Blackspot

Rejecting Clicktivism

The way forward will not be through the mediation of the screen.

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The world is in desperate need of a cultural revolution. While some of us slave to produce objects we will never be able to afford, others toil to consume luxury items they do not need. Neither lives a fulfilling life, neither is happy and both play a role in the continued desecration and evisceration of the earth. Consumer society is founded in this vicious cycle that chains some to the factory workbench and others to the screens in cubicles. It is an increasingly inhumane cycle that is spiraling out of control, dragging humanity into the abyss of climate wars and cultural insanity. That much we know. But what remains unclear is how to change the situation.

One answer that has come to dominate all others is that the future of activism is online. Dazzled by the promise of reaching a million people with a single click, social change has been turned over to a technocracy of programmers and "social media experts" who build glitzy, expensive websites and viral campaigns that amass millions of email addresses. Treating email addresses as equivalent to members, these organizations boast of their large size and downplay their small impact. It is all about quantity. To continue growing, they begin consulting with marketers who assure them that "best practices" dictate crafting a message that will appeal to the greatest number of people. Thus focus groups, A/B testing and membership surveys replace a strong philosophy, vision for radical change, and cadre of diehard supporters.

It is no wonder that their campaigns soon resemble advertising: email messages are market tested and click rate metrics dominant all other considerations. In the race for quantity, passion is left behind. But with each day they find it harder to elicit a response from their "members". Soon, they hit the pitiful online-activist industry average: less than one in twenty of their members are clicking on their emails, the rest just hit delete. (It is a well-known secret within Bay Area progressive organizations that a 5% response rate is the norm.) Thus, despite their massive, gargantuan list size, they can only count on rallying a minuscule response for any of their actions. To increase click rate, they water down their messages and make their "asks" easier and "actions" simpler. Soon, the "click to sign" deception is rolled out and simply opening an email link is treated as signing a petition. And yet, while their membership list grows larger, the active portion of their base disappears. And what is worse, as well-meaning digital activists soon discover, they are being outdone by disingenuous advertising campaigns posing as true agents of change.

Thus, we find ourselves in the bizarre situation where the celebrated international climate change organization TckTckTck with 10+ million members and 350+ partner organizations – including Greenpeace, 350, WWF, OXFAM etc – is covertly run by Havas Worldwide, the world's sixth largest advertising company. Havas' clients include Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, Pfizer, BP and the rest of the ones who are to blame.

By turning activism over to the technocrats, we've done a great disservice to the noble tradition of rabble rousing that has brought humanity every egalitarian development. We've exchanged the difficult process of engaging in real world struggles for the ease of sending emails and clicking links. And I say this knowing that digital-activists agree and a new generation are only too eager to offer their services, hawking themselves as the pioneers in the cutting-edge field of turning email addresses into bodies on the street. But we must resist their claims to expertise and their successes defined by quantity. The way forward will not be through the mediation of the screen.

Activism, when properly conceived, aims at revolution by striking at the root. It deploys an essential critique of society that cannot be resolved, or recuperated, without a major cultural shift. Each era must find and hone that critique and with persistence use it to repeatedly attack the prevailing social order. The essential critique of our generation is the mental environmentalist perspective which understands consumerism to be a plague upon the earth supported by pollution of our mental ecology by advertisers.

The future of activism is not online; it is a spiritual insurrection against pollution of the mind. And that begins with turning off our screens.

Micah White is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He lives in Berkeley and is writing a book about the future of activism. www.micahmwhite.com or micah (at) adbusters.org

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60 comments on the article “Rejecting Clicktivism”

Displaying 11 - 20 of 60

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Wrench in the M...

Two aspects of your techno-ideology need questioning:

1) You believe idea that technology is a neutral tool. This notion is false. Technology is not a tool, it is a way of revealing the world that carries within it an ideology. Therefore, to argue that open source software is a neutral, benign tool and that it is the user, whether it be an evil corporation or a radical organization, which defines the tool as good or evil is to put it plainly naive.

