The world-wide web is growing so exponentially fast that problems are arising and no one seems to notice them. This column will be a reality-check for those who have lost their sense of what it means to be human, and therefore have a twisted view of reality, because they spend far too much time on the world-wide web. Hopefully, my opinions will provoke some fruitful discussion.
Recently, I read an article in the paper that related the growing trend of “Digital Demonstrators” (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 3, 1998). It said that “virtual marches” could be an effective way to bring about social change. It stated that “activists can demonstrate with a mouse click… This really pissed me off! First of all, it is a gross misrepresentation of what motivates social and political change. Ultimately, social change comes from an emotionally based behavior pattern. The reason people change in unison is because we are united by a similar emotional response. We are not moved to change the laws if we don’t have an emotional experience that connects us to the political issue. For instance, those who have experienced a loved-one suffering in pain on their death-bed are deeply motivated to change the laws regarding doctor-assisted suicide because of the intense similarity of their emotional response to their dying loved-one. Or further, those who have experienced discrimination, or racism, or poverty, have an emotional connection to one another, and consequently, are deeply motivated to change the social conditions. “E-mail protests” barely even cross the threshold of lending support to an issue. The internet is so anonymous, and such a poor gauge of the emotional status of its users, that it is hard to verify if the words and pictures you are seeing were even generated by a human being at all.
Let us not blunder and assume that behaviors such as protest marches, sit-ins, benefit concerts, lectures, and other social gatherings can be reduced to electronic media that effectively filter out all human emotional connections. How do we measure the seriousness of a cause? We see it and experience it with our senses.
When a million people show up in Washington D.C. and demand to be heard, it is a powerful, moving expression of what it means to be human, social and conscious. Email effectively filters us from both sociality and consciousness, and that is why it fails as a means of protest. There is nothing dangerous about it either. What can the unruly “e-mob” do if their “e-cause” is not enacted? Send out more “e-hate- mail” (Stop it you’re scaring me!). But a huge throng, collected in one place is dangerous and moving. It says we have made huge errors in our policies. So huge in fact that these people were angry enough to leave the comfort and privacy of their homes to allow their faces to be seen, and voices to be heard. And if they are ignored, there will be trouble. In short, email can be used to alert people of pending problems, but it does not constitute the demonstration. “E-protests” will fail to bring the social change because they aren’t based on human contact. Contact, the merging of the senses, the coupling of human experience, is necessary for any kind of meaningful protest or demonstration. If protests become only electronic, they will be nothing more than an allegory of human nature, as whimsical and fickle as the charged electrons that dance across the computer screen, careening toward a strong nucleus, that only temporarily holds them.