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Protest Infatuation and the 4th Wave of Democratization (1)

In part one of David Sasaki's essay on the roles of technology, social networks and social activism in democratization, he questions several popular notions around the use of technology by young activists, and compares today's protests with the movement of

by David Sasaki On January 2, 2012

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Along with David Brooks, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Jad Abumrad, Kurt Anderson belongs to my select fraternity of idealized, intellectual American man-crush. So I was kinda, well, crushed when I read his cover story for this year’s Time Person of the Year. Like the rest of mainstream media’s coverage of social change in 2011, Anderson had little more to offer than 7,000 words of blanket infatuation for the telegenic, rock-slinging protesters without any critical analysis of what has actually changed, and what it means for the future.

He begins and ends the essay with references to Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 The End of History, which argues that the “third wave of democracy” (from the late 1960′s on) represents the final wave of democratization.

Then Anderson compares the wave of 2011 global protests to 1848:

It was, in other words, unlike anything in any of our lifetimes, probably unlike any year since 1848, when one street protest in Paris blossomed into a three-day revolution that turned a monarchy into a republican democracy and then — within weeks, thanks in part to new technologies (telegraphy, railroads, rotary printing presses) — inspired an unstoppable cascade of protest and insurrection in Munich, Berlin, Vienna, Milan, Venice and dozens of other places across Europe

He is seemingly suggesting that the 2011 protests represent more than the “countercultural pageant” of 1968; that they are actually the beginning of the fourth wave of democratization. The continuation, as it were, of history.

All year the media (new and old) have obsessed over protest, prancing from one social media-fueled wave of anger to the next. As soon as a new angry mob emerges, all former protests are left in the abyss of the forgotten. In his essay for Time magazine, Anderson had the opportunity to look back over the dozens of major protest movements around the globe this year and ask the one crucial question that no one else seems interested in: Where are they now?

But he doesn’t and few have. So I offer this essay, which first appeared in Digital AlterNatives, as an attempt to both complicate and clarify how we understand the roles of technology, social networks, and social activism in democratization.

I do believe that, after twenty years of “democratic slumber,” we are indeed entering a “fourth wave of democratization.” But the 2011 protests are merely a symptom of the disease; not a diagnosis and certainly not the cure. To improve democracy we need the smartest young activists to be working in government, not out on the streets protesting against it. We need more of the types of projects described by Micah Sifry in WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency. We need more citizens educating Congress, not just criticizing it.

2011 was the year of protest. But I will be working all year to make 2012 the year of open government.

Armed with cell phones and Facebook accounts, the digital natives of today are fomenting revolution and redefining citizenship. Or at least so go the breathless declarations found on Twitter, magazine covers, and the nightly news. But such proclamations lack a contextual analysis that considers the social, environmental, economic, political, and technological factors that have recently incited youth and opposition groups to mobilize around the world. Opinion makers depend on buzz words like “digital natives” without explaining which characteristics distinguish today’s youth from their parents’ generation. Academics and public intellectuals, meanwhile, have focused on the influence of social media in so-called “Facebook revolutions,” but have largely ignored the role of technology in post-revolutionary politics.

This essay questions several popular notions around the use of technology by young activists. First it challenges the terminology of “digital natives,” arguing that such neologisms contribute to a psychological barrier which impedes wider adoption of digital literacy. In order to contrast and better understand the significance of today’s protest movements, it then documents the multiple factors behind the youth-led protests of 1968. A brief account of my own personal appropriation of new technologies throughout my youth aspires to offer older readers a clearer understanding of the impact of growing up connected by computers. The essay concludes by zeroing in on the social media-fueled protest movements of 2011, which have prioritized the removal of the current political class without offering a concrete vision of what ought to come next. Ultimately I argue that, while it is easier to build large coalitions around movements that seek to overthrow the establishment, such “anti-power” activism must be accompanied by a clear vision of how to construct a networked democracy that features transparency, accountability, and civic participation.

Deconstructing Digital Nativism

New technologies give new meanings to established words; and those words, in turn, influence how we understand the social significance of each new technology. “Current,” for example, which previously described the flow of water, was later applied to the discovery of electricity. The telegraph gave new meanings to familiar terms like “send” and “message.” An 1873 issue of Harper’s Magazine recounts the frustrations of an angry customer who paid good money to “send” a telegram only to see the operator later hang his handwritten note on a hook. An entire generation had to learn to detach the concept of message from the physical object of paper.

Today it has become standard to speak about the comprehension and appropriation of Internet tools and technologies in terms of digital natives and digital immigrants. We have recycled a vocabulary rooted in the exclusionary nature of nationalism to describe a perceived generational divide in how individuals respond to and appropriate new technologies. I suggest that rather than viewing technological appropriation in terms of nativism and immigration, we think in terms of literacy. From the Latin littera, or “letter of the alphabet,” literacy speaks of our ability to understand and communicate effectively, to transmit knowledge and culture. The all-encompassing term “digital native” is often a lazy shorthand that represents distinct and diverse types of digital literacies.

