but then it just seems like one could search more directly for the information they're interested in without having to wait for some to tweet about it. Twitter might serve some limited good in specific situations but, overall, it just seems to be the newest medium for dishing out pop culture drivel (and I don't care what Aston Kutcher is doing today or what CNN says is news). The only thing that would change my mind about Twitter is if this article about it brought 10,000 unique visitors to my blog -- and I dare you tweeters to make that happen! I'd still probably end up being a little skeptical of the whole thing.