When Michael Moore came to address the occupiers of Wall Street, he had no access to a mic and speakers to make himself heard. He had no access to a bullhorn. New York City requires a permit for “amplified sound”–they require permission from authority for a particular use of public space. But #occupy is all about reclaiming public space–they demand to be heard, and they won’t ask for permission to speak. But even given that many of the participants of #occupy are in full possession of smartphones, verbal address to the crowd from a singular source is still important. And the restrictions on amplification made that difficult.
So #occupy did what #occupy seems to do: They organized.
Moore didn’t need access to a bullhorn. He spoke in short bursts of words, and the crowd around him repeated them at the top of their lungs. In this way–slow and fragmentary and not always entirely understandable, but loud nevertheless–the message spread. Using what has been dubbed “the human microphone”, the participants of #occupy have given speeches, held meetings and reached consensus, and spread important information. Working together, they’ve built a workaround.
To an observer, this may appear to be a low-tech solution to the problem of technology’s absence. But the human microphone should be understood as a technology in itself. Language is one of the most fundamental forms of technology that we possess; the ability to organize around a specific task is another. These are the building blocks on which other technologies are constructed.They are foundational in every important sense. And when the technologies above them are removed somehow, the foundational elements remain embedded and embodied in our cyborg bodies and brains.
In the case of #occupy, technology is aiding protest in ways that go beyond and beneath smartphones and social media. #occupy is not unique in this respect; these are the technologies around which protests have been organized since the beginning of contentious politics. In addition to the technology of language and speech, the occupiers are printing their own newspaper–now at a print run of 70,000. #occupy therefore stands as a fabulous example of the confluence of many forms of technology in aid of both the use of public space and the “amplification” of voices. Social media and the internet are undeniably extremely powerful and special attention should be paid to them, but the spoken and the printed word clearly also have an important part to play.
It is interesting to note, as The Nation’s Richard Kim does, that the human microphone is intensely participatory; it cannot be co-opted by one person with one specific interest, because the components of the microphone must consent to their own participation. In that sense it helps to build and maintain a feeling of consensus in an environment that many have framed as ideologically fractured and unclear. The lack of amplified sound might have been predicted to weaken #occupy; instead it has arguably contributed to its strength. This should point the way toward a further idea: that when many people come together, we should be sensitive to unexpected technology working in unexpected ways.