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Paul Levinson's Open Salon Blog

Paul Levinson

Paul Levinson
New York City, New York, USA
March 25
Fordham University
Paul Levinson's The Silk Code won the 2000 Locus Award for Best First Novel. He has since published Borrowed Tides (2001), The Consciousness Plague (2002), The Pixel Eye (2003), The Plot To Save Socrates (2006), Unburning Alexandria (2013), and Chronica (2014) - the last three known as the "Sierra Waters trilogy". His science fiction and mystery short stories have been nominated for Nebula, Hugo, Edgar, and Sturgeon Awards. His eight nonfiction books, including The Soft Edge (1997), Digital McLuhan (1999), Realspace (2003), Cellphone (2004), New New Media (2009, 2013) have been the subject of major articles in the New York Times, Wired, the Christian Science Monitor, and have been translated into twelve languages. Paul Levinson has appeared on "The O'Reilly Factor" (Fox News), "The CBS Evening News," the “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” (PBS), “Nightline” (ABC), and numerous national and international TV and radio programs. His 1972 album, Twice Upon a Rhyme, was re-issued in 2010. He reviews the best of television in his blog, and was listed in The Chronicle of Higher Education's "Top 10 Academic Twitterers" in 2009. Paul Levinson is Professor of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University in New York City


OCTOBER 16, 2011 2:27PM

Occupy Wall Street, Direct Democracy, Social Media: A Thumbnail History of Media and Politics Since Ancient Athens

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IMG_2252The role of social media in triggering and facilitating the now world-wide Occupy Wall Street protests - of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google+, and kindred systems in getting word out about Occupations, and documenting them for the world to see - has been remarked upon so often as to almost seem a cliche.  But the link between social media and direct democracy is true and profound, and is the current culmination of an evolution of media and political expression that began in ancient times.

Back in the city state of Athens, in the time of Pericles, direct democracy arose, in part because of the new literacy that allowed citizens to be informed of public events and the views and actions of their leaders.   The words that these people read were handwritten, which meant that anyone who wanted to write could do so.  Writing and publishing were just as about as easy, in other words, as reading.  

All of that changed dramatically with the invention of the printing press, which had the wonderful result of spreading the written word to millions, but the anti-democratic effect of greatly reducing the ratio of published writers to readers.   Millions of people became accustomed to reading words written by a handful of others.   Unsurprisingly, when democracy slowly re-emerged in the Renaissance and the Age of Reason, it was not the direct democracy of Ancient Athens.  Instead, it was a representative kind of democracy, in which elected officials made all the decisions, and all the people could do was vote the representatives up or down.   This was almost exactly parallel to the transformation in information production and reception brought about by the printing press, in which all the people could do is read and agree or disagree with a book or manifesto or pamphlet, and in no way write or produce it, unless you were in the less than one-percent of the population fortunate to have a monarch's or a printer's (later publisher's) favor.

This inequality of producer and consumer - few producers and legion consumers - was not only continued but exacerbated by the advent of broadcast media, which reduced the number of producers (harder to get your views on radio and television than in newspapers, which at least has letters to the editors) while increasing the number of consumers.   People in representative democracies became better informed, but the information was created by fewer and fewer people.  In some countries, such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, this inequality was masterfully mined to do away with democracy altogether.

The introduction of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in the first decade of the 21st century shifted that ratio back to a more even distribution of producer and consumer for the first time since the handwritten manuscript held sway in Ancient Athens.   These new media live online, but they were unlike other new media like Amazon and iTunes, which still run for the most part like traditional publishing media, with few producers and many consumers.   In contract, any one can Tweet, post a status on Facebook, upload a video to YouTube - any consumer could be come a producer.  That's why I say these new social media are not just new but "new new media".

People in the streets, demanding freedom and justice in the Arab Spring, and redress of economic grievances in the United States, Europe, and Asia, are the healthy and long-overdue political expression of the revolution in social or new new media.  The Occupy movements are expressing a dissatisfaction with others making decisions for us - with our elected representatives doing the bidding banks rather than the people who elected them.

With means of expressing one's political views in almost everyone's pockets and hands, the age of mass media and representative democracy may well be in irreversible decline, replaced by the more equitable system of direct democracy in the which the majority not only truly rules, but everyone's views can get a public hearing.

