Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dangerous communication 8/24
   The way of the teacher

Overconnected systems
Riots are a form of horizontal communication–the exchange of information by people at the same level in a hierarchy.

Most organizations develop mild forms of the riot pattern--factions or cliques that feed each others’ rumors and paranoias. Organizations generally try to constrain horizontal communications to some degree, requiring some information to move vertically. We need to get permission from the office for this or that. We need to slow down and get our reasons in order. All our big talk and passionate half truths that work for a laugh at lunch get thought through more carefully. We tone things down, tending toward modesty and sobriety.

In their excellent book on communication within biotic systems,T.F. H. Allen and Thomas B. Starr (Hierarchy) describe animal communities that have too much horizontal communication as “overconnected.” To take a simple example, when the food supply is large relative to the population, what one member eats is not readily apparent to the other members. That is, the actions of one individual are not communicated to the others.

But as the food supply dwindles, each bite taken by one member noticeably reduces the available food, so the actions of each are communicated to all. Some animal populations reduce dangerous horizontal communication by becoming territorial, dividing the food supply into geographical areas, which limits communication. If the food supply continues to diminish, a pecking order sometimes emerges, and some members are sacrificed, removing them from the communication network.

In human systems, such as schools, putting shared resources before the group as a whole to decide often creates similar patterns. In one school where I taught, the administration, hoping to avoid responsibility and perhaps blame, allowed the staff to develop the schedule, which allocated student time–a scarce resource. People had to compete with one another to survive. Programs that couldn’t attract students would dwindle, and putting a class in the competitive time slot could virtually guarantee its failure. When a budget crisis aggravated the situation, territorialism and pecking orders based on seniority, along with calls for sacrificial RIFs, developed quickly.

A reasonable, authoritative decision from higher in the system would have been contested, but it could also have resulted in much more staff harmony and higher morale. Overconnected systems, in which destructive information moves horizontally too readily, can lead to instability and the danger of sudden collapse. This danger is often underestimated by those who call for committees to ensure that “in every step, every memo, every meeting, and every agenda, no student is excluded,” and for all decisions to be made through “face to face discussion. . .to avoid hierarchical domination and engender collective empowerment.”

Gossip, with all its distortions, fabrications, hypotheses, and rumors, often creates a pattern of overconnection. Passing on destructive information about others, except when their welfare is part of your stewardship and your goal is to find a way to help, is seldom a minor problem, but people quite easily convince themselves that, since they are opposing something bad, more good is done than harm.

Lynch mobs are an extreme form of gossip. Between 1889 and 1930, 3,724 people were lynched in the United States (more than 80 percent of them were black). In his study of this phenomena, Arthur R. Raper describes the pattern that led to these violent acts: “As the crowd grows and discusses the case, the details inevitably are exaggerated. These exaggerated reports, in turn, further excite the excited people who exaggerated them. After a time, the various stories of the crime take on a sort of uniformity, the most horrible details of each version having been woven into a supposedly true account. The milling process continues until an inflammatory speech, the hysterical cry of a woman, the repetition of a slogan, the accidental firing of a gun, the waving of a handkerchief, the racing of an automobile engine, the remarks of some bystander, or some other relatively trivial thing, throws the group into a frenzy and sets it on a career of arson, sadistic mutilations, and murder.”

The historical lynchings in the South were stopped, of course, by the imposition of a hierarchical system of justice that “disempowered” the local people, and that replaced pure democratic action with a system of authoritative constraints. Law and order were established.

In a milder form, this was the pattern I saw in my school repeatedly, as leader after leader was driven from the system only to have the levels above and below the administration create a new leader, similar in most respects to the one who had left.

New powers, new challenges
In an age of tweets, texting, and blogs, it’s worth thinking for a moment about some of the effects that improved communication technology has had in the past. Much is made of the way new technologies can thwart unjust authorities, as with the Orange Revolution in Ukraine or the incipient green revolution in Iran. And this is a good thing.

But new powers are never available only to good people. At each advance in communications technology, old regimes are threatened, leading to social turmoil which is frequently bloody. Even the automobile caused trouble. Soon after motor vehicles became widely available, criminals figured out that they could afford better guns and faster cars than local sheriffs. This led to the era of such notables as Bonnie and Clyde, “Baby Face” Nelson, John Dillinger, and “Machine Gun” Kelly. The response was to strengthen law enforcement at a national level–out-organizing the criminals. The old United States Bureau of Investigation developed into a more robust FBI.

In recent years authorities in France and Australia, found themselves unable to constrain mobs of angry youth speeding through the city setting fire to vehicles and buildings. The trouble was that the rioters had motorbikes and cell phones as well as Molotov cocktails, so they were able to out-maneuver and out-communicate the cops. High schools have had problems with students disappearing, their parents calling them home in response to false rumors of bomb threats spread by cell phones. These may be the small warnings we so often get–English teachers call it foreshadowing–when new patterns are being formed. We got herpes before we got AIDS.

The first communications storm
We entered a new communications age in 1963 when the Kennedy assassination and funeral led broadcasters to hack together a temporary and haphazard national live television network. For the first time, viewers across the country were linked in a simultaneous television event. Afterward, people were ecstatic about the possibilities of finally unifying humanity, bringing us all together in the comfort of our living rooms.

