The Earthling

Technologies of Protest 

Judy Woodruff: But a real mixture of motives here, I mean, all the way from, you know, anti-poverty, the administration ought to be doing more for poor people, to protesting, as they did today, Al Gore’s stock investments in Occidental Petroleum. I mean, it’s across the spectrum.

Bernard Shaw: Including the World Trade Organization.

Jeff Greenfield: In fact, one of the groups here are protesting meat. They are people who want meat taxed because they think it is unhealthy food and it’s harmful to animals. It is very much like the Seattle protests in the sense that there is no one cause that brings them, unlike, say, the anti-Vietnam protests, where it was the war, the war, the war.

—CNN’s coverage of protests outside the Democratic National Convention

Many observers are as perplexed as Woodruff, Shaw, and Greenfield by the lack of coherence among protestors at the Democratic convention. The New York Times notes “a dizzying array of causes.” And the phrase “protest zoo,” used by convention-covering journalists, refers to more than the chain-link fences that enclose the activists. In fact, it’s tempting to declare the protestors’ thematic diversity a major conundrum and try to resolve it with socio-psycho-political theorizing: What is it about the modern world that so alienates today’s youth, that impels them to mobilize on the narrowest and flimsiest of pretexts?

I’ve got great time-saving news: We can skip the theorizing because, actually, there is a unifying theme in the Los Angeles protests. And it is a theme that will persist, probably making grab-bag demonstrations a standard feature of future conventions. The one thing that drove virtually all the protestors to the convention is state-of-the-art organizing technology—in particular, the Internet.

There are two basic determinants of whether an interest group will mobilize. One is the intensity of its grievance, and the other is how easily it can organize. New information technologies can change the second factor, lowering the costs of mobilization. The printing press, for example, helped a guy named Martin Luther do some organizing; it meant that his 95 theses could be disseminated far and fast, rousing his quiescent troops. (Ever notice that the words “Protestant” and “protest” have the same root?)

When the costs of organizing get low enough, a grievance doesn’t have to be very broad or deep to spur action. Got an Internet account? That means you can start a Web site—and orchestrate a protest. What should your cause be? Well, the big ones, like meat consumption, are taken. You need something narrower, like veal consumption. Surely in a nation of 250 million you can find a few thousand people who do eat meat but can’t stomach the veal industry. At least, they won’t be able to stomach it once you post pictures showing how calves spend their whole (short) lives immobilized in dinky pens lest their flesh get sinewy. ( isn’t taken—I checked.) And surely a few dozen of these few thousand budding anti-veal activists live in Southern California and have a few spare hours this week. Bingo!

The Internet may well have lowered the costs of organizing by a magnitude not seen since Gutenberg set up shop in Europe. And even if, on reflection, I back off of that bold claim, I’ll stand by this one: The digital revolution writ large—from the birth of computerized mass mail in the 1960s to the coming of the Internet—easily rivals the printing press as a threshold in political organization. (It was mass mail that animated the geezer coalition, turning a small, slumbering American Association of Retired Persons into a hulking political player.)

It is customary, when putting forth a thesis, to have some evidence supporting it. So it’s time for me to cite examples of Los Angeles protestors who were brought together by the Internet—whether by Web site or newsgroup or chat room or e-mail or several of the above.

Unfortunately, I can’t. True, I can cite the Internet’s well-known role in mobilizing protestors at the anti-International Monetary Fund marches in Washington, D.C., this spring. And I can name Web sites that aimed to get protestors to Los Angeles (such as , which also played a role in the Washington protests). But I can’t document the success of those Web sites, because I’m not in Los Angeles. So I’m relying on reports from garden-variety political journalists. And these journalists don’t share my bizarre obsession with the power of technology. Neither do the protestors. So the journalists ask the protestors what brought them to Los Angeles, and the protestors say things like “Al Gore’s unconscionable oil investments” or “Al Gore’s unconscionable meat consumption” rather than things like “a fringe Web site” or “e-mail from a friend of mine who, like me, needs a hobby.” And the journalists print these answers and call it a day.  

Which leaves it for people like me to chastise the journalists. Here goes: Seek deeper causes! Don’t take the word of protestors at face value! They are mere froth on the currents of history, currents that actually emanate from technological evolution, which has inexorably carried humankind toward this climactic moment in history!

This sermon applies even to Slate’s crack man-in-the-street political reporter, David Plotz, whose coverage of the protests has yet to assume the sort of technological-determinist cast that would guarantee him the Earthling’s cherished approval. But Plotz is forgiven, because he observed the funniest known example of what a motley crew the protestors are: The United Steelworkers, who have a grudge against the Wells Fargo Bank, had gotten an actual stagecoach, with real horses, to lead a big anti-corporate-greed march, when animal rights activists blocked the path shouting, “You’re denouncing corporate slavery, but you’re enslaving animals!” The march organizers then abandoned the stagecoach, they explained, “out of respect for animal rights supporters, who are valued members of the progressive movement.”

You call that a movement? The only thing animal rights activists and the United Steelworkers have in common is that they’re slaves of technology. Like the rest of us.

To-be-sure paragraph: Yes, yes, other factors are at work. Affluent times may make protesting about meat consumption, etc., a luxury twentysomethings can afford. (John Judis, in his book The Paradox of American Democracy, implicates affluence in the growing activism of the early 1960s.) And the brisk technological change of the information age may—in addition to making it easier for protestors to organize—yield enough social flux (notably globalization) to disorient and alienate people, and create new political issues to glom onto. (The aforementioned United Steelworkers are certainly globalization-motivated.) Still, all this could be said of last year’s Seattle WTO protests and the subsequent IMF protests in Washington, D.C.—yet, as reporting finally revealed in both cases, the Internet had been essential to massing such a large and diverse bunch of protestors. If you ask why the Democratic and Republican conventions drew more protestors than any pair of conventions since 1968, more than half of the answer, I submit, is this: This year’s conventions are the first held since e-mail addresses became standard equipment for the young and the restless. You may or may not like protest zoos, but you’d better get used to them.

Volunteer-research-assistant paragraph: If I’ve somehow missed a journalistic account of the Los Angeles protests that does stress the role of the Internet, feel free to let me know.