Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Gatekeepers No More: The Impending,Technological End to the Power of the Rich. Everything that is wrong about American politics is changing due to technology. The tyrants of the U.S. economic order are facing the same kind of challenges that the dictators of the Arab world confronted in the Arab Spring. Oh, dictators with guns can still hold on for months, but not, perhaps, for years, once public opinion outside their control demands outside intervention. Here, however, in even today's badly flawed democracy, the floodgates of change have been opened by new technologies that permit the nearly penniless to reach huge numbers of people and make an end run around the obstacles to the power of persuasion heretofore placed in their way by the rich. We don't need mass media to reach the masses. We have the Internet and social networks like Twitter and Facebook that reach millions pretty much for free.
When I was a college student active in the gay-rights movement, the mass media were beyond our reach, by virtue of expense. We needed to operate on the cheap, and that wasn't really as cheap as we needed. The propaganda machine of the age was the mimeograf, but it wasn't free. You needed to buy a mimeo, for a couple of hundred dollars, and then paper, stencils, and ink. Someone had to cut the stencils, by hand or typewriter, then run the machine. Early models were hand-cranked; later models, electric. To run even 500 copies of a one-page flyer, you'd need one ream of paper and a couple of hours of preparation. If your message took more than one sheet, you'd have to collate and staple. Then you'd have to distribute them by hand. That meant that one person or a group of people would have to go physically out to post the flyers on bulletin boards, lite stanchions, trees, etc., or hand them out on the street. It could take hours to distribute 500 copies, and many copies would be discarded by people who took them out of curiosity but weren't interested in the message.
To reach people beyond your immediate vicinity, you'd have to mail your materials, which involved additional labor to take additional steps; additional expense; and delays of as much as several days to reach from coast to coast.
My organization, Homosexuals Intransigent!, issued a mimeograffed newsletter that started as 12 pages, then grew to a mimeoed magazine of as many as 48 pages. To produce these materials took at least the following steps.
• Write the material;
• type the stencil;
• proofread it;
• correct the stencil;
• mimeograf each page;
• collate all pages;
• staple (additional expense);
• insert into an envelope (additional expense);
• type a label (additional expense);
• affix the label, or handwrite the address;
• seal the envelope;
• stamp it (BIG additional expense);
• take it to a mailbox;
• wait for it to be delivered.
That took manpower and money. We had little of either, but just enuf to get our message out to small numbers of people. We couldn't afford to buy ads in newspapers, magazines, radio, or television, any of which would reach many more people but access to which was limited to people who had money for advertising. The publishers and broadcasters were the gatekeepers, and the gate was closed to anyone without money.
In recent years, there have developed other gatekeepers to the levers of power: lobbyists; news directors; talk-show and public-affairs bookers; and everyone else involved in reaching massive numbers of people in a single appearance. The more people you had to reach, the more money you needed to have. Fame could sometimes substitute for money, in getting a spokesman onto major-media news segments, public-affairs programs, and talk shows, or win interviews from print publications. But if you were neither rich nor famous, you had little to no chance to get any message to any significant number of people.
In refusing to enlarge the House of Representatives since 1912, Congress has ensured that Congressional districts (now over 717,000 constituents per district; 214,000 in 1912) get ever bigger, so that reaching any substantial portion of a district's voters would seem to require huge amounts of money for political ads. That meant that the rich were in the catbird seat. They could get special access to politicians who needed their money in campaign contributions, a type of corruption short of legally-defined bribery. Editors and publishers of print publications, and the owners and producers of broadcast stations or networks also had power to persuade politicians to favor them, for fear of being denied access to their audiences. The few, and the rich, got to control what the many got to see and hear.
No longer. The Internet has changed all that, as we have seen in recent weeks, with the U.S. Congress being forced to retreat from an Internet-censorship bill favored by the newly-former gatekeepers to power, the publishers and producers of copyrighted intellectual property. The new media are already too powerful to be crushed, because of their ubiquity. The great preponderance of the population now has access to the Internet, in home or elsewhere — work, school, public libraries.
The online petition can no longer be casually dismissed by officeholders, because the quality of the petitions has improved. Name, address, phone number, or other confirmable identifying information now accompanies an electronic signature. And professionally managed petitioning groups keep databases of people favorably disposed to their stance on issues. Credo, MoveOn, and the like have mailing lists to which they can dispatch appropriate alerts, and with one click, a person can add his or her name (with ID) to a petition that can gather tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of signatures in a matter of days, even hours.
To reach vast audiences now, people and movements need not struggle arduously and at great expense actively to reach out. Instead, they merely post something to Twitter, Facebook, and the like, and passively reach huge numbers of people who exert themselves to get those messages and then act upon something they favor.
It's a new age, and the Koch Brothers cannot control it. They cannot buy off millions, They cannot shut down websites. They cannot intimidate legislators or public executives with threats of vast outpourings of paid propaganda, because people can turn off political ads with the press of a button on a television remote, and hang up on robocalls. The active/passive dynamics and relationships have been magically, technologically reversed. Tens of millions of people are no longer passive recipients of other people's messages. They actively seek out the information they need to decide among the proposals they also seek out in their quest for solutions to the problems that concern them. They don't have to let other people define the issues for them and dominate the public discourse.
The game has changed, and the Koch Brothers may soon find themselves on the outside looking in to the real halls of power. Isn't that sad?
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