The SOPA Blackouts and Our New Political Lingchi

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Last week, the fight against SOPA and PIPA took an interesting turn. For those not familiar with SOPA and PIPA, they're twin pieces of legislation that were being considered by the US Congress aimed at combating online piracy and illegitimate use of properly copyrighted materials. The below “TED talk” by Professor Clay Shirky is a good primer on the legislation and the problems with how it proposed to address those issues:

There's been a reasonable groundswell of outrage and action against the legislation by a host of internet activists and average individuals over the past months. Companies like Google and Twitter have even been pretty open in their criticism of the legislation, going so far as to become signatories on a letter calling SOPA out as “China-style censorship”.

But after a brief shelving of the bills, many people were left wondering when some of the big players who have a stake in the legislation would take some bold action to back up their words. Last week saw Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia stepping into that role.

Wikipedia, Boing Boing, Reddit, and a host of other websites decided to put their money where their mouths are and coordinated a one day shutdown of their respective sites in protest of SOPA.

But Wikipedia, Boing Boing, et al. are the first sites to take the activity to the next level by demonstrating what the potential impacts of SOPA and PIPA might actually look like. And announcements of the reshelving of both SOPA and PIPA have resulted in cries of celebration from many corners.

No doubt given the above concerns, the delay and reconsideration of these bills is a positive development. All of which prompts the question: was Wikipedia's decision to blackout their site in protest a game changer?

To be clear, the decision by Wales et al. is significant; there's little question in that regard. But posing that question may well miss another vital dimension of this story. A dimension to which we would do well to pay attention.

As the saying goes, anything is preferable to death by a thousand cuts. The saying refers to the ancient Chinese practice of lingchi, which involved the “public dismemberment of the victim” over an extended period of time, eventually leading to death. The last execution by lingchi occurred in 1905, though the practice has seen something of a less gruesome comeback of late in the digital age.

The blackout image for any Wikipedia page you might have tried to access on January 18 exhorted:

Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge. For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia.

To some degree we've come to take for granted this notion of a “free and open internet”. The idea that with enough determination and elbow grease you can get your hands on whatever information you might need has become a given inour time. The free flow of information is just how things are in the information age.

So much so, in fact, that we sometimes overlook the ways in which this reality has wrought changes that stare us directly in the face. If 2011 demonstrated anything to us, it was the ways in which an interesting and – for some – exciting devolution of power is at play in our world.

2011 was the year that tens of thousands of average Arabian citizens stood up and overthrew decades old oppressive governments from Tunisia to Egypt. 2011 was the year that a bunch of people with tents sparked off a worldwide movement that gave voice to widespread anger and disaffection by grabbing attention and headlines. 2011 was the year that Time Magazine acknowledged the power of the nameless, faceless protestor to change the world around them by banding together with his or her fellow citizens as their 2011 Person of the Year.

2011 was a year of lingchi: death by – or at least the infliction of – a thousand cuts to major centres of power the world over. And those cuts were delivered in a very intentionally and explicitly public manner via seemingly benign tools like Facebook, Twitter, and a “free and open internet”.

It is no coincidence that the events of 2011 and the fight against SOPA are linked. A good deal of ink has been spilled describing the role that social media played in making 2011 the year that it was. The Arab Spring in particular leant a new importance to social media and the power that the free flow of information in the hands of average individuals can have.

Events in Egypt were described as the “Facebook revolution”, just as events in Iran two-years earlier were described as the “Twitter revolution”. But it would be a mistake to conclude that social media caused the events of the Arab Spring.

Wael Ghonim, the Google Executive who became a key figure in the Egyptian uprising, may have thanked Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, claiming the work of Egyptians started on the social networking site. And no doubt the ability for Egyptians to share information and collaborate on Facebook played an important role in the events that transpired in country.

But as some have pointed out, there were a host of dynamics leading up to the events we're still watching play out across the Arab world. Organizing and strategizing that had nothing to do with social media took place offline and underground years prior 2011. As is so often the case, while social media sites like Facebook and Twitter were an important ingredient, they ultimately became the right tools at the right time in many regards.

The rise in power of a free and open internet, the influence of social networking to share information and collaborate on important issues, and the ability for hundreds of thousands of average individuals to affect major political change – these things are all taking place in a much larger container than their singular stories reveal. It's that context that's changing the landscape of our political battles and doing away with the notion of game changing events.

The context is a widespread flagging of trust and belief in the overarching institutions to which we've traditionally looked for guidance.

The crumbling of trust in Middle Eastern governments has been, of course, on full display over the past year and comes as no surprise to many observers. But doubling back to the place from where we began, in 2011, “[a] record-high 81% of Americans are dissatisfied with the way the country is being governed[.]” The Gallup poll notes this is a, “negativity that has been building over the past 10 years.”

Far from an American issue, a 2007 UN report notes that, “public trust in government and political institutions has been decreasing in all of the advanced industrialized democracies.” But the problem here isn't limited to governments.

A 2010 Pew Research study on religious trends amongst younger Americans found that,

Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans. Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. They also are less likely to be affiliated than their parents' and grandparents' generations were when they were young.

However, the study went on to find that in many other ways, young Americans are, “fairly traditional in their religious beliefs and practices[,]” in regards to their, “beliefs about life after death and the existence of heaven, hell and miracles[,]” as well as their tendency towards prayer and an, “absolute belief in God[.]”

It's the issue of affiliation that seems primarily to be at issue,

Fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation - so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 - are unaffiliated with any particular faith. Indeed, Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s).