Open source software is an ideology with a certain way of interpreting the world. Even technologists are now starting to admit this -- please read Jaron Lanier's "You are not a gadget" and Martin Heidegger's "The Question Concerning Technology"

2) You believe that if radical politics is "far more accessible" then it is "far more likely to succeed". Again, this idea is false and relies on a watered down form of democratic thinking. The truth is in fact far starker -- the most radical politics is the least accessible and the least likely to succeed... it is its improbability of success that makes radical politics worth striving for. By throwing your weight behind only the politics that is accessible or likely to succeed you will only get the recuperated, co-opted form of politics we have today.

So, to address your central critique: Technology is not a neutral tool but instead a force that has an inherent ideology. This ideology perverts revolutionary politics and levels down political discourse. I will offer one example: the focus on measurability and metrics devalues the unmeasurable. By only counting "clicks" we forget that its not about "clicks" its about "life changing realizations" -- those are rare, and ought to be rare. But they are worth a billion clicks.... nay, a hundred billion clicks.

Wrench in the M...

Two aspects of your techno-ideology need questioning:

1) You believe idea that technology is a neutral tool. This notion is false. Technology is not a tool, it is a way of revealing the world that carries within it an ideology. Therefore, to argue that open source software is a neutral, benign tool and that it is the user, whether it be an evil corporation or a radical organization, which defines the tool as good or evil is to put it plainly naive.

Open source software is an ideology with a certain way of interpreting the world. Even technologists are now starting to admit this -- please read Jaron Lanier's "You are not a gadget" and Martin Heidegger's "The Question Concerning Technology"

2) You believe that if radical politics is "far more accessible" then it is "far more likely to succeed". Again, this idea is false and relies on a watered down form of democratic thinking. The truth is in fact far starker -- the most radical politics is the least accessible and the least likely to succeed... it is its improbability of success that makes radical politics worth striving for. By throwing your weight behind only the politics that is accessible or likely to succeed you will only get the recuperated, co-opted form of politics we have today.

So, to address your central critique: Technology is not a neutral tool but instead a force that has an inherent ideology. This ideology perverts revolutionary politics and levels down political discourse. I will offer one example: the focus on measurability and metrics devalues the unmeasurable. By only counting "clicks" we forget that its not about "clicks" its about "life changing realizations" -- those are rare, and ought to be rare. But they are worth a billion clicks.... nay, a hundred billion clicks.

Anonymous

I've read a bit about the argument that technology is ideologically compromised, and, in some ways, I can get behind that argument. (I don't regard "ideology" as a necessarily negative reality.) However, my experience is limited to arguable writings on cinema and photography. Purely to sate my curiosity, could you elaborate on the ideology you (and, I assume, Lanier and Heidegger) attribute to technology. It's not defined, described, or summarized here. Even a short summary will help your case, which jumps from a blanket cause ("Technology is...a force that has an inherent ideology.") to a vague effect (the perversion of "revolutionary politics") without proposing a mechanism.

(I've noted the essays, and I'll get to them, but I read and synthesize slowly.)

Anonymous

I've read a bit about the argument that technology is ideologically compromised, and, in some ways, I can get behind that argument. (I don't regard "ideology" as a necessarily negative reality.) However, my experience is limited to arguable writings on cinema and photography. Purely to sate my curiosity, could you elaborate on the ideology you (and, I assume, Lanier and Heidegger) attribute to technology. It's not defined, described, or summarized here. Even a short summary will help your case, which jumps from a blanket cause ("Technology is...a force that has an inherent ideology.") to a vague effect (the perversion of "revolutionary politics") without proposing a mechanism.

(I've noted the essays, and I'll get to them, but I read and synthesize slowly.)

The Ghost in th...

"2) You believe that if radical politics is "far more accessible" then it is "far more likely to succeed". Again, this idea is false and relies on a watered down form of democratic thinking. The truth is in fact far starker -- the most radical politics is the least accessible and the least likely to succeed... it is its improbability of success that makes radical politics worth striving for."

This is ridiculous reasoning. First, you don't actually address what I'm saying- that a radical idea, given more accessibility, is likely to succeed. I don't mean "accessibility" in the sense that it's used in music or literature, I mean, literally, the ability to access it.

Second, you're saying that ideas are not radical by virtue of how far they differ from the status quo, but by virtue of how "improbable" they are, and that this inherently makes those ideas valuable.

This is indefensible nonsense, and I want to offer two reasons why.

