The right to petition the government for redress of grievances is a significant part of the Constitution of the United States. Not only is it yet another way in which citizens can shape the form that governance takes, but it specifies a particular relationship between those citizens and that government, one that – along with several other specified rights – legally establishes a public sphere as an arena within issues of politics can be debated and potentially translated into changes in policy. But petitions didn’t start with the Constitution. Nor are they abstract components of an abstract set of rights. Rather, they’re grounded in the history of technology – specifically communications technology – and are arguably an intrinsic part of the development of what we understand as an augmented society. Moreover, the birth of petitions as an intrinsic part of the construction of the public sphere has implications for how we understand contemporary augmented social movements (Occupy being a particular example).
Probably the most in-depth examination of petitions-as-technology is a 1996 article (later a book) by David Zaret, and it’s worth summarizing before I move on to my primary point. Zaret’s argument is essentially that technologies of mass printing and accompanying shifts in the political structure of 17th century England brought the practice of petitioning out of its normative secrecy and into the hands of the public at large. The practical implications of this were A) the establishment of a specific open arena for political debate, propaganda, and lobbying for policy change; B) an early form of the more modern democratic public sphere, and C) the dawn of authority derived from public opinion rather than the preferences of an elite few.
This last is probably the most important for this piece. What’s dramatic about that development is that it anticipates most of the appeals to authority used tactically by recent and contemporary social movements, from the push for women’s enfranchisement to the Civil Rights era to ACT-UP to Occupy Wall Street. The legitimacy of democracy is – in theory, at least – founded on the idea of government by the people; governance shaped by the power and, more importantly, the legitimacy of public opinion is a relatively recent idea.
Moreover, this development most likely wouldn’t have been possible except by changes in printing technology. Prior to mass printing it was too expensive and time-consuming to circulate petitions, leaflets, or books to the general public, even if people were inclined to do so. Once printing on a large scale was cheap and relatively easy, wide circulation of printed political material became not only possible but necessary. Public opinion was no longer at worst a minor annoyance and at best something that could be safely ignored. Instead it was a valuable tactical tool for anyone who wanted to affect political change. It became a tool with moral weight, the idea that paying heed to the people resulted in more just government. In essence, therefore, technology not only forged a new relationship between people and government but altered the nature of that relationship and the source of the legitimacy of government itself.
This is all to say that contemporary augmented social movements/revolutions are functioning on the basis of some very old tactical assumptions – that their legitimacy is not only derived from ethical considerations in general but specifically on the basis of the moral authority of numbers. And just as petitions provided an arena for those numbers to make themselves explicit, the internet and digital technology provide a powerful locus for the expression of the same authority of numbers. There are a lot of us, Occupy argued. Therefore you should pay attention. Therefore our claims are legitimate. Philip Howard’s work on ICTs and Middle Eastern political cultures argues the same: that technology provides for a kind of public sphere that would probably not be possible, at least not in the same way, in the context of even very repressive regimes.
It’s worth noting that visibility is a vital part of these technologically augmented claims to the authority of numbers. Petitions made numbers explicit through the signing (and occasionally the forging) of names; there are a lot of us was no longer the only argument, but instead became you can count us and see for yourself. With television – and more recently technologies that encourage constant and ambient documentation – visibility takes on a new, and often vaguer weight. Specific numbers are less important but the visual spectacle of physical presence is more powerful. Witness images of mass protest during the Civil Rights movement and the encampments of Occupy; analog/digital documentation of the occupation of physical space provides new forms of moral appeal to numbers.
We can see elements of the same process in the recent election. Appeals to numbers aren’t just tactics for affecting political change; they’re also indicators of political trends – backed up when those numbers move beyond the realm of claimsmaking and into real countable votes. The Right made certain appeals to moral authority on a number of social issues; the response by the majority of the public was okay, but no. And this response was arguably a moral counter-claim in itself.
To focus more explicitly on digital technology, appeals to numbers are even implicit in the prevalence of politically inspired memes. As Nathan Jurgenson notes, memes may often be silly and facile but they are also often critiques of the political content of the election itself; they are discursive responses to discourse. And a meme’s power is derived at least in part by its digital visibility; the more one sees it, the more powerful an appeal to public opinion it makes. When Romney’s “women in binders” was translated into memetic terms and went viral, the general takeaway was that a significant percentage of the public found his argument not only unconvincing but patently ridiculous – worthy of public ridicule.
But again, my point – as it often is when I talk about these things – is that the basic tactics, and their claims to legitimacy, are not actually all that new. Even when the forms change the old roots remain, and we should bear those roots in mind whenever we consider the intersections of technology and political change. As we on this blog have often noted, technology is not design-neutral; the forms it takes determine the forms that other things take, and, in particular, who is empowered and privileged in any given situation. These kinds of technology help to place at least the appearance of political focus on public opinion. That’s not all they do. That’s not even what they actually do in a lot of cases. And that’s not to say that they’ll always continue to do so in future.