a new kind of autonomy

As I was driving home tonight, I was idly listening to The World on my local NPR station and passively taking in their news tidbits (maybe a topic for another post, but something I find a truly bizarre development – possibly fueled by methods of discourse on the internet itself?). One in particular made me metaphorically stop in my tracks – I had an initial reaction of “hah,” but then my thought process kept going.

The tidbit in question was a minor dispute among brothers that stand to succeed a leader who recently died in the United Arab Emirates. (Forgive me for forgetting the name, but in this case it’s more or less immaterial.) The one, younger brother was apparently already chosen to succeed his father. However, the older, half-brother had thrown his hat into the ring by declaring that he was the successor – via “an internet video.”

Amazing how naturalized this has become for us already: that YouTube, etc., have become a norm for communication between not just those of us dancing, doing ridiculous stunts, or taking videos of our cats. No, it’s also the medium of choice for leaders ranging from Osama bin Laden to Barack Obama. (I wince at putting them in the same sentence given our political climate, but mean no association by it other than their tremendous use of new media in the form of internet addresses to the public at large.)

We have already passed a point, it seems, where we have – in general – taken the internet as a place where we can exercise some autonomy, where we can address, potentially, the world.

Ten years ago, would this half-brother have been able to assert his own (however imaginary) claim to a leadership position?

Would Osama bin Laden be able to send out monologues from wherever it is that he’s ensconced himself?

No, I think not. Certainly their access to traditional media channels is nothing compared to the power of being able to upload their own videos, writing, photographs, and calls to arms over the internet, to reach not only a target audience but potentially anyone across the globe with network access. It’s not even limited to computers. A large portion of the world is, I would say, quite empowered by internet access via mobile phone. There is now a two-way access to online media in each of our hands – through the nice desktop computer I’m now typing on, to a cheap non-QWERTY mobile phone.

And we must note that yes, Barack Obama, as well as a number of politicians, media leaders, and corporate PR departments, are using these non-traditional media channels as well – despite having full access to traditional media. What I consider traditional media, in fact, spends most of its time and effort covering these figures already. They don’t need YouTube to get their messages out in public, even globally. But Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook have come to be seen, obviously, as somehow indispensable in a larger strategy of communication.

The news of this brother’s internet announcement made me think beyond online video and Twitter, however. Think of the explosion of blogging in the past ten years. I kept a blog back in 2000, hand-updated on my web site, before blogging hit the mainstream and one could start an account at any number of services (although I am excepting LiveJournal from this history, because I think in a number of ways it’s a fundamentally different communication ecosystem than exists on other blogging services and web sites). Although I was blogging the minutiae of my days for a small group of friends that I saw on a regular basis at that time, somehow it never occurred to me that the autonomy my small web site gave me would spread so far and so fast.

This is how I came to see it, in those few minutes in the car. It’s part of a larger phenomenon that isn’t tied to any particular outlet. But it is tied to the internet, to networked computing and the unbelievably large-scale communication environment that it presents to us. Although we can talk about current issues of control over media environments – downloading content from iTunes and Netflix, looking to TV stations to upload episodes of their shows – there is still an undeniable shift in power that has occurred.

Whereas we had a theoretical personal autonomy in our communications before, I would argue that that is what it was – theoretical. At best, small-scale. At worst, produced only for ourselves. A zine circulated by hand among a relatively small group. A small-scale magazine. Personal correspondence. Letters to the editor. Outside of the media landscape out of our individual control, we had little opportunity to communicate any kind of message to a broad, global, and unknown audience.

This has changed. What I see in blogging, Twitter, and online video is a momentous shift not simply in communication media, but in communication possibilities. It is our opportunity for individual autonomy, one that has become largely subconscious. Of course anyone can submit a video to YouTube. Anyone can open a blog. Anyone can tweet from his or her mobile phone. Anyone can start a web site calling others to join in a larger movement – no matter how small, it’s on a larger-scale level that was unimaginable before.

This autonomy is not simply a louder, broader voice. It’s a possibility for communication by individuals on a global scale. It’s a possibility for communication beyond geographic boundaries. It is a truly new kind of autonomy.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m ignoring the fundamental disparity in power that lies in infrastructure and economics, not to mention governmental or corporate control. Of course not everyone can make a web site. Not everyone has access to this communication landscape in the same ways. But regardless of the very real technological, economic, and topical boundaries that stand in the way of a serious segment of the population, it is undeniably a shift in possibilities. A shift in the way we can think about communication, and a shift in possibilities for power and influence on the individual level.

One thought on “a new kind of autonomy”

  1. I would argue that this fundamental shift in our ability, as individuals, to put our message out there to the world at large inevitably leads to an equal shift in our perception of what messages matter.
    Where once, only mass media could reach the general populous and as such, only mass media had the power to inform (correctly or incorrectly and for good or ill) now, as you say, everyone can reach everyone.
    How, then, does one filter through the crap, the nonsense, the unsupported, and the flat out wrong, not to mention the minutia, and find the “truth”? Who or where do we now turn to for a “reliable source” to backup our arguments and theses? With so many able to spread their own word, we now are forced to learn to filter all these new sources to find those that we choose to believe (I say choose to believe because ultimately all knowledge is nothing more than what we as individuals choose to believe based on the assertions of someone else).
    Of course, this is certainly not meant to suggest that having a very few entities with the power to reach the masses is good, nor that having a great multitude is bad. But with the ability for the masses to spread their thoughts, opinions, ideas, etc. also comes the ability to spread disinformation under the guise of “anonymous expert”.

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