Thursday, April 25, 2013

Drowning in Information, Thirsting for Knowledge (About Movements)

It's no great novelty to observe that anyone today with the resources and inclination to own the right kind of cellphone can instantly access more information than was available to, say, the President of the United States fifty years ago. We are awash with information, bathed in it, saturated by it. There are a lot of opinions out there about what exactly that implies about us and about the social world we live in, many of them quite silly, but I do think this fact is relevant to something I've been thinking about a lot lately.

Through a combination of chance and following my inclinations, I have ended up involved in several different things which mean I spend a lot of time paying attention to how information about organizing (or activism, or social change work, or struggle) moves around. On the local level, I am the current curator of Sudbury Social Justice News, an email newsletter sharing local social justice (and, more recently, environmental) events with interested subscribers in the city. It was started perhaps a dozen years ago by one friend; made a bit more systematic and technically smooth by another friend a few years ago, who looked after it for awhile; and, after periodic guest stints while that friend was out of town, since last spring I have been its regular maintainer. This means constantly being on the look-out for local event information to include in the mostly-weekly updates. Beyond that, I am also involved in Grassroots, the Sudbury working group of The Media Co-op network. I do a bit of grassroots journalism for the site, but mostly am involved with organizing and editorial work -- which means, in large part, dealing with information from and about local groups related to change-work, and seeking to build relationships with and readership/writership among them.

On a larger scale, my new-ish podcasting/broadcasting project, Talking Radical Radio (browse all episodes so far here) means that I am constantly looking to learn about groups, projects, and initiatives engaged in interesting social change work (broadly understood) in all different parts of the country. This means pursuing both online written sources of info as well as word-of-mouth sources in various regional and national networks with which I'm connected. I'm also on the advisory board of the radical political journal Upping the Anti, which is a much less week-to-week sort of thing but which does mean connecting with active folks in other places and still sometimes encountering word about social change efforts across the country (and beyond). As well, though it is no longer a current focus of work, it is a reference point for me (and source of one of those networks just mentioned) that years ago I put rather a lot of effort into connecting with long-time activists in different parts of the country in order to do oral history interviews with them for the project that ended up resulting in my first books. And, finally, I spend lots of time -- probably too much time -- reading about all of this stuff in lots of different sources because I can't help myself.

The first point that has become clear to me from all of this work is that the flood of information that surrounds us makes it harder, sometimes, for us to perceive the significant unevenness in that flow. It feels like everything, at any time, is at our fingertips, but that's really not the case -- some things come to us effortlessly, other things can easily be found with a little work, while still others remain hidden despite the most heroic of efforts. Now, there are some aspects of this unevenness that, while they might be shocking to some in the general public, will come as no surprise whatsoever to anyone who has been involved in social movement-ish activity. To explain that portion of the unevenness, many people who are involved in movements point out that the powerful institutions that comprise the dominant media are simply not going to produce substantial content that will undermine the status quo in which they are embedded and on which they depend for returning substantial profit to their owners -- the very usefulness of these institutions to powerful interests is connected to the best of them exhibiting a certain limited openness and a modest commitment to following (limited and always-problematic) rules to produce knowledge about the world, which is the basis for reactionaries screaming about liberal bias in the media, and there are certainly better and worse ways that the basic criticism gets made, but I think it is a fundamentally accurate point.

That part is important. It may even be the most important part, as I think the dominant media is still the single biggest way in which people learn about the world and about efforts to change it. But I'm not only interested in that information flow, but also the ways in which it flows or does not among people who are already actively engaged in seeking out and circulating information about struggle. We've always had word-of-mouth, and with the burgeoning use of email, online media, social media, and the autonomous self-publishing and circulation of information by other mechanisms, it is possible to connect with lots that the dominant media is unlikely to circulate. So the information flood that surrounds us can make us forget about how uneven it all is, but then focusing too much on the flaws in the dominant media can lead us to neglect how uneven all of these other aspects of information flow are as well.

So, for instance, one of the tools that I've been experimenting with to get leads about groups/project/initiatives that I might do a radio show on is Google Alerts. This service from the search engine behemoth emails you an alert whenever your specified search terms appear in new content online. I have a fair number set up in which I combine the names of mid-sized Canadian cities with keywords that are associated in one way or another with social movements of various sorts -- things like "union" and "feminist" and "anti-poverty" and "social justice" and "LGBT." The relative lack of leads, or even of somewhat relevant content, that this nets for me is in part about the failings of the dominant media -- newspapers don't write about these things very much, so they don't appear in search engines very much. However, I don't think that's all. Google doesn't just index the online presence of newspapers, it keeps tabs on the entire web, and I don't get a flood of notifications about relevant material on more marginal sites either. Of course their algorithm might be such that it excludes more marginal blogs and so on just as a matter of course. But even granting some biasing of the results in that fashion, I think it also indicates that lots of information about lots of the things that go on in any city -- and I know from my involvement in Sudbury and, at earlier points, in other cities that they do happen -- doesn't end up even on that kind of site. Much of it remains isolated in the immediate environment of the people who actually did the work. That is, it does not enter the flood, so even if we swim out of the larger currents to the more out-of-the-way eddies and pools to look for it, there's no guarantee we'll find what we want.

