It’s not the technology, it’s the movement
In many ways, the unrest that has emerged since the death of George Floyd has been a result of new technologies. Digital photography and mobile networks have captured and spread images of police violence against black Americans in high resolution and in high relief. While it may seem that there is an epidemic of police violence, in reality, what has changed is that now this violence can be captured digitally and shared instantaneously.
As a result, rage and fear have spilled into the streets, even in the midst of the pandemic. These new technologies are exposing police violence and racism more broadly and may also help bring about social change. But it is not the technology alone that will make that change happen, nor is it the first time that technology has helped spark social consciousness, and, ultimately, social change. As in previous eras, technologies are essential as a means to an end: They can help us connect and build bridges, even across distance; and build community, even despite our differences.
In the 1830s, a new printing press, one powered by steam, supercharged the abolitionist movement and allowed advocates to spread their anti-slavery message deep into the southern states, using the postal system to do so. That postal system of the early 19th century rivaled those in England and France. What is more, the new steam-powered printing press that the abolitionists harnessed increased the yield of these presses dramatically, and cut the cost of production considerably, making the abolitionists’ task easier.
Speaking of the steam printing press and the postal system, Rep. John Winston Jones (D-Va.) decried these “great revolutionizers of the world” for what he feared they would do: Threaten white supremacy.
Soon thereafter, the invention of the telegraph made real-time, long-distance communication possible for the first time, and, in 1846, led to the formation of the Associated Press, a pool of news outlets that shared news stories pulsing over the telegraph wires. Two year later, news of the women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, spread across the nation by telegraph, encouraging other women to hold similar convenings, and a network of activists emerged. Emma Coe, a movement leader, praised the “lightning coursing the telegraphic wires” and “the smoke-girt steeds” of the railroads as symbols of progress that she hoped would usher in advances in gender equality.
More than a century later, television helped a social movement seize the national consciousness. Americans from all walks of life saw images of police attacks on civil rights activists beamed into their living room sets. The introduction of the television helped advance the cause of civil rights, and movement leaders often took great pains to engage in actions that would bring about the most visibility for their work. Coverage not only raised awareness; it also gave activists a greater degree of safety. Ruby Hurley, an early leader in the movement, explained that her activism was far more dangerous in the 1950s, “when there were no TV cameras with me to give me protection.”
These examples show that social movements throughout American history seemed to emerge with advances in technology, but the technology alone did not bring about social change. Movements have harnessed technologies to advance social change, but their success is attributable to other factors too. The members of these movements gathered together in local cells where they met face-to-face, but were connected to networks that spanned the nation.
During the height of its fight against the Jim Crow system, the NAACP had more than 1,000 local chapters, including in the Deep South. These local cells fostered the interpersonal trust that is essential to social change work. But it was through their deeper and wider connections, the networks of which these local cells were a part, that they could influence policy and politics in local, state and national arenas.
These movements also embraced positive, inclusive messages crafted around notions of shared destiny and humanity. Technologies may help us to connect with each other, but to build an effective movement, leaders and rank-and-file members also had to identify with others, sometimes those that, at first blush, looked and thought differently.
Many groups in the civil rights movement were cross-race and cross-class. They formed alliances with those with whom they shared interests, even if they did not see eye-to-eye on everything. The late Derrick Bell called this phenomenon “interest convergence”: The idea that when Americans see that their fates are shared, social change is not just possible, it is sometimes inevitable.
Frederick Douglass would also see the promise of technology and its value to social change. He referred to “the growth of intelligence, the influence of commerce, steam, wind, and lightning,” as “our allies” in the cause of freedom, but they were not ends in themselves.
The more important network was “the powerful and inextricable network of human brotherhood.” It may be hard to see past the current crises of the pandemic and racial violence. But today’s technologies, like those of the past, hold out the promise that they can, perhaps, help foster positive social change by linking us together in ways that build empathy, highlight the importance of shared sacrifice, facilitate the sharing of ideas and coordination of action, and ultimately realize a more perfect union.
But the technologies alone will not do that. It also takes passion and compassion, cooperation, trust, humility and empathy. It takes the hard work of trust-building and organizing, whether face-to-face or on Zoom, with sometimes unlikely allies, in ways that leverage shared interests and shape a common destiny. Technologies can serve to facilitate these components of social movements. But only through the hard work of organizing for racial justice and fighting other forms of oppression, even in a pandemic, will the promise of positive social change become a reality.
Ray Brescia is a professor at Albany Law School and the author of “The Future of Change: How Technology Shapes Social Revolutions.”