Viral Videos, or Global Mobilization?

Gisele Baxter asks whether all our instant communication will lead to greater splintering or more cohesion - or both? - photo by Martin Dee
Gisèle Baxter asks whether all our instant communication will lead to greater splintering
or more cohesion – or both? – photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 1 | Jan. 4, 2007

Viral Videos, or Global Mobilization?

By Gisèle M. Baxter
Sessional Lecturer, Dept. of English, Faculty of Arts

Growing up, my vision of future communications owed much to Star Trek, with its efficient communicators and cross-galaxy telescreens.

Communication technology has experienced a revolution over the last 20-30 years that science fiction scarcely dreamt, a seismic shift on the order of the invention of the telephone, or of movable type. Does the possibility of instantaneous global contact suggest a smoothly connected network, or a system of mostly disconnected pockets of communication?

In some ways the 21st century began with the development of the silicon chip, and accelerated with the advent of the Internet. Cultural phenomena (from fandom to online role-playing games) develop as people quickly locate others who share their passions. Grassroots political movements mobilize. Distant expertise is available to enthusiastic neophytes. Marginalized voices find or create forums.

Yet as one review of the movie V for Vendetta suggested, it would be interesting to know what happens the day after the revolution. We currently face two significant directions that communication technology could take (one need not preclude the other). One is a continued splintering of cultural interests and preoccupations, challenging and engaging with notions of mass culture and cultural hierarachies. (My own work in popular culture suggests that trends increasingly resist definition and are often ephemeral, also that they tend to coexist with a variety of other trends rather than dominate the popular imagination.) The other direction is the possibility of genuine global mass movement towards widespread change.

E-mail has become so common that I wonder what the collected correspondence of notables will resemble by the end of this century. Social networking systems such as LiveJournal or MySpace enable easy development of interactive multimedia sites to be shared with existing friends and promoted to attract new ones. A cellphone now allows you to chat while text-messaging while checking email while taking a picture while listening to downloaded music. Especially but not only among young people this is changing the nature, even the syntax of communication, and challenging notions of privacy.

We may actually have come to fear privacy as too much like loneliness. YouTube is full of webcam-recorded confessions that before would have been consigned to a diary kept safely hidden. Do we dare to say something without at least the chance of an audience? With all the instantaneous communication at our disposal, have we come to dread not having a lengthy "friend list?” And what does this contact amount to: conversation in the traditional sense, or snippets of information and links to homemade videos and reports of celebrity transgressions?

And what others might this contact include? Orwell’s telescreens were visible. Now, Big Brother might be more apt to peer silently over our shoulder. A weblog rant about work or a cellphone conversation on the bus is hardly private, but if surfing habits invite tailored advertising, or if shared images end up in third-party hands, the early assumption that e-mail is about as private as a postcard echoes resonantly. Moreover, copyright controversies apply to more than old commercials captured to YouTube.

However, while many might fear they’ll be caught downloading pirated movies onto their computers (and this is the sort of debate most often foregrounded by the media), others face more serious restrictions. Where dissent is especially discouraged, governments tend to clamp down on Internet access. This suggests that the possibility of political mass movements being formed and promoted online is real. Surely there is a critical mass of people worldwide with big concerns: war, starvation, epidemic, environmental crisis, for example. Could the technology of mass communication enable the sort of connection that might actually mobilize genuine global activity towards significant change?

Further advances in communication technology are inevitable: however, the way that question is addressed in this century will say much about the actual impact of these advances, and about the way we view the relationship between risk and benefit.