Sunday, 29 April 2012

Rise of the activist

In the 20th century people involved in left politics might describe themselves in a number of ways. They might declare their ideological commitment: 'socialist', 'anarchist' 'communist'. They could be slightly more specific: 'member of the Communist Party' or 'registered Democrat'. If less involved then just 'supporter' or perhaps something like 'a Labour voter all my life'. If they were really interested they could use the minor position they had within an organisation: T&G shop steward or secretary of the local party branch.

Whatever the label it implied a long-term commitment to a group, a regular involvement in a useful activity for the cause (even if it was just voting at every election). It also implied, I think, that you would actually know people with similar politics to yourself in real life, on a regular basis.

Since the 1970s saying that you are an 'activist' has became increasingly common, as my totally lightweight linguistic research from Google Ngrams shows below:

Activist vs socialist

Activist vs agitator

Activist vs campaigner

In the Will Self novel How the Dead Live one of the characters remarks that since the end of the Cold War his metropolitan friends now described themselves as 'liberals' - a label, he says, that allowed them to adopt any position between fascism and anarchism with impunity.

I think 'activist' works in a similar way. Lots of blogger and twitter profiles say something like 'Blogger, activist, Hackney resident'. It is left unclear exactly what these people are being activist about or for: what campaign are they helping out on, who are they trying to get elected? After trawling through their posts or tweets you find they are on the left somewhere, altogether often of a vague and naive kind.

It was the environmental movement in the 80s and 90s that helped spread 'activist' as a description. Swampy was the model here, and a very effective one:

Interestingly, the BBC drama about the rise of New Labour - The Project - gave some of the characters the rather implausible backstory of having been environmental activists:

I think it was supposed to heighten the narrative decline from youthful idealism to middle aged sell out, but just makes you dislike them right from the start instead.

'Activist' is narcissistic: "look I'm being active!" it declares even if its only handing out the placards at a demo. Members/supporters etc were happy to pay their subs and turn up for canvassing or picket lines. The concern of those slighter higher up, like local councillors was (and is) trying solve the problems of those they represent, not self-promotion via pseudo punditry. 'Activist' is close to 'liberal' here in that both assume that politics is a version of a university seminar translated to the public sphere. Noel Gallagher once got ticked off in the NME letters pages for saying that he had always voted Labour because like supporting a football team, you backed them through thick and thin and hoped to see them win in the end. No, no the liberals/activist tutted - it's about making your mind up rationally about the issues of the day. God forbid that left politics might be 'tribal' and an activity that wasn't just for the politicos.

Activists aren't quite like liberals as they see symbolic action as part of 'politics as debate'. Of course it is necessary (and enjoyable) to disrupt the spectacle every so often. But too much of this becomes a cycle of symbolic actions that closely mirrors the degeneracy of newspaper commentary: politics reduced to commenting on other commentators columns or attacking politicians for 'giving the impression' of being incompetent.

Just as the students of May '68 were once accused of being 'a party in search of a proletariat' so you could ask the activists: who they are for? Squatting, a movement which once tried to organise homeless people to take over large numbers of houses, is now about temporarily occupying buildings with connections to well known bad guys or institutions in order to have a social centre or an alternative space. That's not a bad thing at all, but it does seem like a reduction in ambition. It also raises the suspicion that some of this activity is primarily cathartic or reproductive (in the sense of maintaining current levels of activists). I wasn't offended that the Boat Race was disrupted this year, but then I'm not offended by the Boat Race to begin with. Trenton Oldfield could at least have made the effort to say he wanted the return of EMA rather than just being against 'elitism'.

I mean throwing yourself at Oxbridge rowers isn't that far way from wiggling your arse at Michael Jackson is it?

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Digital love: from me to global you (aka a brief history of modern communication systems)

No more hanging around, no more memos in orange envelopes: in the 90s a brave new world of emergent, rapidly evolving electronic communication technologies was reconfiguring our work and lives. This was ‘E’ world phase II (just a few years before Apple’s iPlace took over), and opting out was only for recluses.

