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Demonstrating a precedent for prudent scepticism about collective action on the Internet.

Is the medium particularly important? Would you feel better if it were all organized with newletters over the postal system?

Or are you just afraid of collective action in general?

>Is the medium particularly important?

Yes and no. No, the medium is not important, because groupthink can manifest and has manifested many times at every stage of civilization. Groupthink is of course not unique to the internet.

But yes, the medium is important, because the medium in this case is the internet, the defining medium of our age, and which most importantly is an emerging medium, which I would argue we still don't really understand. I think that we haven't yet worked out, as they say with the development of cinema, the grammar of the internet. This is after all still very early days for a global connected world culture, and there is always the potential for negative developments in such a period, before mistakes have been made, recognised, and effective counter-measures have been developed and deployed. In my view, this period is always dangerous.

>are you just afraid of collective action in general?

Not afraid perhaps but definitely wary. Collective action can be good, but it generally takes a lot of time and hard work and thought by a small group of people preparing and working on the rationale for the action, targeting an issue which is as close to bulletproof as possible. The Civil Rights movement, for instance, is an excellent example of this, but it didn't happen overnight. "Good things take time." And I should mention that from my impression the people involved in civil rights behaved with calmness and dignity, and never would have turned shrill at a small setback or upset. Contrast this with modern insta-rage activism, which in my opinion rests almost always on very shaky intellectual foundations. The screefield of issues thrown up in the wake of Aaron's death are anything, I would say, but bulletproof.

There is a strong precedent in history for collective action degenerating into groupthink and turning very nasty, and thus I think it is perfectly reasonable to be suspicious of collective action today.

Re: your previous post -

> If you fuck up in the public sector, you get sacked.

See that's part of the problem. Yes, of course, employees public sector should be accountable. I have no argument with that. But the implication here is that these employees of the DOJ did fuck up. But did they really? Many, many people judged them more-or-less on the spot as guilty - and based on what? A blog they read? Their political prejudices? Their sympathies to a story about a nice young kid with lofty ideals? Is this issue really so simple, so cut and dried, that it boils down to some bad cops ganging up on a nice kid? I don't believe so. And furthermore, I think that it never bodes well when lots of people are making up their minds very quickly that someone is an enemy who needs to be punished.

That's where normal, democratic mechanisms of accountability are supposed to come into play: to sift slowly through all the ins and outs of issues and avoid quick, heated judgements. Yes, there should be mechanisms for accountability in society. But those mechanisms must be objective, critical - and slow. What modern internet activism threatens is a short-circuiting of whatever mechanisms we have with the worst mechanism of all: mob rule. Regardless of the quality of current mechanisms, that would be a loss. Why? Because mobs move too quickly to reflect on their motives. Because mobs lack the social delineation which allow dissenting voices to challenge the developing orthodoxy. Because mobs lack an organisational structure which would allow the issue to be effectively and calmly analysed. Because mobs demand quick justice. Because mobs intimidate others to get what they want. Because mobs demand assent.

Now, I'm not saying that the current situation is all this. It's much milder than the worst case scenario - but it has the potential to develop that way. Or at least that's what I think. I also think that at any point in time, the people crying the loudest about oppression and freedom are most likely the real oppressors. But that's just a pet theory.

Whether the "mob" is right or wrong is of relatively little real consequence; lives are not at stake, a career is (and even that is wishful thinking). You attempt to artificially raise the stakes in order to shut down action and dialog through unsanctioned channels by comparing this to lynching, but your intent is too transparent.

Your 'pet theory' about those who complain about oppression is a very convenient one for someone interested primarily in the status quo. Quite clever.

> but it has the potential to develop that way.

Hyperbolic bullshit. There is no potential for this online petition to develop into a lynching.

You are afraid of effective collective action.

Okay. First of all, I am not afraid of effective collective action. It's right there in what I wrote: I gave what I consider a shining example of powerful, positive effective collective action: the American Civil Rights Movement. (This documentary is excellent: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders/ - I use it as point of reference to reflect on modern political activism.)

