We once lived in a world in which all communication was oral and anyone could communicate any time he or she pleased. Unfortunately, that kind of communication only worked among people with physical proximity. Also, since there was no record of the discussion, the only way people who were not physically present could be apprised of the conversation would be by spoken accounts, which were ever subject to the vagaries of memory and the potential for deception. Diplomacy, such as it was in those days, was entirely dependent on words in the mouths of emissaries.
The introduction of writing stabilized the process by committing information to communiques. The infinitely malleable word of mouth was replaced by words fixed on papyrus, parchment, and paper. Democracy also became more feasible in this early literate environment, as written laws supplemented and supplanted the mercurial pronouncements of leaders. But even in this world of writing, diplomacy was still dependent on the speed at which emissaries could travel from place to place. Roman viae and the Silk Road were as much conduits of information as of goods and services.
The printing press disseminated information to millions of people in the world at large, but did little to change the need for emissaries traveling by the fastest possible physical means. Whether handwritten or printed, the document in hand was dependent on the horse, wheel, rail, or sail for delivery. Printing, however, did become a foundation for representative democracy, as newspapers and books engendered an educated public which could vote with some knowledge of the issues. There is an analogy between the workings of printed media and representative democracy: just as authors communicate indirectly to the public via editors who decide whether or not and how to publish the work, so the voters influence policy by electing representatives who in fact make the policy.
The advent of electronic media in the 19th and 20th centuries finally eliminated diplomacy’s utter dependence on physical speed. Although the diplomat himself was still reliant on the speed of air flight, information could now be conveyed at the speed of light. The telegram and the hotline became the common and ultimate diplomatic tools. Electronic media, however, further concentrated the power of gatekeepers—or editors—of the news, and supported not only democratic but also totalitarian government. FDR and Hitler, Churchill and Stalin; each made effective use of radio. And in the second half of the 20th century, television was a mainstay of politics in the USSR as well as the USA.
All of that would change in the 21st century, with the advent of media that allowed anyone and everyone to communicate with anyone and everyone in the world, wherever the communicator happened to be.
The New Diplomat
Until the advent of Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005),Twitter (2006), and the first smart phone (2007), any person desirous of getting her or his ideas out into the world was at the mercy of an editor or producer. The communicator, in other words, had to be certified or authorized prior to the communication. Similarly, the diplomat had to be appointed as such and instructed as to what to communicate.
The rise of the personal computer and the first digital systems available for personal and public use in the 1980s began to change the traditional editorial (in media) and representative (jn politics) regimes. But until the marriage of the Internet to mobile technology—the smart phone—the author liberated from editing was still obliged to be in a fixed location to communicate to the world. This created its own kind of buffer to immediate and unmediated reporting. And until the rise of social media, the opportunities on the Web for placement of unmediated communication were relatively few and far between.
I think social media are better described as “new new” media because all media – including newspapers which we may talk about and TV shows that we watch with friends, family, and colleagues – are inherently social. But Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are “new new” rather than “new,” because new media such as Amazon, iTunes, and The New York Times online by and large still operate via traditional gatekeeping methods. John Q or Mary J Writer cannot put a text or song up on iTunes, or The New York Times site at the instant they may want to, and, in most cases, not at all.
Consider, in contrast, Wael Ghonim, whose Facebook page helped trigger the Egyptian part of the Arab Spring in early 2011. Ghonim was a Google employee, but he did not need Google’s or any editor’s or government’s permission to start his anti-Mubarak Facebook page. He needed only his own initiative. He became a new kind of diplomat, and his communiques had more impact on the world than did those of all the duly authorized diplomats at the time.
Direct Democracy in The Global Village
The Arab Spring would reach some 17 countries by 2012, with mixed results. The path of true revolution never did run smooth. But the dynamic of ‘everyone a diplomat’ soon reached democracies as well as dictatorships, in every part of the world.
I first got wind of this more widespread Spring in Barcelona, at the end of May 2011, where I was giving a keynote address about the relevance of Marshall McLuhan and his notion of the global village in understanding the Arab Spring. In the evenings, my wife and I noticed protesters on La Rambla, a main, bustling thoroughfare in Barcelona. I asked my hosts what the protests were about. The economy, perhaps? Not really, I was told. The protests were about the inadequacies of the Spanish democratic government itself, and the need for more effective democracy. I was seeing the Indignatos, the first stirring of what would come to be known in a few months as Occupy Wall Street or the Occupy movement: a resurgence of direct democracy which most famously had held sway in ancient Athens, in a world in which speech and handwriting were the only media in town.
Ancient Athens, by contemporary standards, was more like a village than a city. In the fifth century BC, some 30,000 men out of a population of 250,000 had the right to not only vote but in effect sit as government. Deeply flawed—as evidenced by the eventual sentencing of Socrates to death—ancient Athens was still more directly democratic than even the most representative democracies today.