First- it's highly improbable that feeding rat poison to stray dogs would have a measurable impact on consumerism. Does that make it inherently worth pursuing?

Second, it's highly improbable yet theoretically possible to create a means to transmute pure energy into pure matter. Doing so could possibly eliminate economic scarcity entirely, which would solve, immediately, one of the core problems at the heart of our demented economic system. If the available research and the idea itself became more accessible, more people could work on it, increasing the chances of success. And according to you, the simple fact that more people are working on it, regardless of the effect success would have, makes it inherently less worthy to pursue.

All of this begs the question of whether one is interested in radical politics because of a pathological need to be on the fringe, or as a means to improve the conditions of life and fight systems of oppression.

I admit that I have not read all of You Are Not A Gadget, but I have read some of the essays collected in it and I am familiar with the ideas he presents. I won't defend the Web 2.0 here, but what the author of that books leaves out is that open source is not important because of the production model. It's important because without open source software, there would be no way to operate any kind of computer without signing a coercive agreement with a corporation.

Even if Linus Torvalds was working on Linux alone in his bedroom and allowed nobody else to contribute, the GPL and the principles of Free Software would still be important for that reason.

The Ghost in th...

"2) You believe that if radical politics is "far more accessible" then it is "far more likely to succeed". Again, this idea is false and relies on a watered down form of democratic thinking. The truth is in fact far starker -- the most radical politics is the least accessible and the least likely to succeed... it is its improbability of success that makes radical politics worth striving for."

This is ridiculous reasoning. First, you don't actually address what I'm saying- that a radical idea, given more accessibility, is likely to succeed. I don't mean "accessibility" in the sense that it's used in music or literature, I mean, literally, the ability to access it.

Second, you're saying that ideas are not radical by virtue of how far they differ from the status quo, but by virtue of how "improbable" they are, and that this inherently makes those ideas valuable.

This is indefensible nonsense, and I want to offer two reasons why.

First- it's highly improbable that feeding rat poison to stray dogs would have a measurable impact on consumerism. Does that make it inherently worth pursuing?

Second, it's highly improbable yet theoretically possible to create a means to transmute pure energy into pure matter. Doing so could possibly eliminate economic scarcity entirely, which would solve, immediately, one of the core problems at the heart of our demented economic system. If the available research and the idea itself became more accessible, more people could work on it, increasing the chances of success. And according to you, the simple fact that more people are working on it, regardless of the effect success would have, makes it inherently less worthy to pursue.

All of this begs the question of whether one is interested in radical politics because of a pathological need to be on the fringe, or as a means to improve the conditions of life and fight systems of oppression.

I admit that I have not read all of You Are Not A Gadget, but I have read some of the essays collected in it and I am familiar with the ideas he presents. I won't defend the Web 2.0 here, but what the author of that books leaves out is that open source is not important because of the production model. It's important because without open source software, there would be no way to operate any kind of computer without signing a coercive agreement with a corporation.

Even if Linus Torvalds was working on Linux alone in his bedroom and allowed nobody else to contribute, the GPL and the principles of Free Software would still be important for that reason.

Anonymous

"Thus focus groups, A/B testing and membership surveys replace a strong philosophy, vision for radical change, and cadre of diehard supporters."

This is a call for letting those irritating sectarian English majors and grad students rule organizations because they are willing to last the longest at late night meetings on campus.
A/B testing and surveys are, when used correctly, methods of responding to large numbers of people and escalating engagement - including real world engagement.
This essay sort of reminds me why I can't stand the snobby, elitist, street warrior loving left.

Anonymous

"Thus focus groups, A/B testing and membership surveys replace a strong philosophy, vision for radical change, and cadre of diehard supporters."

This is a call for letting those irritating sectarian English majors and grad students rule organizations because they are willing to last the longest at late night meetings on campus.
A/B testing and surveys are, when used correctly, methods of responding to large numbers of people and escalating engagement - including real world engagement.
This essay sort of reminds me why I can't stand the snobby, elitist, street warrior loving left.

The Ghost in th...

The snobby elitist and the street warrior are nowhere near the same side of the fence my friend.

The Ghost in th...

The snobby elitist and the street warrior are nowhere near the same side of the fence my friend.

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