Monday, November 12, 2007

Nirvana, brought to you by samsung

Gil Scott-Heron's song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" advises its audience that when the revolution occurs, there will be no way to hide behind the trappings of commercial society that create so much distance between the viewer and the images streaming across the wires. Scott-Heron warns that "you will not be able to stay at home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out," and in saying, he suggests that the collectivity of the revolution, and the raw unified power of it will draw the listener in and make them part of a larger whole. Revolution, when it is successful (generally speaking) is successful because the revolutionaries are bound together by messages, ideologies, and ideas that make them not into a raging disorganized mass, but into a collection of "countless and anonymous 'buddies'" (421).

The hippie movement (as usual, stepping outside my comfortable bounds of actual knowledge, correct me if I'm wrong) during the viet nam era gained its strength from the free-love culture and principles by which participants in the movement lived. The forces at play in creating these communities around revolutionary ends are, in my opinion, quazi-religious in nature. There was a distinct philosophy of life that characterized this movement, and to which its participants subscribed. Interestingly, it was because of this that the movement was so frightening to many who stood in opposition to its principles. The idea that a large group of people could become part of this ostensibly hive-like set of ideologies that made their own individual identities only a small part of a larger whole is a terrifying one to someone who is firmly dedicated to a world-view in which they are themselves, and the external world is separate and disconnected.

This fear manifests in many of our modern cultural narratives, such as the Borg of star trek. The key feature of the Borg that makes them so horrifying is the threat that if they capture you, you will not simply lose your life, but your very identity and sense of who you are will be violated and subsumed by the collective will. You have not lost your body, in essence, but your soul. Interestingly though, this very oneness that is treated with such fear by what amounts to a western worldview is precisely what is sought in many non-western philosophies. Enlightenment and oneness with all other consciousness and matter is the ultimate end goal of many forms of Buddhism, for instance, and while this position has traditionally been treated with hesitation by western observers, many of the same principles so feared were treated not with fear but with wonder and even joy by those who participated in the cell phone revolution (admittedly, the Philippines are not exactly western, but I can only assume that the culture is not by and large especially spiritual or buddhist).

Rafael says of becoming part of a crowd that, "estranged, one becomes like everyone else" (414). Throughout the paper, it seems as though those who participated in this revolution felt themselves to be part of a larger movement much greater than their own identity, but with which they were in harmony. Rafael invokes Derrida to describe this crowd mentality as "'the messianic without a messiah'" (421). These descriptions of becoming subsumed by this larger identity seem to suggest the kind of quazi-religious harmony found in many massive revolutionary movements. It almost seems sometimes that human beings were really designed to work as a collective.

The tower of babel is one of my favorite myths, and the treatment that it had in snow crash was, I thought, particularly intriguing. Stephenson's use of the power of language as an implement through which human beings can be harnessed collectively to achieve great ends falls directly in line with Rafael's arguments regarding the power of the txt. I found this particularly interesting in the context of the final comparison between revolutionary mobs; whereas the "crowd" constructed by digital communication around their common principle was seen as democratic, the other mob formed by built up resentments and word of mouth was seen as "unruly" (423). It almost seems as though the power of the text that is discussed to transmit data perfectly and reproducibly along all paths of a network acts as a language of babel to propagate the same instructions and fashion all human participants into parts of this new unified crowd that is "thoroughly conscious of itself as a movement headed toward a common goal" (403). The unruly mob did not use cellphones, but rather formed around a sea of disorganized personal complaints whose commonality was their irritation and volatility towards the administration. It is not surprising that the first crowd appeared to be a more organized, unified, individual creature.

It seems that drawing from what Rafael argues in this essay, a new venue has emerged to facilitate the creation of massive scale networks. Movements have certainly been possible before that have harnessed collective energies towards a common goal—what else is religion, after all—but now with the introduction of this digital medium of communication, such networks can be build larger, more easily, and perhaps more effectively than ever. It seems now that the revolution will indeed not be televised, it will be txt'd.

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