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Entries in eduskunta (1)

Friday
Sep282012

Hunchback Of The Hour


Finnish citizens can go online to force their national parliament, the Eduskunta, to vote on any citizen-led proposal, providing the citizens can garner at least 50,000 digital voices.

 

The initiative is being hailed as a milestone, crowdsourced digital democracy in action.

 

This is our world: interconnected, social, mobile and – take note – driven by technology and by the crowd.

 

I stand in awe of the power of the crowd, which seems anxious to respond decisively to any of the incessant provocations that echo across the digital domain.


Atop the minaret

 

The digital tribe is a force for good when it responds, for example, to natural disaster in Haiti or Japan. The power of the crowd is evident in the squares of Tunis and Cairo as the old guard, if just briefly, is brought to heel. Mass action by the Occupy Movement, street demonstrations by thousands in Quebec - these too are mobilized with the aid of instant messaging. Not to diminish the dignity of the individual and his anger, but the Arab street, recently called to protest the film Innocence of Muslims is beckoned to the public square not just by the loudspeaker atop the minaret but also by text message. And, as I witness mass disruption in journalism and publishing - since everyone now is a writer and everyone, now, is a publisher - I see the traditional, legacy media caught in the public square and challenged there by the wisdom of the crowd.

 

This has me reflecting on the alacrity of technology, its' impact and mediated power to provoke us to acts of kindness or cruelty. The crowd holds the power to transform, to build, to rescue and repair. The crowd holds the power to incite, to maim, and to obliterate. The mediated, mass, digitized crowd can be herded down either path.


The Siege of Paris by Moonlight

 

In history, when mobs laid siege to Paris by moonlight, where they converged on the Bastille or took up their knitting before the guillotine, you could at least see the whites of their eyes as the crowd became puffed with power. The crowd can be swift, its' vengeance awesome. Today, the mediated crowd can be just as vengeful but also anonymous.

 

We can classify the crowd according to their prevailing emotion. As Nobel laureate Elias Canetti shows in his book Crowds and Power, crowds can be very irrational. These days you need simply look here.

 

So, what is the difference between the 1789 Lafarge storming the Bastille and the digitized Lafarge leading the crowd into the fray via a keyboard campaign on FB, Twitter or SMS? Both the 1789 crew and the modern one reach a moment of discharge, as Canetti calls it, where individual power is safely transferred into the mass anonymity of the many.

 

But consider for a moment the tyrannical power of the crowd.

 

Not long ago I was compelled to reach out to a lonesome outcast, a modern hunchback of sorts who had been pilloried and gutted by the social media cowards and, dammit, by the mainstream mass media too.

 

But it was the social media campaign organized against this contemporary Quasimodo that caught my attention, as the poor soul must have felt like the loneliest being on earth. The digital froth and frenzy against him had all the trappings of a Medieval public execution, the crowd lusting for blood.

 

Although we had never met, I extended my hand to Quasimodo: assuring him via email that while this dark moment had come to pass - it had not come to stay. He replied with great courtesy, obviously relieved to hear a lone whisper of support across the cold canyons of estrangement.

 

And though I assured him that things could not possibly get worse, things then got worse.

 

With each passing hour the crescendo of calls for his head became louder, more virulent, more persistent. Blog posts and thousands of voices on Twitter and Facebook, cackled with condemnation. A few days more and the swarming, frenzied, crowd reached its climax. “He is just a terrible human being,” one Facebook user said of our poor hombre, who was by now the loneliest man in Dodge, an absolute outsider, the hunchback of the hour.

 

I could only imagine how for our hunchback this would have been a moment of complete estrangement from society and humanity. I sent him another note. He seemed moved almost to tears.


It's cleaner now

 

Whether it's the bloodlust of the internet crowd or the rabble assembling in the square for the public execution, in either instance the swarm-crowd risks nothing. “There is no risk because the crowd have immense superiority on their side. The victim can do nothing to them. He is either bound or in flight, and cannot hit back; in his defenselessness he is victim only,” says Canetti.

 

Writing in 1960, Canetti noted that in the mid 20th C everyone was able to participate in the collective killing via the newspapers. Things were a little cleaner than in the old days, the crowd more distant from the actual event, but the psychology remained the same. No risk: “We are not responsible for the sentence, nor for the journalists who report the execution, nor for the papers which print them.”

 

Today, the print version of the newspaper is pretty much dead, but the crowd has reified. The digital crowd will form, do its business, only to vanish again into cyberspace - all the while calling for the victim's severed head. Since this crowd does not even have to assemble, it escapes disintegration and lives to find its next victim or villian, hero or hunchback of the hour.

 

Recommended: Elias Canetti Crowds and Power, 496 pp, Farrar ISBN-10 037451820

 

(Top Image: David Roberts The Siege of Paris by Moonlight 30 x 20 A/P Giclee | Inserted Image: David Roberts The Weight of Heaven 16 x 12  watercolours)