Marshall McLuhan wrote in the 1960s that the electronic, non-digital media of his day were transforming the world into a global village. The statement was astutely predictive but not accurately descriptive. There was indeed a new, massive community watching television, but –these communities were national and local, not international. It was a one-way community, not a village, in which members could receive information but not generate information or communicate, except to people who happened to be sitting next to them or were in the same offices the next day. What we had in the 1960s and the rest of the 20th century were a series of national villages of viewers – neither global nor a village at all. The people continued to have only the most indirect connection to government – the people could vote once every two or four years for representatives who comprised the government.
Tweets, YouTube videos, and Facebook pages changed all of that. Was McLuhan clairvoyant? More likely he was in touch with the profound human need to have an oar in the water, to be in the mix, which new new media accommodated and afforded. Politically, this need is best expressed in direct rather than representative democracy, in which people can make things happen without having to work through proxies.
The Reaction and the Future
I was on a panel on a local Fox news station in New York in the fall of 2011, tasked with discussing Occupy Wall Street. I was asked why the Occupiers did not have a list of demands, or even one key demand, as was the case with protesters in the past. I replied that the need for a key demand was akin to a need for a headline or a lead story – a product of the old media environment in which space, time, and placement of content was limited and therefore at a premium. In contrast, the world of new new media is not limited in these ways – anyone cannot only tweet but also tweet as many times as he or she wants.
The resurgence of direct democracy facilitated by new new media, like these media themselves, is still in its infancy, and faced with lack of comprehension and misunderstanding by both representative democratic governments and the traditional media. WikiLeaks has been prosecuted by governments afraid of their secret activities becoming public. These prosecutions miss the point that in a world in which everyone is a diplomat, in which anyone can instantly transmit an eyewitness report or a thought to anyone in the world, the very notion of a classified document becomes unworkable and moot. Limiting the readership of a classified document in a world in which it can be so easily disseminated is akin to limiting who among the people in a small room can hear someone talk.
The traditional gatekept media are under daily pressure from the new digital wave. Tim Pool, who won acclaim for his continuous 21-hour reporting of Occupy Wall Street, came by my class at Fordham University in early 2012. His main advice about news coverage was “we’ve got to get rid of the idea of editing” – by which he meant, the public deserves and now can get an unedited visual transcript of events. Pool does his work with a smartphone, which relays what Pool sees to UStream, a free Internet site available to everyone.
But why should we trust Pool to point his phone in the right or truthful direction – why should we trust any new new media report or any digital diplomat? How did we know that Ghonim was telling the truth? The answer is that any one of us, unless we happened to be in Cairo when Ghonim was reporting or in Manhattan when Pool was live streaming, did not. But other people were, and they are the best check for truth and accuracy in reporting and diplomacy. The world at large at long last has a voice, and it can be used not only for initial reporting but correction.
Several years ago, the number of errors on Wikipedia, whose articles can be written and vetted by anyone, and in the Encyclopedia Britannica, whose articles are by appointed experts, were compared and found, statistically, to be the same. At the very outset, the communication via new new media was found no more prone to error than communication via a traditional press. With the world at large as Wikipedia’s editors, errors were quickly discovered and corrected. That was back in 2005, at the very beginning of the new new media age, the debut of the age of the digital diplomat. If the past few years are any guide, that ratio in favor of truth and participation of more people is only likely to get better.
Paul Levinson, PhD, is Professor of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University in New York City. His eight nonfiction books, including The Soft Edge (1997), Digital McLuhan (1999), Realspace (2003), Cellphone (2004), and New New Media (2009; 2nd edition, 2012) have been the subject of major articles in the New York Times, Wired, the Christian Science Monitor, and have been translated into ten languages. His science fiction novels include The Silk Code (1999, winner of the Locus Award for Best First Novel), Borrowed Tides (2001), The Consciousness Plague (2002), The Pixel Eye (2003), and The Plot To Save Socrates (2006). His short stories have been nominated for Nebula, Hugo, Edgar, and Sturgeon Awards. Paul Levinson appears on “The O’Reilly Factor” (Fox News), “The CBS Evening News,” “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” (PBS), “Nightline” (ABC), Dylan Ratigan (MSNBC) and numerous national and international TV and radio programs. His 1972 LP, Twice Upon a Rhyme, was re-issued on mini-CD by Big Pink Records in 2009, and was re-issued in a vinyl remastered re-pressing by Sound of Salvation/Whiplash Records in December 2010. He reviews the best of television in his InfiniteRegress.tv blog, writes political commentary for Mediaite, and was listed in The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s “Top 10 Academic Twitterers” in 2009.