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The Machine Changes, the Work Remains the Same

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When I first got involved in left/radical political organizing in the 1990s, I don't recall any of us referring to our efforts as "phone activism" or calling ourselves "fax activists." A friend who started organizing in the early 1960s assured me that he never heard the term "mimeograph activism" in those days. We used telephones, fax machines, and mimeographs in our organizing work, but the machines didn't define our work and we didn't spend a lot of time arguing about the implications of using them.

Today the terms "online activism" and "internet activist" are common, as are discussions about the positive and negative effects of computer-mediated communication (CMC) on left/progressive political organizing (See interview with Joss Hands on "Activism in a digital culture"). Is CMC so dramatically different, or is the left simply caught up in the larger culture's obsession with life online? I will start with observations that likely are not controversial, and then step back to frame the question in ways that may not be widely accepted.

Two basic points:

First, CMC makes possible the distribution of information to a larger number of people at lower financial cost than previous technologies (though the ecological cost of a communication technology that creates highly toxic e-waste and consumes enormous amounts of energy may make this technology prohibitively expensive in the long run) and allows for easier and faster feedback from the recipients of that information.

Second, while the technology is too new for definitive assertions, there is a seductive quality to CMC that leads some groups and individuals to spend too much of their time and resources online, even when there's ample reason to suspect that expense of energy isn't productive.

Two corollary cautions:

First, political information is not political action. Being able to distribute more information more widely more quickly does not automatically lead to people acting on that information. The information must be presented in ways that lead people to believe they should act, and there must be vehicles for that action.

Second, what appears to be wasting time online is not always a waste of time. Just as we solidify bonds with people face-to-face by chatting about the mundane aspects of our lives, we sometimes do that online. Political organizing -- like all of life -- includes such interaction.


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