Friday, 25 March 2011

Of petitions, amnesia and humanity

Petitions have changed the world. Petitions mattered in a world where writing against the government was a capital crime... where adding your signature to a certain document was a revolutionary act. That was all fine and well in an age where not only ink and paper but literacy itself were scarce currencies.

With the advent of the internet and much increased literacy figures worldwide, however, the worth if not the meaning of the petition itself has become diluted. Yes, you get warm fuzzies about signing a petition to "force the government into talks" about getting rid of corrective rape. The petition's aims are laudable and morally unimpeachable. I want to sign it because it's the right thing to do. I just started wondering exactly how much of a difference not just my but all our signatures could possibly make.

How does adding a "me-too" on some random website help anyone on the ground -- where the rubber *ahem hopefully* meets the road, as it were? Yes, a round million is a good figure with which to attemt to pressure the government into more action than lip service -- but does that million even matter to the Powers That Be?

Our current government's real power base is the poor. The disconnected. The scattered. The ones who live in shacks and work their butts off to clean floors, patrol buildings, fix roads and haul trash. They're lured to official holiday celebrations *coughpolitical meetingscough* with free food and speeches and a grand day out for all. They arrive hungry for explanations -- why are we still living in shacks? Why do our children still die, smoke tik, join gangs, and die young? Their "chosen" leaders feed them, soothe their ears and send them away feeling satisfied for about as long as the free food takes to digest. They're no less tired and frustrated the next day.

What happens to the frustration? Who can an individual poor shack dweller turn to to vent their pent-up feelings? Increasingly, communities are banding together and talking about it. In many cases, they feel it's a good idea to protest or even riot. Government sends in the police; a message is sent, an invisible line is drawn: It's us against you. We, your government, care more about property damage than about people. Rubber bullets and water cannons are deployed. Barring the odd accident, nobody is killed and the crowd disperses. That's fine in the short term, but then some sort of collective amnesia sets in on both sides. Government seems to forget that the crowd was composed of hundreds if not thousands of individuals who each and every one felt strongly enough about an issue that they would commit violence to achieve their aims.

The mob, for its part, has had a nice cathartic protest action. Government seems to make some motions, everyone is hopeful that change is in the air, and the status quo is maintained -- for now. The emotions, the deep-down thoughts, though... those don't go away and don't stop being felt.

All power is based on a threat of force. Non-lethal force is still force. What message does the officially sanctioned presence of a uniformed combat-trained troop send to the people, anyway? "We could choose to hurt you, but we don't. By the way -- don't make us hurt you." The culture of fear is reinforced. People are so afraid of upsetting the apple cart that it takes intensely strong feelings to spur them into action. Usually this is when a group's attempts at effecting change via the official channels have been stymied to the point of crisis. Why does it have to come to that, anyway? What is this nameless thing which causes this inability of politicians to learn from history? I suspect it's mostly due to most of them thinking in terms of, well, terms -- of office. Net so ver soos hulle neuse lank is.

This double-sided amnesia is a double-edged sword. I understand and to a degree empathise with why people do what they do to numb their unhappiness, pain and discomfort. Terry Pratchett once wrote: "What people want, what they really really want, is for tomorrow to be pretty much the same as today."  Of course you want your kids to be as safe tomorrow as they are today, if not more so. This is fine for more well-off folk living in safe areas, but what about the Cape Flats? Pick a ghetto, township, bad neighbourhood or informal settlement from a hat -- your children aren't safe and you know it, but even if a child still has both parents, they both need to work in order to put food on the table.

What if that becomes untenable? What happens when SA is finally done getting sucked dry by overseas corporations and the mass layoffs start? Make no mistake, one of the reasons the huge conglomerates still operate here is because of the low cost of relatively skilled local labour. What happens when our looming skills shortage becomes a reality? (Eskom alone is soon to lose fully a third of their engineers to retirement -- and they can't be replaced because we don't have enough trained engineers. That's what happens when the education department plays with their feel-good-make-the-circle-bigger circle jerk called Outcomes-Based Education instead of focusing their energies on finding and training the best and brightest, I guess... but I digress.)

The poorest of the poor often don't have electricity or running water, let alone internet access. Whether or not you believe that the creation and perpetuation of the conditions suffered by the poor is a result of deliberate conspiracy by entities inspired, empowered and motivated to long-term socio-economic dominance -- anyone with eyes and a brain can see that the living conditions of a rather large chunk of our government's power base is extremely advantageous to its hold on power. Internet access itself is beyond the reach of too many, and will remain so while the lowest-priced internet-capable mobile phone costs somewhere between five and fifteen times what an unskilled manual labourer earns per day. (This doesn't even take into account that just getting to and from work can skim a third off the top of that... let alone that due to their work schedules many of these same people have to do their major food shopping at late-night convenience stores at damn-near criminal prices.)

Which channels does the average man in the street then have to get information? A few radio stations, all licensed by the government. A few television stations, likewise. The ones who can afford mobile phones are registered and thus controlled. (DSTV is of course out of reach of Joe Soapless.) The "free press" is feeling the pressure -- both the ruling and opposition parties pay lip service to press freedom while calling for journalists to be licensed and controlled. (Self-censorship is a major daily dilemma in journalistic ethics -- how much can I get away with? How much of the truth will They let me tell vs how much do I have to say?) So whether by accident, political pressure or economic manipulation, the government more or less controls the informational channels between the outside world and the man in the street.

What does all of this have to do with online petitions? Simple: The reason why government can afford to simply ignore a million signatures on an online petition is because the online populace isn't their power base -- we're too well-informed not to see through their bullshytt. It is in government's best interest that as many people as possible remain offline. If literally everyone over 18 in SA had an internet-capable cellphone and actively responded to even semi-official online petitions, government would have to sit up and notice if a whole big chunk of the nation signed one. As it is, 1 million people is less than a drop in the bucket of biomass propping up the ruling class. We need everyone to be connected and aware for the internet to matter at all.

(Of course I sign the petitions if it's a cause I support -- not doing so would be sort of like taking a stand against said cause -- but I harbour no great hopes of anyone in power listening.)

It has always been the case that technology challenges authority. In this case, the technology is networking. Q: What does the network want? A: To be connected. Q: How does the network perceive disconnection? A: As damage. Q: What was the originally intended purpose for the internet? A: To maintain communications by routing around damage in the event of nuclear war.

The faster we get everyone online and aware, the quicker things might just change for the better. I fail to see how it could make things worse around here.

Mark my words, someday the words "network" and "humanity" will be synonyms, and that day shall humanity be free. Denis Diderot said "Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest." To this I add my corollary: "Man will never be free until the last politician is strangled with the entrails of the last lawyer." (I'd have it the other way around, but for the political gutlessness of late.)

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