Here’s a question that’s been asked far too often: Does technology bring us together, or does it keep us apart? On one hand, you can broadcast anything to potentially anyone on social platforms, forums, or blogs. On the other hand, you can spend hours holed up inside, separate from the people immediately surrounding you.
My answer to this question is that it does both, and I bring this up because I’ve been thinking of another question: Why now, and why “occupy”? Nathan Jurgenson of Cyborgology writes that he wouldn’t be surprised if this turned out to be the age of mass uprisings. I don’t know the historical statistics, but I do see some pattern of protest with the Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring movements as of late. Jurgenson says that due to increased communication capabilities, the protest now involves a wider scope of participants. No longer are the marching, the fighting, and the chants limited to the physical space they occupy, but protesters can actively broadcast everything to innumerable anonymous spectators on YouTube or other multimedia sites.
I only somewhat agree with Jurgenson on his evaluation of a “mass uprising age”—mass communications have likewise led to a lesser form of online activism, slacktivism, which conveniently packages a protest into simply signing an online petition or joining a Facebook group. None of the things that are effective about traditional protest is relevant online, aside from the number of people who click “I’m attending” on a “Protest X on this day!” event.
The digital space is unlimited, as far as we know. Unless you have cultivated a unique voice, the things that you write or post are fairly insignificant. It’s important to pay attention to what you’re consuming, not to what you’re producing, unless your production is a function of consumption, such as in the many curatorial sites like Tumblr that have been popping up. Slacktivism doesn’t work because it is easy to ignore, and when it does it’s only because of a potential physical consequence. The word “occupy” that captures this recent movement is significant for this reason. It is not only a promise, but a mandate of physicality.
In my column last month, I talked about how data organization is storytelling. The way we share physical space is unlike the way we share anything online, and I would argue that one of these stories we’ve created together is the physical world. For better or for worse, the physical world is a reflection of a community’s influence because of its (ideally) collective design. As time goes on and as we populate digital space with our throwaway projects, an actual book will have more lasting value as a repository for knowledge on the basis that it is physical. We are starting to recognize that true authenticity comes from the physical world, where there is no way to copy and paste the tone of one’s voice or the structure of one’s face.
At Columbia, we thrive in the physical—finite time and space. This campus is the reality that influences whom we talk to, where we go, and how we interact with each other. And it seems to me that we, as students, feel as though we have very little to do with the University’s design. Perhaps this is a sentiment that comes from shoddy administration. But I would bet it comes just as much from our culture of pervasive individualization that so limits us to our time commitments and seasonal arcs of Netflix videos that we have forgotten to care or see the people and places around us.
It’s less a question of who is to blame and more one that begs: How can we change this? And how can we do it gradually and intelligently? At an institution that teaches everything from the liberal arts to applied math and sciences, in a place that’s designed to create the future’s “experts,” we must put our minds to this question.
A protest is just a gathering of physical bodies. It creates a presence without true influence. Perhaps it has influence gained by the sheer brute force of occupation, but no influence intellectually. And I believe that we are the generation to remove apathy, disinterest, and disconnection from our collective physical space, our home.
Yanyi Luo is a Columbia College junior majoring in information science. Chipped runs alternate Tuesdays.