A recent video entitled, Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus, that has gone viral recently sums the chasm up nicely:

Once again, this is hardly an American phenomenon. A study by the Center for Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence that was sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation found that while a majority of young people world wide consider themselves “spiritual” and see “spirituality” and “religion” as both “positive”, “[o]nly 14 percent of youth indicated that their religious institution helps them the most[,]” with spiritual issues.

These sorts of responses aren't terribly surprising.

In his seminal book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam raised the distressing alarm of declining social capital, “the very fabric of our connections with each other.” A somewhat more comprehensive definition from Putnam's website goes,

The central premise of social capital is that social networks have value. Social capital refers to the collective value of all “social networks” [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other ["norms of reciprocity"].

An empirical study that draws on, “nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century[,]” Putnam's book notes that one of the key elements in this decline is a simultaneous decrease in our willingness to belong to and participate in groups, clubs, and organizations.

The cited reasons for this decline are many and complicated. In an interview on Bowling Alone and the decline of social capital, Putnam includes issues such as: women's movement into the workforce and the increase in the working hours of the average American, our tendencies away from residential stability (we move a lot), increases in divorce rates, lower real wages, trends towards mass consumerism, and technological innovations that have privatized and individualized our leisure time.

Putnam notes that none of these alone explains America's declining social capital. But the lynchpin to all of these trends seems to be the stark fact that Americans are living more atomized lives than ever before: socially, spiritually, physically, and economically.

Putnam's work focuses on dynamics in the US, but it would be counter-intuitive if they didn't have some resonance in other parts of the world. Indeed, the existence of The Social Capital Foundation speaks to issue of social capital worldwide.

From the Foundation's website:

The Social Capital Foundation (TSCF) is an independent non-profit institution that pursues the promotion of social capital and social cohesion. TSCF's orientation emphasizes the necessary social dimension of the market economy, the pivotal role of the middle class in modern society, the necessity for social cooperation and participation, the development of civil society vs. government, and the preservation of cultural identity for community integration.

All of which takes us a long ways out from the SOPA blackouts. Or does it?

As another saying goes, “nature abhors a vacuum.” And in the vacuum of institutions we can trust and feel connected to with which we're now faced, average individuals have turned back to the only place they have left: themselves.

Undoubtedly, many will credit Wikipedia's blackout efforts with delivering the knock-out punch to SOPA and PIPA, just like many chalked the revolution in Egypt up to Facebook and the uprising in Iran up to Twitter. And Wikipedia deserves credit, as far as it goes. But to explain the defeat of SOPA by a game changing move by Wikipedia and Jimmy Wales is to misunderstand the much larger dynamics at play here.

The point is that when we think about game changing political moments, they're generally initiated by precisely the kind of institutions and key players in which our trust has become increasingly eroded. By necessity, a political playing field once littered with institutional influence is now populated by average individuals working together to take matters into their own hands. And our impassioned fight for a free and open internet is both an expression and function of that shift. of us struggle to understand this shift using the signposts that have so sturdily guided us in the past, but to no avail. Those signposts point to things in which we do not ultimately believe anymore. Or, at least, not in the same ways.

As Douglas Rushkoff illuminates in a piece Trevor penned about the Occupy movement back in October,

“This is not a movement with a traditional narrative arc. As the product of the decentralized networked-era culture, it is less about victory than sustainability. It is not about one-pointedness, but inclusion and groping toward consensus. It is not like a book; it is like the Internet."

In the same piece, Trevor quotes political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri who make a similar point,

What they don't understand is that the multitude is able to organize itself without a centre – that the imposition of a leader or being co-opted by a traditional organization would undermine its power. The prevalence in the revolts of social network tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, are symptoms, not causes, of this organizational structure. These are the modes of expression of an intelligent population capable of using the instruments at hand to organize autonomously.

It is within the context of this shift that the anti-SOPA movement, the Occupy movement, and even the Arab Spring have emerged and have to be understood. Superpower politics has given away to digital lingchi and the only question that really matters anymore is: what are you going to do?

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  • Comment Link Joe Corbett Sunday, 05 February 2012 05:52 posted by Joe Corbett

    i remain sceptical that a social meshwork without an alternative ideological core, or at least an institutionalized organization, can pose a serious and sustained challenge to the highly organized and ideological institutions of power and money.

  • Comment Link Scott Payne Sunday, 05 February 2012 17:03 posted by Scott Payne


    I don't think that skepticism is unwarranted. Although, it bears mentioning that these meshworks without centre have already accomplished more than I think a lot of people would have guessed (myself definitely included). And what more they might accomplish remains to be seen.

    That said, one of the things I took away from writing this piece is just in what we've lost trust and belief. We trust our governments and politicians less, but we're still compelled to engage in politics. We identify less with religious institutions, but we're not substantially less religious.

    What seems to be happening is that we are looking for avenues outside of our tradition structures to stretch these various legs of ours. hat want to be able to practice on our own terms. And to me, though this piece might seem a bit dismal, is actually quite exciting.

    But it doesn't preclude the notion of building or remaking institutions and structures that better fit and cohere with our needs and beliefs in a twenty-first century context.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Sunday, 18 March 2012 00:51 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Scott, I came across this talk by Yochai Benkler that offers a really interesting angle on the internet forces that came together to block SOPA and PIPA. Thought you or others reading this might be interested. It's also from March 16th, so it's a pretty fresh talk.

    I'd be curious to know if this adds to your understanding of what happened (and if so, what your thoughts are), or if this is pretty much how you saw it. (his specific analysis on this begins at 9:17). Either way, I think the second half of this talk is a great compliment to your article.

  • Comment Link Scott Payne Tuesday, 20 March 2012 19:25 posted by Scott Payne

    Thanks for this, Trevor. I'll have a look and get back to you in this thread. And apologies for the delay in my response.

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