Secondly, I am actually not saying that I think that, within a week or two, people will be calling for actual blood/lynching. What I'm trying to do is flesh out my sense of a trend which, though driven by the impatience and quick mouse-fingers of internet-users, is a lot slower than that. I think the Aaron Swartz hullabaloo will peter out. But I have noticed a gradual, albeit strong, trend of increasing pressure being wielded by the great undifferentiated masses of the internet. Anonymous. We The People. KONY. Avaaz. These are all facets, I reckon, of the same trend: slowly, a structure is forming which can link together and focus the emotion of the many against the few. Anonymous' Low Orbit Ion Cannon is not a bad example. Anonymous users can join together to attack prominent, exposed individuals or groups. Governments, celebrities, corporations, whatever. The balance of power is stark: targets have little recourse - isolating one individual or another from the crowd is practically useless.

Now, because LOIC is a pretty dramatic example, I should be clear of something: I am not saying that this trend is categorically a bad thing. But I do think it has the potential for evil - not now, but later. You say that what is happening is of little "real" consequence - I would argue that perhaps now that is true (though should be willingly sacrifice a man's career to the appetites of the crowd if he is innocent?), but what about next year, or the next? I am not stupid. I know that there is a buffer between these petitions and the government. That won't disappear overnight. But people are working hard to develop, all the time, these tools of "direct democracy." SOPA was stopped. Action has been effective, and governments do seem in some ways relatively impotent, lacking the technological know-how, focus, flexibility and downright cunning that can be mustered by engaged citizens.

Again, I should be clear: I'm not imagining some cartoonish image of crowds marching through the streets with pitchforks. However this manifests it will suit the manner and technologies of this time.

Also, I'm not defending the status quo. Really. I haven't considered the flipside to these arguments in depth, but it involves something along the lines of the ability of large organisations to negotiate agreements with other large organisations, to engage the bureaucratic infrastructure of society, and develop and deploy large-scale surveillance technologies. I'm not sure how these forces balance up, or how they will pan out, or who's good and who's bad, or who I think should win. I'm mostly playing with ideas at the moment.

Anyway, in this corner of the web, we spend a lot of time worrying about democracy and the rights of the people, standing on soap boxes and shouting about injustice - but what if we're part of a game, what if we're not as pure as we make ourselves out to be? The concept that our actions might be aggressive, confrontational, threatening, is counter-intuitive - a lot of what I'm saying is counter-intuitive (which is why I think people here are reacting so mixedly to it) - but what if this is our blind spot? What if we are the aggressors here - or what if we are the force growing into the role of aggressor/oppressor? What if governments and corporations turn out to be weak before the anger of the crowd?

Well. I don't know, but I think it's interesting to consider. I'm not afraid of effective collective action. But I am opposed to poorly-thought-through collective action. 1) because it tends to flop (Occupy) 2) because it needs to grasp for easy enemies and 3) because it can be destructive. I see that potential today in modern internet behaviour. Maybe tomorrow I might see another side. Who knows.

Above all: I like to know where the crowd is heading before I join in the rush. It seems difficult to get a coherent answer from a lot of these modern cause célèbres.

> "Again, I should be clear: I'm not imagining some cartoonish image of crowds marching through the streets with pitchforks."

If that is really the case, then maybe think next time before you start off by making comparisons to lynching.

Yeah yeah, I know. "Why not LOIC him?" doesn't carry the same juicy emotional punch...

I'm surprised I need to explain this.

I made the comparison to lynching for two reasons. Firstly, because I think the basic social DNA is the same, though the phenotype is different. To whit: an angry crowd jumps to a snap decision and demands rapid, extra-legal retribution. In the case of lynching, the crowd is a group of people in a single place whose only mechanism of demanding this retribution is face-to-face and physical. In our situation, the crowd is a dispersed group of people who can interact in relatively anonymous digital channels, and do not have as clear a mechanism to gather together physically and demand retribution in that fashion. (Luckily - this practical difficulty hampers the groupthink tendencies of the internet.)

Secondly, I made the comparison to lynching because it is an effective rhetorical point. Lynching is something which most people today would find shocking and unacceptable. By drawing and defending a comparison between lynching and this current behaviour, I am attempting to reframe and destabilise this modern trend of calling for blood. People that find lynching shocking might eagerly support calls for the firing of Ortiz or Heymann, but if they are confronted with a logical link between the two activities, they may reconsider their motives and actions.

And broadly I am doing all this, as I have explained, because I think while this behaviour is relatively innocuous now, it's growing teeth, and could turn ugly.

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