Languid, tropical, monsoonal time?

Languid, tropical, monsoonal time?:
net-activism and hype in the context of South East Asian politics.

[From The Next Five Minutes3 Workbook…]

We have to agree that the relentless extension of electronic media across the webs of our lives is there to be used, enjoyed, captured, redeployed. But sometimes the speed-hype that is in fact a sales pitch blurs possibilities. Sometimes new media work may require different speeds – slower reading, longer planning, temporal depth…

Some of us might argue that the most visible moments of media and net activism in South East Asia have been transparent power plays in geopolitics. The well-publicised ‘secret’ of Indonesian net-organising in the protest movement against Suharto, and the almost fable like stories of democracy activists in Hong Kong sending faxes into China during the Tiananmen crisis. Consider how that story of streaming faxes arriving on unnamed ‘Chinese’ fax machines correlated all too well with the widely transmitted scene of the CNN being forced to close transmission in those first days of June. The white noise stain on our screens which was CNN’s interpretation of a transmission blockage replaced analysis and told the story just as the West wanted to see it. What was ‘actually’ going on was less ‘the news’ than the technological interruption.

An overdetermined image of net-activism, faxivism, and the like, has all too often been singled out for attention by the mass media in ways that furthered a conspicuous liberal cause. What was the underlying agenda? Of a continuity with the Californian Ideology, it seems no accident that faxivism so neatly fits the ongoing communications transition – the extension of a new mode of production to the entire social fabric. Everyone – even those who make it their business to resist – now needs to buy a computer, sign up for provider account, set up a website, and dedicate themselves to net time (time on the net, not just the list).

We wanted to recognise these all too obvious complaints and list some of the ways activism came up against organisational constraints. Speculative observations which come out of compromised participation in the very net activism we’d want to interrogate. Some of the criticisms are simple, some intractable – all of them, at least to some degree, may need to be remembered before pressing the forward button on the web browser. ^FN1^

The most commonly recognised dilemma for activist groups who use new media in South East Asia has to do with cost. Given the ‘third world’ status of so many in the region (this applies far less to Japan, South Korea, Singapore of course) it is obvious that access to facilities remains the preserve of the elite classes. In activist circles cost determines decisions about priority and focus. In this context, celebrations for the internet as a ‘public discussion’ forum are somewhat hollow in the face of economic constraints. The question of ‘access’ is not simple, and never without convolutions. In many cases even the most media active NGOs are unable to participate in this discussion without considerable investment which simultaneously acts to limit activity. The investment is not only in terms of hardware, but also the software of person-hours required to read, and reply to, digest and regurgitate net correspondence (or editing time making documentary news for global media). It must be considered that it is also a ‘cost’ that time spent engaged with new media is also time disconnected from other activities of organising that may be of greater priority for the organisation (a fact far too often overlooked by the organs of well-meaning solidarity who request ‘news from the front’ reports from under-financed groupings). There needs to always be a dedicated person in an organisation who will feed information to the rest. Is this practical? What mechanisms might facilitate this work? Resource requirements for participation in net activism are sometimes beyond the capacity of a small ‘third world’ organisation. In addition there is the fluctuation cost of net access at levels accepted at an ‘industry standard’ which always seems on the move. Add to this the exponentially growing cost to the organisation in time and person hours to respond to requests for information in the ever increasing ‘online world’ and webification of the struggle seems a decreasingly appealing option. This applies to so many little areas of work – consider the fate of web page set ups: too often when the funding runs out the home page is necessarily left as out of date refuse at the curbside of the superhighway. Resources that might better have been used generating other activity is drained.

It is of course the case that oftentimes information sent from a campaign group could provide the basis for application of outside pressure – there is reason to appeal for solidarity, and the established heritage of international solidarity action should never be ignored. But what would it mean to recognise that there are often limited gains for activists from South East Asia to continuously send information to (careerist?) ‘activists’ in the west? The media machine is not the only hungry monster here – anecdotal but common reportage notes that after going to a conference such as this the demand for ‘contact’ escalates and it soon becomes impossible to respond to all the requests from other conference goers – practical decisions must limit inter- and internet- communication, there are only a few things on which there can be time to co-operate, the rest must sadly be treated as waste of time.

A second order of problem has to do with discursive reach. Whatever the level of ‘crisis’ which may be recognised from near and from afar, and whatever the solutions proclaimed or ordained by the lap-toppers and webucated elites, if the general population have no access, no time, no resources or no habit of making sense of the discourses of ‘crisis’, responses, or mobilisation, then net activism feeds only itself. It is clear that there are many opportunities afforded by the new media and communications, but we want to ask what does net activist talk about the economic crisis mean to those who have no respite from the immediacy of struggle, who are in the midst of reaction and the ‘realities’, what does it mean for those who are trying to get alternative information but who do not have ready resources and the luxury to stop, read and evaluate, before they must react?