Our ability to communicate – Unlike our parents, who recall sitting down at a desk to deliberately draft a letter with paper, pen, envelope and stamp, today’s youth have radically expanded options in how we communicate our observations, reflections and emotions. Oral and written communication have merged into a constant flow of commentary that tends to incentivize wit, irony and novelty. Of greatest significance, online communication is often many-to-many rather than one-to-one, an adjustment that has proven difficult for older generations.

Our ability to search for information – A woman in her mid-fifties once told me of a recurring childhood fantasy while she grew up in rural Venezuela. She frequently walked through the countryside, imagining supernatural glasses that provided her with extra information about anything she set her eyes on. Today, a self-described iPhone addict, she says the Internet has become those magical glasses. Modern youth take for granted our ability to search for any type of information — song lyrics, actors, politicians, Facebook profiles — at any time. But we should be careful to not conflate potential with reality; a 2010 study by Eszter Hargitttai and her colleagues at Northwestern University in Chicago found important limitations in how youth seek and evaluate online information.

Our ability to network – “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” goes the only business school cliché. Today’s youth are intuitively, if not explicitly, aware of the importance of social capital to open up economic and social opportunities. Whereas our parents may have joined a social club, cooking class, or sports league to increase their social capital, today we are often more likely to search out similar interactions through the use of online spaces geared toward particular lifestyles, sub-cultures and interests. As social interactions with strangers begin online rather than offline, they become more numerous, more fleeting, and yet, paradoxically, more persistent as each person from our past remains just a search away.

Our ability to absorb knowledge – Information anxiety has become part of the human experience. As the amount of information made accessible grows exponentially, the percentage of available information we are able to process necessarily declines. I believe that all generations are struggling as we move from a world of relative “information scarcity” to “information abundance.” But youth are especially aware of the need to develop strategies and coping mechanisms to survive in a world with more information than any one person could come close to comprehending.

Our ability to create social change – For the purposes of this book, I am particularly interested in a final digital literacy: our ability to shape meaning out of information, and social change out of meaning. To better understand the evolution of how we change the world around us, we must look more closely at the social movements of our parents, and of today.

The Youth of 1968

On New Year’s Eve, 1967 French President Charles De Gaulle announced to the nation, “‘I greet the year 1968 with serenity. It is impossible to see how France today could be paralyzed by crisis as she has been in the past.” Little did he know what was yet to come. “There has never been a year like 1968, and it is unlikely there will ever be again,” writes Mark Kurlansky in his comprehensive book, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World.

Less than 25 years earlier, World War II concluded with over 50 million dead, including an unprecedented number of civilians. Those who survived returned to their countries, cities and towns to experience the greatest period of economic growth since the peak of the Industrial Revolution. After World War II, much of the world experienced a surge in births and housing. In the West, liberal theories of child rearing gained currency. Public and higher education expanded like never before, as did corporations, chain stores, and mass marketing. Most importantly, this was the first generation to grow up with television, which had two profound, paradoxical effects: alienation and solidarity.

Alienation, Solidarity and Protest

In 1967 Guy Debord published his influential book Society of the Spectacle, which became one of many catalysts for the student-led protests in Paris the following year. For Debord, increasing corporatization combined with the alluring power of mass media and slick marketing engendered a consumer culture in which our social interactions are mediated by the products we buy. “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation,” he wrote. Mexican intellectual Octavio Paz argued that reality was beginning to imitate television more than television imitated reality. Alienation, the estrangement from a sense of community and meaning, was the key word that kept appearing in essays and on the walls. A 1968 poster hanging outside of Paris’ Sorbonne University warned:

The revolution which is beginning will call into question not only capitalist society but industrial society. The consumer society is bound for a violent death. Social alienation must vanish from history. We are inventing a new and original world. Imagination is seizing power.

While broadcast television was largely responsible for the “mere representation” of “all that was once directly lived,” it was also the medium through which youth would learn to attract attention to their causes and inform themselves about the latest protests by like-minded peers around the world. Television, it can be argued, created a generation that was more self-aware and more globally united than ever before.

TV screens flashed images of major protests in communist, capitalist, and non-aligned countries throughout 1968. In the United States, the Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation, Black Power, and anti-war movements were all at their peak. In Spain, students at the University of Madrid protested against the Franco regime and the presence of police on their campus. In Poland, 300 student protesters at the University of Warsaw were beaten by state-sponsored thugs and over a thousand were later jailed. Massive protests erupted in then-Yugoslavia on July 2, 1968 where Belgrade University students participated in a week-long hunger strike and handed out copies of the banned magazine, Student. In Brazil, Military Police killed a protesting teenager, which led to the country’s first major protests against the military dictatorship. The University of Rome was shut down for two weeks following student protests against police violence. Over 10,000 students protested the Vietnam War in West Berlin. The Prague Spring brought Martin Luther King-inspired non-violence to Czechoslovakia, as tens of thousands protested against the impending invasion of Soviet forces. A 21-year-old Czech student, Jan Palach, set himself on fire in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to protest against the suppression of free speech. In South Africa, protests erupted at Cape Town University when administrators withdrew an employment offer to a black professor. Japanese students protested against the presence of US troops in their country. In New York, Columbia University students took three school officials hostage in protest of allegedly racist school policies, while in Chicago thousands of anti-war protesters disrupted the Democratic National Convention. In Mexico City, an escalating series of conflicts between the police and student demonstrators eventually led to a violent crackdown in Tlatelolco Plaza, which killed up to one hundred protesters and observers just weeks before the 1968 Summer Olympics. The following month Pakistani students launched a nation-wide campaign against an ordinance which empowered the military dictatorship to withdraw the degree of any student.

