This article began as a short synopsis of a paper by Artruro Escobar, publicly available in full here. However, it grew and grew, so apologies for that – blame it on the compulsion of Escobar’s dream. This one’s for other dreamers – so you can daydream as I did after reading his writings.
Professor Arturo Escobar has a dream to share with us. But, in the same way that freedom and oppression are symbiotic, you can’t fully appreciate dreams without first understanding nightmares. So Escobar’s works stand as an intellectual signpost in a branched road, one arm denoting the nightmare of society’s power over the individual, the other pointing towards the ubiquitous technology that could free us.
Professor Escobar is an American-Columbian anthropologist, idealist and humanist. Born in Columbia in 1952, he saw firsthand the vast gulf between the grand rhetoric of President Truman’s 1949 Point Four Program to develop the Third World and the conflicted reality that aid engendered in Latin American countries. Much of his academic career has been spent in trying to understand how and why development failed Latin America.
More broadly, Escobar seeks to know how political belief arises from the linguistic rules and ideas that societies hold in common. His views are as complex as his subject, equal parts optimistic and pessimistic, utopian and pragmatic.
Escobar’s earlier works hold grave reservations about the morality of societies generally and aid programs specifically. He uses the discourse analysis pioneered by Michael Foucault to describe how power relationships are constructed through language in modern societies. He argues that everyday communication is the keystone of coercion. However, even this stark perspective on reality, including language as a tool of subjection, does not lead him to forsake optimism.
Escobar remains hopeful because he believes that predominant social structures, rather than language users themselves, are hierarchical. Hierarchies are the common mode of social organization, notable in business, government, science, and even the arts. In fact, most established structures and bodies uses hierarchy because, as long as social action is based on power, hierarchies are the most effective means for control and coordination. Underpinning all these structures is language, which both creates and is created by the power relations of society.
Hierarchy is naturally restrictive of political progress, slowing the realisation of societies free from coercion. Protest and revolution represent the countercurrents within societies; they seek to disrupt hierarchies, to initiate structural change. Problematically, Escobar believes the centralised ‘logic of order’ that animates hierarchies also, inevitably, colonises protest and even revolutionary movements. Look no further than Leninist Russia, which aimed to create an egalitarian utopia and instead created a murderous tyranny.
Escobar argues that the media reinforces these patterns of thought, operating on the basis of a one-way flow of information from ‘active emitters’ to ‘passive receivers’. Because mainstream communication is hierarchical, any group seeking to contest the status quo must either find allies within the media (protest) or else capture it and other institutions (revolution).
Escobar outlines a grim vista, in which linguistic practice simultaneously builds vast, complex prisons and conditions huge populations to live compliantly within them. At the same time, however, he presents to us a great linguistic hope.
According to Escobar’s work, individual reality is constructed by the socially defined meanings of language. Our sense of politics is but one part of this constructed reality. So, for politics—or social power relations—to change, language must first change. And for language to change, social meanings must change.
Escobar believes that the Internet is a radical model for creating new meanings that change language and thus politics. Not by shifting existing social meanings within existing societies: rather, by creating new cybercultures within, but also detached from, real life society. To my reading, Escobar implies culture in its fullest sense: as a set of identifying and self-identifying values, as if a part of the self is given over to online communities.
Sounds scary? Dreams aren’t always tranquil. Then again, life is even less so; hence revolution and protest.
Revolution is an act of violence that destroys in order to create anew. Protest is more issue-specific and tactical than seeking to burn everything down: a lifelong struggle, a subversive and all-consuming effort whereby protesters must push, pull and drag society inch by inch towards a new meaning for a single word. The American civil rights movement fought for generations over what role race plays in citizenship; the suffragettes fought to redefine gender in citizenship; the LGBTI movement fought and is still fighting to redefine moralising sexual roles.
A birds-eye review of recent history suggests that the era of revolution in the West have come to a close. We no longer have events equal to the English Civil War, the French Revolution, fascist ascendency, Bolshevik Revolution or subsequent fall of Soviet governments. The liberal-democratic mode of government seems to be broadly accepted, even if polities are not always administered in the spirit of liberal democracy.
In the West, ours is an era of redefinition: of protest, rather than radical political rupture. This is prima facie a good thing. Minority groups have a voice to seek redefinition of specific social meanings without fear of political persecution.
But, as many aphorisms attest, success is also corrosive, engendering arrogance and complacency. Political stability creates a sense that the major battles have been fought: what use is politics now? Major political parties in the West find themselves in furious agreement over the fundamentals of established political economy, labour, capital, technology, and globalisation, with slight variations in priorities and in social policy.
Whilst the political establishment becomes ever less divided, the voting public becomes ever more discontent. Protest parties are on the rise in Europe; Trump has arisen from the political grave in America; Australia has had suffered five Prime Ministers in the last four years due to public dissatisfaction that created self-interested panic amongst politicians.
It seems the will to change in society is not dead, but our political systems are calcified. And the world is not a utopia: far from it. We have global climate change, transnational war and rising territorial pressures in Eurasia, the rolling impacts of technological innovation on national economies already traumatised by globalisation, poverty, corruption, and the ongoing tensions between First and Third World.
All this, whilst the nation-state looks increasingly fragile as a political entity, whilst national politics degenerates into theatre conducted by elites with no clear vision, witnessed by a polis with no real faith in their system.
Escobar believes cyberspace should be the fulcrum of our response to this malaise. He believes it offers the hope of a peaceful revolution, a new way of looking at reality. He invites us to reconceive the Internet, and he offers a covenant to ensure that its vast political potential can be used without degradation.
