Given all of the political upheaval around the world at the moment, much of it fueled or supported through social media and communications technology, it’s no wonder that news outlets are looking for experts to explain what’s happening. There is a Feb. 18th interview on the Wall Street Journal site with social media expert Clay Shirky: http://online.wsj.com/video/facebook-and-twitter-are-changing-the-middle-east/E0BAA515-5056-4F4A-AC5E-C684BADE46CA.html . This seems to have resulted from an article which he wrote for Foreign Affairs: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/67038/clay-shirky/the-political-power-of-social-media. These led me back to talks he had done for TED: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/clay_shirky_how_cellphones_twitter_facebook_can_make_history.html and http://www.ted.com/talks/clay_shirky_on_institutions_versus_collaboration.html.
Shirky makes the point that the power of this new media is not the additional spread of messages from centralized figures of power. Instead, the low cost and wide availability of cell phones and computers has significantly lowered the “cost of coordination” in both economic and political spheres. It is the ability of small, individual actors to produce and hear messages from each other. And as he explains, it is the power of those individual messages which shapes beliefs and changes behavior.
Access to information is far less important, politically, than access to conversation. Moreover, a public sphere is more likely to emerge in a society as a result of people’s dissatisfaction with matters of economics or day-to-day governance than from their embrace of abstract political ideals (Shirky, 2010, p. 35).
It’s obviously not all about cell phone videos and Tweets, though. This information began at least as far back as the middle of the last century:
In a famous study of political opinion after the 1948 U.S. presidential election, the sociologists Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld discovered that mass media alone do not change people’s minds; instead, there is a two-step process. Opinions are first transmitted by the media, and then they get echoed by friends, family members, and colleagues. It is in this second, social step that political opinions are formed. This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference (Shirky, 2010, p. 34).
There are still deeper issues at work here, and they have to do with some of the basic principles of social systems. Referring back again, as in previous posts, to the work of Andras Angyal (1941), and beginning at the level of individuals:
One of the essential features of living organisms, whereby they differ from any other object in nature, is what we might call their autonomy. By this is meant that the organism does not represent merely an inactive point, in which various causal chains intersect – as mechanistic philosophy assumes – but is, to a large extent, a self-governing entity… The organism is, to a large extent, the cause of its functions, that is, it is endowed with spontaneity. We could also say that the organism possesses a certain degree of “freedom”… (pp. 32-33)
The autonomy of the organism is not an absolute one. Self-determination is restricted by outside influences which, with respect to the organism, are heteronomous… Thus every single organismic part process, and also the life process as a whole, is always a resultant of two components, autonomy and heteronomy (pp. 37-38)… In this study, by autonomy is meant “self-government” and by heteronomy “government from the outside” (p. 39)… If one now considers the organismic total process with regard to the a [autonomy]: h [heteronomy] ratio, one discovers a definite trend in the organismic total process toward an increase of the relative value of a in this ratio, that is, a trend toward an increase of autonomy (p. 41).
While it sounds as though Angyal (1941) is referring to individual people, or at least to individual biological rather than social units, he later clarifies his scope quite clearly:
We regard the life process as a unitary happening, as an organized single process whereof the organism and the environment are only abstracted features. Instead of studying the “organism” and the “environment” and their interaction, we propose to study life as a unitary whole and endeavor to describe the organization and dynamics of the biosphere. The subject-matter of our conversations are not organismic processes and environmental influences, but biospheric occurrences in their integral reality (pp. 100-101)
There is always danger of misapplication of theories in different realms, and even at different scales of systems. It is worth at least considering, though, that the principles which Angyal proposes may apply to human social systems as well as to biological ones. If so, then the propensity of systems to move towards autonomy is an important one. This is reinforced by Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s concept of progressive mechanization, in which systems become less responsive to their environments by way of repetition of the same internal processes. They become machine-like. Niklas Luhmann referenced the same kinds of processes in his description of operationally closed systems. In this case, he included the possibility of exchange of matter and energy with the environment, but made the distinction that the internal processes of such systems were governed or regulated only internally.
Angyal (1941) makes an absolutely critical distinction when he clarifies that “internal” and “external” are not spatial issues. They are issues of governance and relationship.
With regard to the organism the terms “external” and “internal” have a specific meaning. They do not refer to spatial relations… “Belonging” or “being a part of” means that a certain factor is carrying out a partial function of the total system (p. 42)
The conception of organism and environment as morphological entities which are separable in space is inadequate for the description of biological phenomena. They become fundamental biological concepts if we define them as dynamic factors. Dynamically expressed, organism is self-government and environment is heteronomous influence. Every concrete biological process is a resultant of these two factors. The relationship of these two factors can be expressed theoretically in the ration of a:h in which the relative values of a and h vary from case to case (p. 97)
So to extend all of this to the realms of social systems and politics, telecommunications media have facilitated conversations between people, which have allowed new systems to emerge. These new social systems are comprised of individuals who quit responding to environmental governance which they would no longer support, and began responding to new principles of governance with which they better identified or “resonated.” They did not have to move from one physical space to another in order to leave the old system. The old system began dying when they simply quit responding to its cues. These changes have not generally been the result of a new political theory broadcast through mass media. In fact, most the new movements or systems have yet to be clearly identified. (Some existing political influences hope to fill the vacuums in their own plays for power, but the outcomes remain to be seen.) The new systems with the strongest and most consistent patterns are the most likely to survive. They will define themselves and move towards further autonomy and self-regulation.
Angyal, A. (1941). Foundations for a science of personality. New York: The Commonwealth Fund.