How the internet makes couch potatoes look beyond MTV and soundbites, and translate talk into action
The monks in Burma have no idea. No idea that people all over the world — from Seoul to Vienna — are holding rallies to support their cause. Connecting through Facebook, they are now getting ready to approach Chinese embassies the world over because they believe that China can have the most direct influence over solving Burma’s internal chaos.
This is how it works: once the news of monks rising up against a dictatorial regime was out, people were appalled. But when the news that the Burmese government had censored the internet and media came out, people really started paying attention. To do something. Bloggers in arms. Those who live and breathe the internet.
But why? It’s fair to wonder why someone sitting in Greece (probably basking in the sun) even cares what happens halfway around the world. It all starts with the freedom of expression.
I’ll illustrate: I’d read a few accounts of China and others blocking sites on the internet, but it didn’t quite strike me the way it should have. But the day a friend of mine called me from Pakistan to say, “I haven’t read your blog in ages. Pakistan has blocked it” — it took on a whole new meaning. Of course, it wasn’t me alone; blogspot in its entirety was blocked. But the next time I came across a forum discussing free speech, I spent some more time there.
So what, one may ask, so what if you spend time online? How does it even translate into doing something in the real world? It does, to my mind. The online world is a hook. For many of us, post-materialist, comfortable in our homes, on our laptops, there could almost be no reason to look beyond MTV and soundbites. But people do.
Case and point, the Egyptian blogger who was jailed for criticising the government got coverage in numerous publications the world over, something that would not have been possible even ten years ago. Something more recent? Al Gore and his Nobel Prize. Don’t forget that to put climate change on the global agenda, Gore utilised the internet to its maximum capacity to generate a buzz.
The most interesting aspect of this online activism and outrage is that it is issue-based and not particularly country-based. But can the online community ever put enough pressure to change the outcome of any political fracas? It is an interesting question.
Open-source politics, as this is called, is a huge factor in assessing this possibility — it helps involve more people in political causes than ever. Open-source refers to the fact that anyone can join in and have a say. There is no formal membership and no real top down structure.
And once you’re online, you are a global citizen. You can read The New York Times, Dawn and Le Monde, all at the same time. And because of a borderless existence, at every aggressive foreign policy measure, every repressive action, every time blogspot is banned, the blogosphere goes into a tizzy. The media picks it up and carries the stories. Petitions do the rounds. Increasingly, people have decided to hold rallies in their cities, once they have connected with like-minded people online. The internet, we must remember, is a tool, not the end. Print is translated into action.
There is no doubt that blogging is a huge value addition to politics in general. Media organisations, unfortunately, tend to take themselves so seriously that they forget people are made up of passionate, impulsive instincts. And so, while editorial positions may reflect a certain ideal or ideology, it’s the voice of the people that gives a cue as to where public opinion is heading. It’s the same reason we invented the opinion poll. But in this case, no one is asking but people are telling you anyway. And depending on their number, they can be a formidable force.
And this consociational system reflects the potential the medium has for reflecting the views of the world community. That’s also because the internet brings the issue to you, you don’t have to go find it. Like the Global Climate Summit, which bloggers have arranged online. It’s not just ranting and raving. Those interested will go on fact-finding projects in their own countries. Then a conference will be arranged where a report will be put together. That will be submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change in November.
But another excellent question is, so what? Did it make a difference to General Musharraf that bloggers around the world thought that sacking the chief justice was dictatorial? Maybe not.
But what if you wake up one morning, switch on the TV, and find that people in 67 cities in 38 countries held a rally at the same time to denounce your actions. Suddenly, the dynamic could change. The world is watching you.