It’s been fifty years since the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”of 1963, when Civil Rights activists and organizers brought more than 250k participants to the nation’s capital to call attention to the discrimination and unemployment plaguing African Americans. To mark the anniversary, Washington DC played host to another “March for Jobs and Justice”, following much of the same walking route and culminating in speeches.
The tone and organization of this year’s march was decidedly different, as are the times in this digital age. Here is a short list of 4 relevant technological changes that –for better or worse – have influenced the face of political action in the last 50 years.
Yes, television did exist 50 years ago but the scope, power and business model of tv production has changed dramatically. It was June 1963 when Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X, the face of black militancy of the time, engaged in full, long form debates on network television with other mainstream voices. Today’s TV conglomerates have created more tv channels but less diversity, as networks clamor for the same demographics, producing formulaic entertainment content, effectively ignoring and marginalizing voices that challenge establishment politics and culture.
Squeezing rapid-fire segments between advertisements has created a media culture that would make it virtually impossible to argue radical ideas or properly explain why America is still the #1 purveyor of violence in the world today.
Online Petitions & Social Media “Likes”
Take a look at these recent biting UNICEF advertisements to get a sense of how some organizations feel social networks have influenced activism and social movements. UNICEF mocks the commonplace use of “likes” as a show of support for their difficult global work. The term “slacktivism” is a relatively new prejorative, used to describe those that do little more than hit “like” on a Facebook story, sign an online petition or share a link on Twitter. Do these things work to bring about change? Even the most optimistic studies show that a follow up effort offline must be undertaken for these online petitions, likes and e-sharing to have real value.
Imagine the population of Montgomery, Alabama simply “liking” the Montgomery Bus Boycott Facebook Page instead of doing the dangerous and inconvenient work of boycotting the public transportation system for over a full year.
Dr. King, suffered privacy intrusion and intimidation through methods of wiretapping and surveillance that would seem silly by today’s standards. The prolific civil rights activists and organizers listed on the official program for the 1963 March on Washington, would have surely included digital privacy among those rights worth fighting for.
Bayard Rustin, A. Phillip Randolph, Rosa Parks and others of that era would probably stand aghast at the irony of the first black president presiding over an administration that routinely shows disregard for civil liberties.
Mobile Devices and Real Time Publishing
The participants in the 2013 March on Washington listened intently to speeches from event leaders at the podium in front of the Lincoln Memorial, just like 50 years ago. This time they also occasionally tweeted a profound word or two from the speaker. Ok, maybe more than two. The #marchonwashington hashtag was abuzz with updates, quotes and pictures. A day later, Youtube has hundreds of videos and commentary so that interested parties in California and beyond could join in the historic experience with unprecedented speed.
Technology is only as powerful and good as its user. In order to ensure that the next 50 years of tech advancements serve to enhance our values, the world will need more independent journalism, a strong defense against encroachments on internet privacy, bottom up militant activism and the capacity to adjust to a rapidly evolving landscape.