I'll be talking about all of this a bit more and leading a discussion after the 7:15pm screening of Tiffany Shlain's new movie Connected, at the Angelika Film Center in New York City this Wednesday, October 19.

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Paul, thanks for posting this great historical perspective that brings us right up to today regarding the many protests that have taken place and are currently happening. Following up on your recent story on McLuhan, I have to say it's unfortunate he passed on before the new new media became a reality and wasn't able to witness this for himself.

Have you been down to lower Manhattan to see the Occupy Wall Street protest firsthand?
Thanks - I was downtown for a bit on Friday, and plan to return. My son and daughter-in-law - pictured above - have been there lots of times.
Informed Direct Democracy, the process by which the average well informed real public opinion is brought to the attention of all, directly, is now obviously made possible by the internet. Just as we have secure online banking, shopping, chat, forums, libraries, dictionaries, and many other types of large online services and gathering places of opinions and facts, we can have direct voting on ISSUES that affect everyone, accompanied by direct FACTUAL open sourced information available to all so we can KNOW what the issues are and how the issues affect people. The idea that most people are incapable of making direct decisions in their communities, governments, and international affairs because of lack of abilities, information, and lack of a practical method, is no longer tolerable. Most people on Earth, are perfectly capable of making sound decisions about any political, environmental, social issue, IF the people are provided with factual free open sourced information about the issues. Most people have enough common sense and reasoning abilities to understand and reach very reasonable solutions to all the issues we, the people of Earth, face today on local levels as well as global levels. Having poor education, as the 1% have turned our public education system into their consumer-worker brainwashing, is not the same as being stupid; and being trusting, as most people are, is not the same as being gullible, and is a virtue, not a weakness to be exploited by the greedy 1%. Most people should trust each other to share control over society together, not give up our liberties to a system of greed made by the 1% that's causing famine, wars financial desperation, poor education, and the destruction of our planet, all for MORE PROFIT FOR THE 1%. The internet already offers EVERYTHING that is needed to have Informed Direct Democratic voting on issues everywhere. All that is needed is for people to organize a system. This system should be started by the 99% Occupy International Movement right NOW, while there is still time. In a few short years, the PEOPLE OF EARTH could be voting on local politics and local issues, and on issues that affect their country, and global issues that affect everyone. Let's not allow the 1% to make us out to be a petty and shallow and selfish and cowardly poor VS rich movement. It's not about taking down rich people, it's about taking down GREED itself; most rich people have the same capacity for being reasonable as most poor people do. A real economic recovery is not accomplished by restoring the health of the financial institutions, because they measure their recovery in profit; we need to eliminate GREED from the financial system, because too-big-to-fail corporations reporting record profits does not equal healthy fair economy. The people can come up with MUCH better solutions together online NOW! It's time to stop handing over our control and trusting our representatives to make policies that reflect the will of the people, which they never do. We now have a system of greed running all governments and societies on Earth. Having the ability to vote AND BE INFORMED WITH THE FACTS about the issues directly as a people can FORCE our corrupt and greedy leaders to make the will of the people a reality. After all, in a Democratic society, the government's job is simply to administrate the process by which the will of the people is formulated into a body of laws and policies, which MOST people agree with, and then protect the peoples' rights to have such a Democracy. The government is sort of the secretary and the bodyguard of the people, not the authority for the people to be forced to follow even when most people disagree with its policies and decisions. In a true Democracy, the PEOPLE are the authority of the government.

MOST PEOPLE ARE REASONABLE, give all people the power of direct voting on issues, and we will have very REASONABLE policies, everywhere. Remember, the key is the FREE OPEN SOURCED INFORMATION (kind of like wikipedia) accompanying the voting sites on the internet.

So when reporters come to ask protesters on the streets what we are protesting for, what do we want, what are your demands (as if we were robbing a bank or something) we can say:

Thanks, alfi - excellent analysis and manifesto!
I am so happy you approve, I was worried that it might be rude to post a long "manifesto" on your blog, but this article is the only one I could find using Google that connected the Occupy Movement to real Democracy - and you wrote it so brilliantly too.

Thanks for not deleting my comment quickly and banning my IP for life :), and instead, showing me such heartfelt enthusiasm and respect for my efforts; I am very complimented by your response, coming from such an accomplished writter as yourself.