Abandon Point and Click Activism

Are activists failing because of an overreliance on the Internet?

Tibetans in Dharamsala, the residence of his holiness the Dalai lama lead a protest rally against Google's collusion with the Chinese government (learn more)

I am a digital native, a member of the first generation to be born surrounded by computers. So when my generation was called to stop the impending war against Iraq, I joined together with my friends and did the one thing we trusted would be most effective: we built great looking a website.

We wanted to prove to the world that there were perfectly rational reasons to be antiwar. That is why we spent weeks, months and years coding and polishing an ephemeral reservoir of antiwar justifications. The result of our labor was a cutting-edge site accessible only via a computer with sufficient memory, plugged into to an Internet connection with enough bandwidth, using a browser upgraded to the latest version and -- most importantly – discovered via the right search query results ranked by the arbitrary decisions of the web censors, aka search engines.

All that time spent translating our activist spirit and youthful idealism into a website garnered us 20,000 anonymous visitors a month but didn't stop the occupation of Iraq. Those faceless fickle many, whose visits we eagerly monitored via our server logs, and not the residents living on our block became our litmus test of success. We never questioned whether activism premised upon putting all ones energy into binary data was the best use of our talents. It just made sense. Looking back on those lost hours, I think we missed an opportunity for social change.

Revolution, according to Michael Hardt, is a transformation of human nature that makes a transformation of human society possible. Of course, the Internet has, and will continue to, transform human nature in new and unexpected ways. Posting spoofs of Nike on YouTube, podcasting about politics from a bedroom or using text messaging to organize protests are uses of technology that alter social relations and consequently human nature. However, the question remains whether the changes in the human that the Internet is bringing about will allow us to usher in a positively transformed world. I believe the answer is no because the essential experience of the Internet, even at its most interactive, is of solitary individuals mediating all of their passion through a screen. If we want a world with strong communities able to fend off the intrusions of mega-corporations, diverse local culture that varies from place to place and neighborhoods with neighbors who know each other enough to feel safe at home then the paradigm of the Internet is leading us astray.

Internet based activism is a retreat from the local struggles of everyday life; it is a flight from our concrete streets to the fiber-optic superhighway. As such, Internet campaigning imparts the worst lesson of all: it teaches a generation of activists to forgo picking up struggles around them in favor of distant battles they have the least ability to impact. As Simon Critchley writes, "resistance begins by occupying and controlling the terrain upon which one stands, where one lives, works, acts and thinks."

This does not mean that we should abandon the Internet altogether or refuse to target evil Internet companies. On the contrary, I wish to suggest that a successful campaign against Google, for example, will necessitate offline actions. I would go so far as to say that the success of our campaign against Google will be directly proportionate to the amount of time we spend organizing offline. Why? For the simple reason that Google is weakest in the real world and entirely unprepared for a (metaphorical) "fight in the streets".

I understand now why my generation's previous efforts to stop the war in Iraq failed: activists, as a generation of digital natives, are losing the ability to effect change in their local communities because of an overreliance on the Internet. Door-to-door, face-to-face our differences disappear when confronted with an issue that equally affects us all. Friendships are made, residents are inspired and the world really does change for the better when activism returns to its roots: a community-based practice that transforms human nature by reshaping social relations. Only an activism of the streets can be transformative enough to bring about broad-based revolution.

Micah White is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters Magazine and an independent activist. He is writing a book on the future of activism. www.micahmwhite.com