Then there was 1968. Throughout that year, cities across the world were racked by wave after wave of demonstration and riot, as angry young people inspired by the radical literature of Marxism took “alienation” as their motto and revolution as their project. Students across oceans could learn overnight how tactics used in other places had worked. The occupation of Columbia University was widely copied. Students used the mass media to teach each other quickly the most effective tactics in their heady goal of bringing to collapse the national governments of the industrial world.

Provocateurs in Paris, Prague, London, Mexico City and Berlin quickly learned to enlist the new media in their strategy. From Martin Luther King they already knew that if police could be goaded into acting badly before cameras, passions flared and “the Movement” grew. Too often, the police complied, not yet fully cognizant of the new world that had come into being around them. In their world, belligerent confrontations against legitimate authority were put down. But the kids knew the game had changed. Provocation was their method. “All the world is watching,” they chanted.

Students in the Czech Republic were demanding freedom of speech and assembly, but it’s less clear what students in other places were demanding. They were not engaged in the class struggle as many of their leftist parents had been. “Alienation” was their cry, and they were fighting “the Establishment” symbolized by the Vietnam War, which they hated, and the universities that taught “it,” which they hated, and the governments that supported “it,” which they hated. They ranted against consumerism and materialism. They were disgusted by prosperity.

Some of them were having a tremendous amount of fun. “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll” was not just a motto–it was an anthem of liberation. Beyond suits and jobs and schedules there was ecstacy, as least for those under thirty.

The invitation sent out by the Yippies calling on people to come to Chicago to protest the Democratic Convention read, in part:

It is summer. It is the last week in August, and the NATIONAL DEATH PARTY
meets to bless Lyndon Johnson.
We are there! There are 50,000 of us dancing in the streets, throbbing with amplifiers and harmony. We are making love in the parks. We are reading, singing, laughing, printing newspapers, groping, and making a mock convention, and celebrating the
birth of FREE AMERICA in our own time.
Everything will be free. Bring blankets, tents, draft-cards, body-paint, Mr. Leary’s Cow, food to share, music, eager skin, and happiness. The threats of LBJ, Mayor Daley, and J. Edgar Freako will not stop us. We are coming! We are coming from all over the world!

The clashes with riot police in Chicago sent 100 demonstrators to hospital emergency rooms. Similar events occurred throughout the world in places such as Berlin, London, New York, Madrid, Tokyo, Prague, Paris, and Mexico City.

Finally, Russia mobilized 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops, and armored cars and rolling tanks put an end to the earlier liberal concessions of Prague Spring, leading to protests in every European capital.

In Paris, leftist student terrorists set off bombs in the Chase Manhattan Bank, the Bank of America, and Transworld Airlines. Rioting erupted at the Sorbonne, and the strikes spread to schools throughout Paris. In the streets, radicals heaved Molotov cocktails at the police.

Long-haired students and communist union members briefly joined forces against De Galle in a general strike that eventually involved ten million people. The French government was paralyzed by the worst social protests in nearly a century. An advanced industrial economy was stopped. DeGaulle’s government in near collapse, he took refuge at an air force base in Germany. The events dominated global mass media.

Students throughout the world, even in Sweden, looked desperately for injustices they could denounce.

In Mexico City, riots went on for months, fed by news of student demonstrations and riots around the world. Mimeographs made publishing cheap and easy, and throughout the nation students created inflammatory “wall newspapers” full of details of police brutality. Handbills and leaflets drifted down from tower blocks. Busses rolled by spray-painted with revolutionary slogans.

At sunset on an October evening ten days before the Mexico Olympics, 5,000 soldiers accompanied by 200 tanks fired on 10,000 students demonstrating in Mexico City. Sniper fire and helicopters contributed to the surreal scene of a nation’s military force turned against its youth. The number of people killed in the Tlatelolco Massacre is unknown but most estimates range from 200-300. The number of arrests is also unknown..

Writing in The Nation, Robin Blackburn argues that the processes that nearly led to the collapse of national governments forty years ago “are far more advanced today than they were in 1968.” We are all “now within the same global communications space,” he says. “All this persuades me that there is a greater potential today for a type of ‘global storm’ . .as we used to say, 1968 was just a rehearsal.”

He thinks this would be a good thing. He’s far from the only one. The debates about what it all meant continue. At the moment, American youth seem more interested in IPODs and personal worlds than large-scale social action. But any number of events could change that quickly. Mass movements are a recurrent pattern in history, and next time the movement will be supercharged by powerful communications. It seems that another national or global communication storm at some point is a bit more than possible. It seems quite likely.

The traditional response
All of the world’s major cultural traditions include clear constraints about how people are to communicate with one another. Christians are directed to avoid backbiting or speaking evil of one another, to avoid provoking envy, to avoid dissembling and deception, to avoid murmuring against one another, to edify one another, and to be slow to anger. Buddhists are exhorted to refrain from false speech, to be sensitive to others so speech can be timely and appropriate, and to know when to be silent and to listen. Confucius advised people not to listen with impropriety or to speak with impropriety, but to speak with absolute sincerity, to cultivate one’s own virtues so as to never complain of others’ virtues, and not to say of others what you yourself would not like.

Both email and texting have tended to make communication more informal, and the laxness of many online messages goes beyond typographical simplification. We should think about that.

It may be that more powerful communications technologies have the potential to magnify the effects of what individuals say, sometimes without their knowledge of how someone, somewhere is being affected. More than we can imagine may depend upon people re-learning the wisdom of old constraints.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/23 at 07:24 AM
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© 2009 Michael L. Umphrey
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