Adam Ash

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Internet vs. the Street

The Limits of the Internet or The Silence Of the Streets -- by Brigitte Schön

While we're all sitting comfortably at some desk looking at our computer screens, reading articles by people whose opinion we cherish, celebrating the feeling that we might be able to change whatever we want to change by just writing the kind of highly opinionated piece I am about to write, I have lately been giving this complacent feeling of mine a thorough cleansing which led to the following musings:

What if the world, this world of TV images we know, still was pretty archaic at heart and what if it still primarily reacted to centuries-old images and trigger patterns after all? In other words: What do political campaigns and articles via the internet really manage to accomplish? And: Does this mean that I still ought to brave icy winds or pouring rain instead and hold up some banners in demonstrations in order to really achieve anything, and does this mean that all these thoughful articles on the net don't have as much influence as all of us couch revolutionaries would like to believe?

Let me lead you through a little time machine experiment. All I'd ask you to do is imagine that there was an internet around when any of the following occured (there are thousands of cases to choose from; I just randomly picked a few):

The British are occupying India. Instead of rallying hundreds of thousands of Indians in peaceful marches, Mahatma Ghandi launches an internet campaign against the Raj (=British rule of India). Your best bet: Do you think that the British would still be ruling India?

Next stop the Iron Curtain. Instead of hundreds of thousands of East Germans chanting "WE are the people!" every single day for weeks against the leaders of their People's Republic (hence the chant), they launch a massive e-mail-campaign demanding freedom and liberties hitherto not granted in East Germany from their Politburo. Your best bet: Would the Berlin Wall have come down as a result?

Let's go to recent news: Although I am personally appalled at the violent frenzy which erupted in the Arab world about those cartoons in a negligable, albeit famously right-wing, Danish newspaper - the uproar looked very much like an orchestrated opportunity these dictatorships granted their subjects to finally let off some steam to me - would irate articles on discussion forums in the Moslem world have attracted the same amount of international attention to the cause of the Moslems' grievances as all these demonstrators did? What's your best bet?

And, last but not least: Are you aware of the fact that Iran, according to what I've heard, has a thriving internet community which to a large extent is critical of the government? No? But would you be aware of substantial opposition in Iran if on NBC you watched these same people demonstrate? Yes?

Fine. Now you might be ready for what I am really trying to get at: As long as there aren't any massive NUMEROUS and VISIBLE protests against the present US administration's machinations, forget the idea that any well-meaning five-people-vigil in your home town or any irate article on the net will change anything.

The only thing that embarrasses a government is mass protests for MANY DAYS IN A ROW. They can't be overlooked, it's hard to ignore them, they can't be shrugged off, they are bound to be aired in one's country plus around the world, they are in short a major newsworthy event.

While the internet is fabulous when it comes to finding out how many like-minded people there are around you, it is at the same time sadly a silent and invisible weapon. No internet campagain will ever make it to prime time TV or to the front page of any paper. In case you are in doubt, just remember Ukraine last winter. It was the sight of these people braving it for many days in the freeze in their orange attire which caught your attention, wasn't it? Would you have noticed any anger on Ukrainian websites instead??

Or would YOU know about Cindy Sheehan if she'd only vented her grief and anger on the web and not physically outside Bush's ranch?

At some stage the pent-up wrath of many Americans against their government would have to be expressed in lonr-lasting mass (we're talking millions) protests in American cities if people really want to make a difference. They have to be prepared to stand up and be counted.

Or how else could one of Europe's most famous philosophers, Bernard-Henri Lévy, come up with the diagnosis "semi-comatose state of the American Left" on CommonDreams nearly a month ago after having travelled in the US? Well, if you leave your computer, that's definitely the impression.

Ironically, in times of an overkill of electronic communication, it is still the physical protest which to this day seems to be the only action capable of moving mountains, not its (admittedly more comfortable) cyber ersatz.

Deep down, human perception hasn't changed that much.

So you better get out your raingear...

(Brigitte Schön ( is an Austrian conference interpreter, occasional writer and political activist. She lives in Vienna.)


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