Friday, August 28, 2009

Internet is Wonderful and Dangerous

Living On Ether

I think I’m qualified to talk about making mistakes on-line, because I have already made most of them.

American politics is conducted, more every day, on the internet and world wide web. It’s a truly wonderful development that extends democracy as well as information. But, like everything else, it comes with a downside. It’s possible to make horrendous errors with a couple of keystrokes.

The best and worst thing about ethernet exchanges is how easy it is. It’s true that the great information highway disseminates a lot of truth, but it also carries a lot of junk and outright lies. Every user must keep that in mind.

People point to MoveOn, the Howard Dean campaign, and the Obama campaign as great examples of the power of well-coordinated on-line work, but there’s a built-in flaw to their approach. It’s one-way communication with very little feedback. That’s why MoveOn often calls public actions right on top of local actions that are already underway, thus dividing our forces unnecessarily. Local organizers are learning the wisdom of signing up to organize for MoveOn as soon as they decide on a local action, just to keep that handful of well-meaning computer experts from calling something else at the same time in some other part of town.

When Lenin gave some of his greatest advice for dealing with other people, “Patiently explain,” he didn’t have the dangers of internet communications to deal with. The printed word, on paper on computer screens, is a lousy way to communicate on delicate issues. It’s just as easy to type “stupid idiot” as “possibly misinformed,” and somewhat more fun. We do not realize how our emotions are amplified in print. Many a flame war has erupted because people made formal written statements when they should have been more sensitive, and the internet just isn’t sensitive. We need to talk face-to-face or at least by phone to avoid a lot of misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and ruptured communications.

Not all the dangers of the internet are unintended errors. Some of them are malicious. In the Communist Party of Texas, for example, we receive a lot of innocent sounding requests from people around the state for information on other people. If we give that information out, we’re breaking a trust. We might be giving their names and information to the KKK, for all we know! It’s much better to ask people to let us help them publicize actions in their own areas. If there are good activists around, we’ll find each other!

In Texas, where vast spaces separate us, it is easy for anybody to put up a web page and call themselves something with the word “communist” in it. Several of them, with no authorization or connection to CPUSA or the YCL whatsoever, already have. There needs to be some kind of authorization process so that people in far-flung places can verify their contacts through the national CPUSA.

We need to adapt our work with the upsides and downsides both in mind. The ether is a great but dangerous place to build our movement.

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