Decades in development and use by early adopters, email was perhaps the programme that changed workplace habits the most. It entailed a format and mode of instant delivery that was almost idiot-proof, bar teething worries whether you have CC’d everyone about what a prinkle the boss is. Crucially, keeping the Outlook window open looked like work, which was handy as I was spending the slower days of my junior production roles updating my diary, sending comic skits to mates (Partridge-esque unusable shit), riffs on Trainspotting’s ‘Choose Life’ rubbishing whatever football club I didn’t like that week, or coded sub-Morris narctalk of weekends coming or gone. All pretty amateurish, but I just loved the way you could knock something out, do an edit then receive quick reaction. Internet then was Web I, a poorly populated land often on a Netscape that a fast-monopolising Microsoft was yet to buy out, accessible via a slow dial-up connection, so surfing was not necessarily enabled yet in every office and only allowed for short periods of time if it was. The first time I went on the web would have been on work experience at a magazine company in Leeds, 1996.

Sooner or later we all got our own webmails (Compuserve, AOL) but up against today’s platforms those accounts fill a residual, sterile function, a far cry from the feelings of virtual communal joy they used to inspire when a pic got sent round. The back-up zone where notification of product purchases reside with spam from desperate Africans or Viagra sellers, conversation with real-worlders who don’t blog, tweet, facebook or tumble, requests for donations to somebody’s marathon for charity, etc. But with its ability to make sure everyone who needs to see the message sees it while retaining a standard-English formal tone, email’s workplace primacy is still unchallenged, mainly because it makes managers look like they’re doing loads of important work when all they’re doing all day is responding to emails. You can also assess a worker’s twat levels by the frequency with which they faux-moan about ‘my thousands of unread mails.’

Email may be the preferred corporate medium, yet a number of platforms beat it for immediacy – IM programmes and, more recently, Skype’s message system. In one job, IM was where industry players broke market-changing news to their contacts, who pinged us to help get the story out asap. It was also where I’d have annoying conversations with fanatical United fans from, er, Mangalore (the fruits of a disastrous outsourcing exercise).

The 90s also bought affordable mobile phones, not the outsized bricks of 80s lore. Competition in the 2G market mushroomed during the initial goldrush, anyone with a shop franchise or desirable slice of spectrum got rich quick with their one idea, John Cauldwell, Simon Jordan, Steve Gibson. Yet I held off for a while before finally getting my first clunky PAYG in the late 90s, not for reasons of techno-fear contra my synched-in mates’ criticisms, but because in that excitable early era it did seem that people were using them to inform their mates they were 5mins nearer the meeting place. SMS itself I instantly took to like email, another medium for pure writing, long messages or short, draft notes or actual messages, a means of knocking out yet more comic nonsense masquerading as information to mates.

Things stalled for a bit as Vodafone et al splashed out on 3G but in the last half-decade or so mobiles have given us every little tool/app we could want. Samsung “Galaxy”, HTC “Desire”, Sony “Experia”, the ubiquitous iPhone. People clutch them close as if they were their very lifeforce, which in some ways they are. At one point middle managers briefly hit virtual nirvana when they got their Blackberry, with its combination of emails on tap with standard phone and SMS (and the company was paying for it). But now most of us have our personal and work emails via mobile (office mission creep), and RIM is reeling from the reputational hit that the riots were organised on Blackberry Messenger. Now everyone has a mobile, you see kids of seven or eight with them, just in case; pensioners are users too. The basic elements of a mobile phone have been completely demystified (cameraphones and big memory space come as standard), putting their practical functions to the fore. That’s good in a way, but it does mean we are probably hitting a plateau of innovation, as Nokia and RIM show.

