Aristotle and the Internet  some social implications of the web

Aristotle, one of the great minds of antiquity, thought that the population of states could never grow larger than the few thousand who could be directly seen and addressed in one place. For how else could their leader address such a vast multitude, “unless he have the voice of a Stentor? … Clearly then, the best limit of the population of a state is the largest number which … can be taken in at a single view.” We can’t fault Aristotle for failing to anticipate developments in science like radio and television. In fact, we can learn from this statement one of the old Master’s most valuable lessons: technology has a way of transforming the problems of humankind.

The Internet is the latest technology to reshape our world. Netscape released the first web browser, Mosaic, in 1994. In the short amount of time since then, the web has moved from being the plaything of largely white, technical professionals to the largest, most highly trafficked communication medium and market in human history. It has transformed and touched nearly every aspect of our lives, including the way we work, shop, communicate, learn, collaborate, date and think. It’s changed the way we read the news, play games, listen to music and make friends. It’s also changed the way capitalists exploit, and the way activists act.

It’s facilitating the fluidity and interoperability of world markets, and it is accelerating the globalization of the relations of production. Today a company can have a corporate office in Dallas, a programming team in Colombia, a tech-support staff in India and a factory in China, with real-time digital information sharing and coordination between all of its branches. The development of the Internet has also proceeded side by side with the growth and monopolization of the telecommunications industry.

And, whether we like it or not, the Internet is begging us, the progressive movements, to re-examine our method and approach to membership, organizational forms, education and agitation. It’s given us the potential not just to reach millions with our message, but to engage many more people than we could have just 12 short years ago. It’s also presenting new fundraising opportunities that many of us have so far failed to capitalize on.

A brief history of i-time

The Internet actually started as a project of the U.S. Department of Defense during the 1970s, although it wasn’t until the early ’90s that a physicist developed HTML (a markup language for describing the layout of visual elements) and a web browser capable of rendering HTML into a human-readable display. This, in turn, led to the first mass distributed web browser, Mosaic, in 1994 and the explosion of content we now think of as the “World Wide Web.”

Originally, the Internet was seen as a world of alternatives. In 1996, 56 percent of all Internet users said they went online for “alternative sources of political news,” while only 18 percent went online because they found it convenient.

Yet by 2000, the Internet had already grown by leaps and bounds. Its user base had changed demographically: more and more low-income households were accessing the web, and women achieved gender parity.

The growth of this user base led to a mainstreaming of the Internet. All manner of corporations and organizations went online, and we quickly found that this digital world, in a lot of ways, mirrored our physical world. Working people embraced the web because they found in it a real and immediate payoff. They could communicate with friends and co-workers. They could read their favorite newspaper. They could shop at their favorite store. They could gamble at their favorite racetrack.

By 2004, 89 percent of those who read political news online found it at traditional news sources like The New York Times, and 48 percent did so because it was convenient.

Still, 33 percent of people who read the news online said they did so because they didn’t get all the information they needed from traditional news sources. Considering that in 2004, 70 million American adults went online on a typical day, 33 percent is an amazing number.

New activism

Over the past couple of decades, social scientists have started researching the 20th century phenomenon of “disengagement.” Since the end of World War II, Americans have participated less and less in all kinds of civic and social engagement, including political involvement, campaign activities and associational membership. In other words, people stopped voting, they stopped going to church, they stopped attending meetings, they stopped volunteering for campaigns and so on.

Although there is not yet any general consensus on the causes of this disengagement, several possible reasons explored include pressures of time and money, urban sprawl, suburbanization, commuting, and mass media and entertainment.

Yet today, from where I’m sitting, I believe we’re in the middle of a massive re-engagement of the American working class. But not just back into the traditional participatory forms they left. They’re also finding a host of new ways to connect through the growth of online activism.

Consider the 2006 elections and the participation of just one of a new host of online organizations: MoveOn. MoveOn set a goal of making 5 million get-out-the-vote phone calls during this election cycle. They had two primary phone banking methods: physical phone banks via weekend house parties and much larger virtual phone banks made up of volunteers calling from home.

How successful was MoveOn? For starters, 3.2 million people made phone calls for MoveOn, and their membership base grew by 450,000. They smashed their phone call goal with over 7 million phone calls. They raised and spent over $27 million, with over 250,000 members contributing $3.6 million to individual House races and another $2.8 million for targeted MoveOn television ads.

MoveOn members didn’t just throw their efforts behind the more obvious possible wins — they targeted another nine races that other progressive organizations wrote off as lost causes. And of those nine “unwinnable” races, Democrats won five.

Not only did MoveOn contribute to the defeat of the ultra-right in the House — they very well may have tipped the balance in the Senate through their efforts in the two closest Senate races. In Virginia, where Democrat Jim Webb’s margin of victory was a little over 7,000, MoveOn members made an amazing 500,000 phone calls! And in Montana, where Democrat John Tester won by only 1,700 votes, MoveOn members made another 73,000 phone calls.

I write all of this not to simply praise MoveOn’s results (although they do deserve praise). More importantly, MoveOn, and other organizations like it, have shown us the value of online organizing.

MoveOn approaches people online. And they start by engaging people exactly where they found them; they give people the chance to participate in online campaigns by e-mailing and e-faxing representatives or donating money for TV ads or electoral campaigns. And they’ve proved that these basic forms of online activism, particularly online fundraising, are wildly successful. It’s now possible, by utilizing the Internet’s ability to cast a massive net quickly and inexpensively around a potential membership base, to raise millions of dollars, and to flood our elected representatives with e-mails, faxes and phone calls when it counts.

Most importantly, MoveOn doesn’t stop there. It doesn’t have to end with this basic, quick, online activity, which typically involves little more than a few mouse clicks and some light typing, or maybe a quick call to your congressional representative. They’ve proven that it’s possible to take people a step further: to draw them in to traditional, time-tested forms of activism (like the physical phone banks, protests, etc.) or to entirely new organizational forms made possible by the Internet (like the virtual phone banks and e-town hall meetings).

In sum, MoveOn has found a way to aggregate all of those tiny slices of time that people are willing to give up, which by themselves couldn’t effect change, but together create something much more powerful than the sum of their parts. And they’ve complemented traditional organizational forms with new ones, giving people new tools and new voices for change, entirely independent of any geographical constraints of the participants.

What should we do?

MoveOn is one of many organizations on the cutting edge of online activism. But so many more progressive organizations, many with a long history and years of experience, have not yet taken the plunge. A lot of traditional progressive organizations have viewed their Internet work as secondary (at best), and made little effort to analyze the impact of the Internet and find ways to integrate it into a comprehensive organizational paradigm.

We need a larger discussion in the progressive movements as a whole and within our own individual organizations about our work on the Internet. We need to apply our social sciences to analyze the Internet, and gauge all of its implications for society at large. We have to look at our own organizational forms, and view with a self-critical eye our methods of organizing and education and our structure. Lastly, we need a clear picture of where we’re at, how far we’ve come and where we want to go.

Matt Parker is system administrator for the Communist Party USA.some social implications of the web.