With all the rhetoric around “Facebook Revolutions” and “Twitter Revolutions”1 that we’ve had to endure over the last couple of years, it’s easy to get the sense that there’s something new about the character of contemporary political protest and revolutionary action, and that this newness is, in some fundamental way, the practical result of the omnipresent nature of technology. It’s difficult to miss the profound interweaving and enmeshing of the physical and digital aspects of protest as we see it in both the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street – the weight of the protests produced by the occupation of physical space by gathered human bodies, coupled with the constant documentation and nearly instantaneous sharing of images, video, and text that have chronicled these physical occupations and arguably helped them to grow – in short, the augmented nature of contemporary social action. We see this and to us it feels new. Even if we recognize that there are old things at work here – symbolism, patterns of mobilization and diffusion, pieces of the past reclaimed for the purpose of the present – we at least feel instinctively that there is something novel about the Arab Spring, Occupy, and all the other movements and events that have birthed themselves in correlation.
And these things are novel. But they are also events produced by history, and we should be conscious of history when we examine them. Augmented dissent and revolution in its basic form is not new, nor are the patterns of mobilization and diffusion that we see coalescing around it. Rather, what we see in Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring are the results of hundreds of years of evolution in human communication, ideology, and organization. They are also the latest chapter in the story of the complex relationship between humans and technology, and what happens in the realm of intersection of the two.
The Spring of Nations
1848 was a tumultuous year for Europe. In the span of mere months, political upheaval that began in France had spread to Germany, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Switzerland and the Hapsburg Empire, and even to parts of Latin America. The causes were widely varying and extremely complex, and it’s difficult to draw them together into a coherent whole. Nevertheless, some commonalities emerge. Many European nations were experiencing a population boom that led to shortages of food and other resources; this, coupled with increasing industrialization, led to a rush for the cities and the jobs that people hoped might be found there. Fraught rifts between the European nobility and absolutist rulers, along with increasing pushes for liberal governmental reform, helped to create an atmosphere conducive to political change.
But what also helped fuel the working class uprisings of 1848 was technology.
By 1848, the printing press was not exactly a new invention. But that period saw a boom in the popular press, as well as in pamphlets and leaflets espousing radical political ideology. Socialism and communism experienced significant growth in followers, arguably in significant part because of the ease and cheapness of printing and distributing ideological material.
It’s vital that this point not be understated. Benedict Anderson has pointed to the printing press as a powerful tool in the task of nation-building – in creating common ideas and meanings, conceptual artifacts against and around which people can situate themselves as a group. But this isn’t only done in the service of nations. Print media helped the working classes of Europe to explicitly identify themselves as such, and to understand what exactly was meant by “working class”. Common understandings of the meanings of democracy, citizenship, nationalism, and government were all spread – and solidified – through print. Along with this came the ideas of what was due to people who identified themselves as “citizens”, as “workers”, or as “the People” – ideas of what claims they could appropriately make on power.
We can draw clear lines between this and the spread of the idea of the “99%” vs. the “1%” in Occupy Wall Street. The words are not just numbers or descriptions of segments of the population differentiated by wealth, but are rather symbolic representations of an incredibly complex and deeply adversarial social relationship that encompasses socioeconomic status, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, and a multitude of other things. And most of us probably first encountered the terms on a digital device.
Once the political uprisings of 1848 were under way, they spread in significant part through groups in one state watching the actions of groups in another state. Print media not only allowed people to mobilize around common identities and political claims, but also, through international news, to see what worked for others. The success of the uprising in France and the abdication of King Louis Philippe emboldened and encouraged revolutionary groups elsewhere. Again, we can draw a direct comparison between this and the spread of civil unrest outward from Tunisia in the Arab Spring; when people saw the Tunisian regime fall in the face of massive popular protest, it expanded the boundaries of what they perceived to be possible. And once again, the spread of the news happened largely through digital means.
The revolutions of 1848 can therefore be understood as augmented revolutions, albeit augmented in a different sense than we experience now. They were ideologically fueled by the intermeshing of humanity and technology, and once they had begun, they spread through that intermeshing, through communication via print and the very expansion of the conceptual world. The technologically-enabled expansion of perceived possibility and identity formation arguably helped lead to action that might otherwise not have occurred. Once more, this is not new.
Augmented Action, Evolved
So does that mean that nothing is new about the Arab Spring or Occupy? Hardly. The augmented nature of collective action in its most basic form may not be new, but we can still pick out features of this generation of it that represent progression from the past.
Most obvious – and probably most important – is the sheer speed at which these processes and mechanisms operate. Human social movement follows rhythms and patterns, ebbs and flows. At times of crisis and high pressure, those patterns can reach a fever pitch: a collective effervescence of claims-making. In 1848, a successful uprising in France might help to spur one in Hungary, but it would likely take days if not weeks for the news to reach other groups. Now the spread of information is nearly instantaneous. A protest is violently put down in an afternoon; by the evening, one can see solidarity demonstrations in multiple other nations. People act and react more quickly and more fluidly in response to new information, to changing perceptions of opportunity and threat. The heartbeat of collective action has sped up.
Coordination across large distances is another practical result of the increased speed of information sharing. In 1848, though the choices of political actors were affected by what they saw other political actors doing, this process happened much too slowly for coordination between states to be much of a factor, if it even happened at all. But now protesters in multiple different countries call a day of protest, and over 900 cities worldwide take part.
An additional difference lies in the question of who produces the sharing of information, and for what audience. In 1848, the press was much more of a popular institution than it had been previously, but not everyone was by any means a journalist, and not everyone was capable of reading a newspaper. But now we live in an atmosphere of ambient documentation. The unseen gaze of others permeates our lives; we watch and we are watched. This has incredibly powerful implications for the documentation of collective action, especially collective action of a spectacular nature – which large street protests clearly are. We see and experience these things not only through the top-down view of traditional news media, but through the “eyes” of participants on the ground, often as the events themselves are unfolding.2 More than ever before, we’re there even when we’re not.
Finally, and interestingly, the relationship between protesters and the technology through which they shared information about their protests was much less ambivalent in 1848 than it appears to be now. The Occupy movement features an implicit critique of high technology that the movements in 1848 were lacking – the intersection realm of human and technology was considerably less blurry, omnipresent, and laden with power and capitalist consumption, and therefore less fraught.
So what does this mean for the future of social movements and geopolitics? If technology can help create unstable political situations – moments of “critical juncture” – and also enable events within those moments to move ever faster, it may be that critical junctures themselves will occur more quickly and more intensely, with a more rapid geographical spread. What remains to be seen is what can emerge from those moments of upheaval. While some of the uprisings of 1848 resulted in political change, none of them can be characterized as a truly successful social revolution. While movements in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt have all succeeded in bringing about varying degrees of regime change, the futures of Tunisia and Libya remain an open question, and Egypt has once more exploded into protest. The long-term impact of Occupy is yet to be decided.
It has been suggested that technology, while excellent at producing moments of breakage and critical juncture, may be less effective at producing stable outcomes. While history provides context for how we got to where we are now, it unfortunately provides little clear guidance regarding what might be coming next.
1 Can we please stop it with the “_____ Revolution” thing? Seriously.
2 This has additionally powerful implications for emotional engagement and collective effervescence sans physical co-presence, about which I plan to write more.