Posters made by Parisian students in May 1968

But the protest movement that is most emblematic of 1968 began in January at Paris’ Nanterre University, a recent suburban extension of the Sorbonne that was based on the American model of an enclosed campus, rather than the traditional French universities, which were smaller and integrated into the city layout. In many ways, the corporate efficiency of the university campus and the suburban isolation of the students was representative of the social alienation documented by Debord the previous year. On January 26 administration officials called in the French riot police to quell a small demonstration against the lack of student facilities. Soon the student protest joined the anti-war movement, and by May 6 the French government unsuccessfully attempted to ban all public demonstrations. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a German exchange student who was one of the original leaders of the small protest at Nanterre, was christened ‘Danny the Red’ by the media (as much for the color of his hair as his politics), and became the unofficial, charismatic leader of the movement. “The catalyst for his fame,” writes journalist Sean O’Hagen, “was television.”

In 1968 two technological innovations transformed the nightly news reports: the use of videotape, which was cheap and reusable, instead of film, and the same-day broadcast, which meant that often unedited images of rebellion were disseminated across continents almost as they happened. Student protesters in Berkeley and Columbia cheered their TV sets as footage from the Paris barricades made the American news in May, while French students took heart from images of the huge anti-war demonstrations now occurring across Europe and America.

‘We met through television,’ Cohn-Bendit later said of his counterparts in other countries. ‘We were the first television generation.’ Indeed, the radicals had a much better grasp of the galvanizing power of television than the politicians they were trying to overthrow. ‘A modern revolutionary group headed for the television, not for the factory,’ quipped the late Abbie Hoffman, one of the great political pranksters of 1968, who helped provoke a bloody battle between anti-war protesters and the Chicago police force at the Chicago Democratic convention. As the police attacked them, the protesters chanted: ‘The whole world is watching!’ And, for the first time, it was.

While the causes and context behind each protest were unique, a shared spirit of revolution was communicated across television. “Be realistic, demand the impossible,” ran one slogan in Paris that was later echoed by youth in other countries. Psychologists like Eric Erikson argued that youth were merely searching for a unique identity, which caused them to rebel against the values and mores of their parents. But the youth themselves decried social alienation, the sense that they were purposefully isolated from the forces that would determine their individual and collective futures.

1968 in Hindsight

In hindsight, and in balance, the protest movements of 1968 were largely failures. Significant civil rights advances were made in the United States, but the Franco regime continued in Spain, as did Brazil’s military dictatorship. The demands of Mexican students were never met and justice was never brought to those responsible for the massacre. The Mexican student movement would later dissolve in fear of the increasingly oppressive government. By August, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and remained until 1989. The temporary, weak alliance between the French labor and youth movements fell apart before the onset of winter. The Vietnam war continued, Apartheid in South Africa continued, Charles De Gaulle remained in power, and neither the capitalist, industrialist, nor consumer societies were overthrown. If anything, they expanded enormously over the following decades as most of the 1968 protesters eventually settled down with office jobs, families of four, and homes in the suburbs. Richard Nixon won the 1968 US presidential election, a wave of violent military dictatorships took over Latin America, and by 1982 conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher claimed, “We are reaping what was sown in the sixties… fashionable theories and permissive clap-trap set the scene for a society in which the old virtues of discipline and restraint were denigrated.”

On the other hand, the Women’s Liberation movement turned out to be one of the most influential and enduring. The global environmental movement was also born out of the late sixties. Cohn-Bendit is now a Green Party leader in the European parliament, and is referred to by the media as “Danny the Green” rather than “Danny the Red.” Tom Hayden, who was charged with conspiracy to cause violence in Chicago for his role in the protest against the National Democratic Convention, later became a California state congressman for 18 years, advocating for progressive environmental, labor, and foreign policies.

1968 was a collective catharsis, not a social revolution. But in the decades that followed, civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, and sovereign rights all expanded thanks to the enormous growth of higher education, and the sustained advocacy of civil society.


This article originally appeared on David Sasaki’s blog.

Image Credits: Flickr CC lilicomanche, Arxiu MACBA, Steve Rhodes, cwasteston, Rowan El Shimi

Part Two – Beyond 2011 and the Year of the Protestor

Part Three – The Future of Youth Activism

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