The logic of cyberspace is fundamentally different from that of mainstream media. Escobar outlines three ways in which it is unprecedented. Firstly, its core premise is interactivity. Users freely hold the power to reach around the globe; we can create and share at low cost and with relative anonymity.
User empowerment gives rise to the second feature of cyberspace, which is a relational rather than hierarchical structure. Cyberspace is a ‘decentralised archipelago of relatively autonomous zones in which communities create their own media and process their own information’.
Lastly, cyberspace tends to promote the creation of ‘networked cultures’. Archipelagos of empowered users form for a specific shared purpose, and these shared purposes naturally lend themselves to the formation of sub-cultures independent of the constraints of geography, ethnicity, class etc.
Seen from this viewpoint, cyberspace is far more than a convenient way to pay bills, search content and sell products. It is an engine for ‘self-organisation’: a realm in which new social worlds can and do emerge from infinite potential sub-cultures of association. Not only is the potential for unconstrained self-organisation unprecedented in human history, it also makes possible emergence of new social meanings.
This means cyberspace could give rise to not only revisions of current social meanings and permutations, or even their opposites. It means third ways, fourth ways, and ways that cannot be relationally positioned to current language meanings. Taken to its logical conclusion, the Internet holds the potential for the creation of entirely new language-based worlds, with entirely new rules, forces and forms.
In a new world within our physical world, everything that is definitive in the real world—job, family, wealth, race, gender, and ethnicity—all of these are rendered meaningless. There are several instances of this happening online currently, especially in MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games, for example World of Warcraft), but imagine if it went further, became dissociated from pre-designed games, spread wider. What types of meanings, identities, ideas, agreements, knowledge, would emerge? And, more importantly, how would that affect our views on reality?
My theory is that more and more people in the West will venture beyond the mainstream channels of the Internet—news, social media, commenting on special-interest sites—the more our current political systems calcify. I wonder, what critical mass could trigger independent world-building?
Escobar’s view of the Internet is utopian and radical only to the extent of identifying potential. All humans dream. Utopians are the few who believe the dream can become un-impinged reality. I, for one, would be delighted to see the emergence of new human worlds. Besides finding alien life, it’s hard to imagine anything else that would so profoundly challenge our view of our world and ourselves.
I think Escobar secretly wishes to see new worlds. (His paper is, after all, titled ‘Other worlds are [already] possible’.) But he is pragmatic in his stated objective. He simply points to the potential for new linguistic meanings to emerge from the many orbiting networks of cyberspace and so affect the social and political terrain of the real world.
Escobar’s pragmatic goal is much more modest than the scope of the potential he lays out: his wish is to see globally emergent behaviour between local social movements—the development of progressive, international social meanings to fill the valueless balance of power that constitutes our international relations.
He sees even this restricted goal as problematic, though. Hierarchies hold an especially strong sway over the Western psyche. English grammar and syntax are hierarchical, and every form of relation must be consciously deemed equal to avoid power positions.
To countervail hierarchies, Escobar spells out a covenant for cyber users. This covenant comprises two principles that seek to protect the Internet’s fragile potential from subjugation to real world realities. He asks that online users:
- Refuse to allow hierarchies into cyberspace. Resist the hierarchical tendency in both those ‘facilitating the processes’ of the Internet and those who would seek to represent ‘the totality’ of any group, impose a top-down agenda, or seek to speak on behalf of others.
- Maintain an ‘ongoing tacking back and forth between cyberpolitics and place-based politics’. This will prevent our losing or abstracting cyber communities too far from their base issues.
The second point highlights Escobar’s surrender to pragmatism. Although the Internet has a potential to build entirely new worlds, Escobar believes they should not escape our reality entirely if they are to generate relevant change.
In order for politically effective cyber communities to form, they must derive their association from the real world—thus, users must tack back and forth between the global alliances possible via cyberspace, and the local realities that lead users to seek out others who share their purpose.
More salient, in the era of Google, Facebook and other dominant platforms that filter user search results and channel online behavior, is the first part of Escobar’s covenant. Online giants might already have obviated the dream. Escobar wrote his paper 12 years ago. Despite the passage of time, we have yet to see an emergence of a form of cyberpolitical influence greater than cyber-catalysed protest and revolution.
Cyberspace acting as political catalyst is, of itself, a significant phenomenon. Cyber communities have played pivotal roles in the Arab Spring, the Syrian war and refugee crisis, the Ferguson riots and the Occupy movement, to name a few. But these loosely connected communities have simply acted as instigator and accelerant: bodies, mass congregation and denial of infrastructure—the traditional modes of protest and revolution—were the decisive agents of these movements.
Whilst cyberspace-as-catalyst is a significant development, and one that demonstrates the capacity of the Internet in creating and supporting new social meanings, new meanings have consistently been paired with existing social organisation and constrained to national geographies.
Global movements have failed to emerge, and the dream of incredible other human worlds has not come to pass.
We must ask ourselves why this is so. Is it that humans cannot escape hierarchies or truly transcend the local, even in networked cyberspace? (Perhaps naïvely) I believe not.
Is it that the real world is simply too strong, controlling each user and thus all of cyberspace? Again, naïvely, I hope not.
Have we failed to resist the colonisation of the Internet by capitalism, the state and their attendant hierarchies and power relations? Harder to deny: perhaps not yet? Perhaps not completely.
Have we forfeited our ability to create whole new worlds that the imagination cannot yet fully conceive? Only the future can tell. Technology may be our ally in this regard.
Until then, I ardently reserve the right to dream that other human worlds are possible.