This essay inaugurates a series of stories on the ways that protesters have shaped technologies to fit their needs -- and how technologies opened up new space for their messages
With the police raids in the past few days of camps from Oakland to New York, the Occupy movement is at a key juncture. We want to step back and look at the role of technology in the protests' establishment, spread, and future. This essay inaugurates a series of stories on the ways that protesters have shaped technologies to fit their needs -- and how technologies opened up new space for their messages.
Let's start with what seems self-evident, but what I'm sure is more complex than it appears: Occupy is different from the protests that preceded it. To be honest, I'm not sure anyone can explain why. The list of factors contributing to its outstanding run is long: economic circumstances, a distance from the enforced patriotism that followed 9/11, disappointment on the left with Obama's presidency, the failure to adequately regulate banks, the neverending foreclosure crisis, the Adbusters provenance, severe cuts to social programs at the state and local level, the language of occupation, and the prolonged nature of the engagement.
But among those factors, technology plays a central role. I don't mean this is in any narrowly celebratory way: "Technology caused Occupy Wall Street!" But I will say that a set of mobile technologies that didn't exist ten years ago offered protesters new human capabilities that they used to record and disseminate information, as well as organize -- or maybe more properly, design -- the protests. These new behaviors, like blanket cell-phone photo coverage paired with social media amplification, were unprecedented in the United States, though activists put them to use in the Arab Spring protests.
To take a small example of the changes in action, let's return to the moment when the protests went viral. A New York police office was caught on video pepper spraying several women in the face. Our James Fallows captured the spirit of the moment and why it brought such support for the protesters: "[T]he casualness of the officer who saunters over, sprays right in the women's eyes, and then slinks away without a backward glance, as if he'd just put down an animal, does not match my sense of 'appropriate' behavior by officers of the law in a free society."
It's possible -- though perhaps unlikely -- that a TV news crew would have caught such a moment. It's possible that in the pre-Internet world such a moment would have circulated quickly on copied videotapes or on cable access shows. But it is not possible that such an event could have been captured in the way that it was and transmitted within 24 hours to thousands of people through dedicated protest information channels, some of whom amplified the signal to their contacts outside the movement, and so on. Millions had seen the clip within a day or two. And though the news media piled on, it would not have taken members of the press to spread the video. Its emotional power pushed easily through the information networks of the Internet that daily spread cat videos and essays about the Thai floods.