Free, DIY ‘web-blogging’ platforms met the demands for ‘content’ head on. As great as mobile and email were, their functionality was essentially based on private networking and we were entering infinite territory, experiencing the formation of individual online identity, ourselves as brands, avatars, a commodity-user with value in the amount of connections and therefore the amount of web traffic we could generate for the host. I’d played around with a bit of Dreamweaver doing the first online iterations of Cull (yeah yeah you’d never have guessed) but found it all a back-end for my uses (we later used an open source Mambo CMS but it got hacked to death). I needed something that could facilitate a surge in creativity and collaboration. Launched in 1999 and sold to Google in 2003, Blogger was the content-enabler of choice (posts prepared with partners via email) and harnessed my dual identity as meatspace office drone with ‘culler’ slagging off Blairism, vacuous culture (and my complicity within it), the ‘terror on war’ etc. We launched three blogs with the main site in 2003 and unlike the current feckless/uninspired attitude to updating, would file regular posts, sending links out via long disused Hotmail accounts. Coming at a time when every available resource was being put online with rickety HTML, interaction and learning went hand in hand. Mr Kasper tweeted about the rash of 00s pseud blog names, but they were hell of a lot better than the ever decreasing circles of 00s band names. This was where the creativity, the white heat where theory met culture, lied. If only for a bit.

Make no mistake, this was a utopia of sorts where for a short, brilliant period old-world hierarchies would struggle to impinge. My review of Kode 9’s album could gain as much traction as any ‘approved’ offering. Yet the infamous trolls and grey vampires debate indicated that some A-list bloggers were feeling uncomfortable with the communal pressures of unfettered comments boxes. For others more conventional mediatised acclaim was calling, once the mainstream media eventually caught up (they are generally more comfortable with Twitter as in their hands it is essentially self-promotion). Now they just call writers’ columns ‘blogs’ online and colonise the best talent. New writers know the drill now, they publish a bit of freebie stuff online, get the job and then slowly fence off their legacy content. I pass briefly over forums here, easy to engineer for any niche imaginable but where trolling runs riot in a cliquey mire. He said that, but she said that, whatevs.

We end with the 'social networks' of Twitter and Facebook. It has its uses beyond friend-count and busy walls as the mushrooming of Arabic and English-language revolutionary pages last year shows, but I still shun the $50bn potential Wall Street darling for fear of confronting pictures of happy families or beaming kids, old school friends I don’t want to ‘chat’ to, etc. Zuckerberg’s determination to run algorithms on everything about you down to your last consumer preference, then telling companies (or is that ‘friends’) about it means that sooner or later Facebook will wither away, if not in the spectacular fashion of some dotcom failures because of its ability to mobile the masses who are not quite so fickle as the trend seekers. Yet the value of any online medium depends on the number of users on it; in every office in Silicon Valley or, increasingly, off Old Street, CTOs and COOs are telling salutary tales about Myspace, once a decent portal for musicians whose functionality was perverted by individuals who then quickly found more of what they wanted in Facebook. Bebo too.

News tool, opinion outlet, network creator – Twitter seems to do all of what Facebook can do but with the simplest of functionality and the user more in control. The spectre of monetisation forever looms over Biz Stone’s creation, but while it keeps the fundamentals intact it will keep growing. And if my page is any guide, it continues to be taken up by real-worlders who prefer the unfussy timeline and lack of clunky add-ons that blights Facebook. No doubt that all these platforms make unrealistic demands of your time, colonising every last, increasingly zombified moment where interaction is the buzz and withdrawal really does feel like a drug-induced downer. But all these communication platforms enable creativity around language which benefits from the unshackling of the demands of publishing ‘best practice’, the stuffy written analogue of Oxbridge English.

Where u can ‘share’ everything from This Is My Jam to your favourite jam on, e-communication became an all-encompassing term but was soon rendered obsolescent in a world of digital me-space. ‘Like this’ buttons lurk on every web page. We are encouraged to communicate our opinion, our insight, our news, on anything, at any moment, always-on. We are only bound by the strength of our broadband connection. Instagramming a pic is communication, a viral LOLcat is communication, posting a comment after a charitable donation is communication. And anyway it’s all about the apps these days, though we share these by multiplaying, posting our scores, telling everyone about how great it is. But those early forays on email, phones and then blogs, taken for granted by the next generations, laid the ground.