Another way that this unevenness happens is, I think, through patterns of attention and how those are replicated in the ways in which information gets shared via social media. (The norms instilled in us in major ways through the dominant media are a part of this, of course.) I don't think my experience gives me enough basis to do more than speculate about this, but I think they are fairly grounded speculations. Partly I'm drawing on my own experience of being a fairly avid follower of people who share movement-relevant info on both Facebook and Twitter, and partly through what I've been able to observe about how various pieces of my own work get circulated or don't. I won't try to tease out details, but I will say this: Even granting the limited time most of us have to engage with all of the possible content that comes our way, more often than not what most of us pay attention to, what we engage with, what we share, what we consider as somehow relevant to or about us, versus what content that floats by us that does not catch our attention in those ways, often flows from and reproduces aspects of the oppressive social relations we claim to be working in-and-against (even as it may oppose others). As a fairly banal example, white people are just as shaped by the white supremacy/racism that permeates our society as people of colour, but are much less likely to regard it as about us and therefore much less likely to read/share/care about material that focuses on it. I think there are a many other kinds of examples that could be cited, too, that are built from this basic phenomenon.

Along with making it harder to see this unevenness, the overwhelming flow of information that surrounds us also makes it hard for us to appreciate the truth and significance of two other points that sound more obvious than they actually are: the default state is not-knowing and any instance of knowing is a product of work. We're so used to just knowing, or just being able to know after a few keystrokes and a click, it's easy to forget that the default state in relation to pretty much anything that isn't our own immediate experience is not knowing, and that just because we don't know doesn't mean that whatever-it-is doesn't exist or doesn't matter. So finding out that local environmental groups who are pretty politically compatible and who exist in the same small city often don't know what each other is up to should definitely be seen as regretable, as a problem to be work on -- and they are -- but it shouldn't be surprising. When a particular union local in Sudbury is inspired to start making public noise about a particular issue and they don't bother to tell any of the most likely potential community allies, well, that shouldn't be a surprise either -- they don't know, we don't know, and of course that's where things start from.

Moreover, one common and initially surprising experience I've had in asking other progressive-ish people for suggestions for the radio show has been a relative paucity of responses. Given how generous people were sharing suggestions for my long-ago interview project, I know it's not a matter of activists being inherently suspicious and unhelpful when it comes to these sorts of requests for information. But, for some reason, lots of people I've asked in this current search whom I would've expected to be full of ideas have none whatsoever, and many others can only come up with an idea or two from that very short list of groups/organizations that lots of people have already heard of. Partly, I think, this is about patterns of attention, as described in the last paragraph -- I think a lot more people identify in a passive way with movements as good things than actually pay much attention to the nuts and bolts of what is being done and how it is being done, or see that kind of information as in any way relevant to their own lives, so a number of people I might've expected to have their finger on the pulse of a particular kind of organizing in the city or in the country don't actually pay much attention to it. Probably a bigger part, though, is again that not-knowing is the default, and going from not-knowing to knowing is a product of work being done -- and not just being done by the individual who ends up knowing, though of course being done by them as well, but a whole range of socially co-ordinated work by multiple people situated in multiple ways. Part of what the onslaught of information in our lives obscures (and this is perfectly consistent with lots of other default understandings in our culture) is the fact that knowing, just 'cause, that celebrity X cheated on celebrity Y, or that the Leafs failed to make the playoffs again, or what politician Z said last week about gun control, are all the product of a great deal of socially organized work allowing us to know these things. And if that work isn't happening when it comes to organizing/social change work, or if it is happening in ways that require significant effort to encounter the knowledge thus produced, then that is going to reinforce patterns of attention that relate to movement-building in passive ways and result in (among many more politically significant consequences) fewer people having fewer suggestions for me than I might have predicted before I started.

Just as this post started with an obvious point, it is going to end with one: If we can't count on the dominant media, if the default is not-knowing, and if knowing requires socially co-ordinated work across multiple sites by multiple people, then we really need more people doing more and different kinds of work if we want to produce and circulate the kinds of knowledge that will support movements. Now, this could easily just end up being a pitch for more people to get involved in producing independent media (hint: Sudburians, write for us!). Certainly I think that would be useful. But I also mean it more expansively than that -- it's not just a matter of taking on some new, specialized form of practice, i.e. grassroots journalism, but it's also about being a bit more deliberate and a bit more critical in how we navigate the flood in our everyday lives. It means recognizing that whoever we are, however we are located, we already do work that is related to how efforts to create social change become known (or don't). If we spend at least a little bit of time reading or viewing or listening to content about the world and about efforts to change it, then that includes us. If we at least occasionally use social media or even old fashioned verbal recommendation to direct other people towards particular kinds of content, we are doing that kind of work. Moreover, at least some of you are already involved in collective efforts of one kind or another to create change, and that too intrinsically means that you are part of the work through which knowledge about social change is produced and circulates. All I'm saying is that we can take up those roles a bit more deliberately. We can work against the ways in which our deeply engrained patterns of attention remarginalize knowledge that is already marginalized, even when we think we're posting all sorts of politically rad stuff. We can begin to work on relating to what we encounter on social media not just as individuals with consumption practices that we might change, not just as spectators to a rapidly deteriorating world, but as potential subjects of collective liberation -- even if we don't march down and join up with some group, we can recognize that we have that potential, that content about relational practices and collective actions are in fact relevant to us, and we can start to pay attention to things that address us as such. And in the groups that we are already a part of, we can tweak how we do what we are already doing to be more attentive to the importance of including work that is about producing and circulating critical knowledge. It might be a few coalition-focused meetings a year. It might be recognizing that my union local may need community allies in the future, and doing preemptive work to figure out who they might be. And I'm pretty sure that, even given our inevitably scarce time and energy, it can mean a whole lot more than that too.

Don't be fooled by the flood of information that surrounds us. It is only by recognizing its multiple forms of unevenness and doing the work do turn not-knowing into knowing that we can produce and circulate the kinds of knowledge necessary to support the kinds of social movements that might have the kinds of impacts that we want.

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