We believe this has to do with the kind of forum envisioned for electronic media. Taking another tack, the idea of individual lap-top activists rapidly exchanging information and ideas via unmediated cyberspace is well and good in theory. In practice perhaps there are questions to be asked about the kind of civic space this is, the quality of the exchanges and the direction in which this form may lead. Is the ease of communication always a good thing – by hitting return we can send everyone the latest rapidly assembled data on, say, the resettlement of villagers threatened by a hydro electrical scheme, or some grab of statistical information from a web site dedicated to econometric returns. However, what level of analysis, interpretation and application do we provide, or accept, when we participate in this kind of exchange? Is our participation in the flow of information across the channels of the information revolution adequate to contend with the agendas of its corporate advocates and the economic hegemony of which it is the means? This is not a call to stop these exchanges, but a plea to consider how much the tendency of rapid response mitigates analytical sophistication. Fulfilling the admonition to act globally while thinking locally has not always been simple.

The danger of the big hype of the new media and internet is that it is wide open to a tendency to distract attention from the immediacy of political and organisational practicality. The town hall cannot be replicated on the internet in any case, certainly not in forms that readily open themselves to participation by the general population. For some, net activism suggests only a salon for the educated classes, whereas what is needed are mechanisms that prompt, provoke, agitate. Some say there are not clear ways that the internet can achieve this without it being carefully secured, and emphasised as useful but limited tool, only for wider organisational work. The co-option gambit of elite distraction is real, especially insofar as the new media become more and more specialised modes of communication among the already organised.

Let us not romanticise however. There may or may not be all sorts of alternative news and counter hegemonic communications and reporting advocated by net activists and those who proclaim the need for a ‘free media’, but without a political base for developing a context for these claims, this can be nothing but hype. Some might say that the problem is that the emphasis of the internet is increasingly on the need to write, and the direction of that writing is outward bound – a feeding function in support of the liberal sensibilities of the West. Without a mass political struggle and a mass organisation for which writers write ‘for’, there is no clear point. To fail to consider the question of adequacy valorises only the intellectual fantasy of some well-written critical forum, whereas the political necessities of struggle demand more material forms of organisation – people need finally to meet, people need to sit together and argue, plan joint action and mobilise. Maybe its not too late to still say the battle is also still out on the street? Not everything can be collapsed into the realm of representation and transmission. Some ‘content’ cannot be expressed, some will always be misrepresented because of inequalities and interpretation. The new media may offer opportunities to disrupt and transform the established channels of transmission, but if there is no civic or public discussion, the liberal romantic notion of a civil society in which polite ‘town hall’ discussion of pressing social concerns occurs, with all free speech amendments you like, can never replace an activism that organises against powerful forces in the recognition that it is necessary to fight to win.

All this comes as no surprise since the new media replicate already existing structures and there is nothing exceptional in the recognition that many of the same problems, and possibilities, apply. Time and again we are returned to the question of utility. We make decisions about net activism on the basis of its usefulness for getting the message out, for communicating with each other, for generating analysis, and for refining critique. Its potential for sector to sector communication, for collaboration across sectors, for co-operation across diversity and for inter-connectivity cannot be ignored. Potential usefulness of the net – well, it would be stupid if these were denied, but utilities do need to be evaluated, subject to critique, prioritised and maintained.

It may be too easy to critique both the form and characteristic of the internet as dualistic. It is good for information provision, but sometimes information flow is such that it cannot be readily translated into local relevance for users and digested. The factors of cost, class and analytical depth limit participation in the global net-festival. It becomes a practical organisational question answered differently in different areas: does internet enhance unity and solidarity? Since the form of information transmission of the new media is on or off – you need to be an active searcher, you have a choice to listen or not – is this the most useful communications format for a campaigning organisation’s investment? As through the internet it is not possible to reach people who are not interested – its not invasive/aggressive enough as compared to the loudspeaker – perhaps the evaluation must recognise the net as too passive a propaganda tool? Consider how our liberal friends would feel the discomfort of that!

If these are the characteristics of the internet as media, some of the dangers flow directly from the ways the high skill level required of new media reproduces the class privilege of those already authorised by written literacy etc – the ‘educated internationally aware people’ become more educated and internationally aware. This is the development of an information technology mode of production based comprador class. At the same time as the wealth of information available on the globally hyped net announces and celebrates the informational density of modernity, the need for analysis is obscured, and the need for making the predicament of the global-political scene relevant to local conditions is forgotten. Here again information becomes tributary to the agendas of the Californian Ideology. The danger of excessive costs is not only that the purchase of computers and related skilling furthers the agenda of Mr Gates and CNN, but that resources most pressingly needed for campaigns etc are siphoned off into a spiralling international media drainage – servicing the information needs of well-meaning European forums and the careers of excellently sympathetic and all too comfortable ‘internationalists’.

The hardest task is to adequately name the conditions in which we find ourselves – the beast of capitalism takes such forms that require more than documentation. The danger would be if the internet encourages only an information rich, but analysis poor, edification. More education is more important than more information. Though of course the new media and the need to organise come together – it would be absurd to suggest that the information resources of new media are not to be embraced, but as with all technologies, the point is to utilise these to best effect. This discussion suggests only a breathing space in which to interrupt the flow and density to think, organise, analyse, and make some suggestions about how we might best do so.

Anna Har and John Hutnyk

(from the ‘Workbook’ for N5M3 conference, Amsterdam 1999)


FN1. Shouldn’t someone devise a web browser that throws up a dialogue box each time you go to forward a message – the dialogue could ask: Have you read this message? Can you provide an analysis? Do you expect the recipient to do so? Of course this mechanism would not be applied to the forwarding of those witty e-jokes that come from whoever it is that makes those things up to amuse us.

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