Should a New Revolution Rely Solely on New Media?

Occupy Zurich. Photo: Roland zh

ZURICH, 20 June 2012—When I first moved to Switzerland five years ago, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I would be doing here or how long I would stay. So I packed relatively light, and for the first few months in my single room in an outlying immigrant neighborhood of Zurich, my main contact with the new world in which I lived was a tiny, tinny radio. Not yet understanding a word of Swiss German, it didn’t take me long to find a station that met my needs: Radio LoRa is a low-frequency community radio station that broadcasts in more than 20 languages and provides cultural and political programming on every imaginable topic as well as welcome relief from the European hit parade nightmare.

More recently I became reacquainted with LoRa through Occupy Zurich. Members and broadcasters from the horizontally structured, socially critical station were among those present at the very first planning sessions in response to Occupy Wall Street‘s global call to action last fall, and have ever since been a valuable resource for Occupy Zurich by presenting interviews, roundtable discussions and other programming—providing a media spotlight for Occupy at a time when other Swiss outlets were under orders to ignore us out of existence.

But LoRa is in trouble. It’s always been a thorn in the side of local government, providing the only media platform in Zurich for topics that make the Swiss establishment uncomfortable: immigration and integration, the arms trade, disappearing public space in the city and Swiss banks’ secrecy regarding the source of their young fortunes. Somehow, despite having grown up as a pirate radio station in the 1970s, LoRa secured public funding and a broadcasting license in the 80s but now faces the prospect of losing both, thanks to recent (and targeted) cutbacks in social spending.

So last week the station held a fundraiser and membership drive at a well-known squat. It put together a party program with an international buffet picnic, a swap meet, silk screening and plenty of beer. DJs broadcast live from the stage, playing classic LoRa clips from its golden pirate years, and live bands played long into the night. But I couldn’t help feeling like I was at a funeral, or at least a going-away party.

The clips they played—for example, from 1980, when the squat scene here exploded and LoRa was physically relocating its transmitter every 20 minutes to stay one step ahead of the police as they broadcast updates and calls to action for the movement—were full of a life and an energy that I can’t help notice is missing from much of today’s activism. And I can’t help wondering if this has something to do with why Occupy Zurich, if not Occupy in general, has sputtered out in recent months.

The social-media revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are hard to ignore. But I have a nagging suspicion that the Internet is not going to be the tool that delivers Occupy’s revolution, should it come. After the shocks of Wikileaks and the Arab Spring, the authorities have by and large caught onto and caught up with online activists’ strategies for mobilization and information distribution. We are no longer able to stay one step ahead with our transmitter, Anonymous notwithstanding.

But the greater problem with online news distribution is its tendency to isolate rather than integrate, to provide the illusion of political activity where there is none. This is not a new criticism; it has been around at least since the Howard Dean campaign touted its innovative online organizing swell but couldn’t get its own super-savvy base to leave its dorm rooms to vote. It’s become pat to point out the difference between engaging in “clicktivism”—signing an online petition—and actually going door-to-door collecting signatures; between posting a slogan as your Facebook status or actually chanting that slogan in front of a line of riot police.

Occupy Zurich

It’s something we have to get serious about, though. We say we know these things, but our activities seem only rarely to reflect this knowledge. Looking back on last winter, as General Assembly attendance steadily declined and the remaining core of Occupy Zurich kept wondering why nobody ever came to our weekly demonstrations on Paradeplatz (our Wall Street, where both UBS and Credit Suisse have headquarters) even when we sent out targeted online invitations to other groups we felt were shoo-ins for a good romp on the plaza, I have to shake my head. We assumed that people would just come. We poured countless hours into a website, which underwent several iterations before finally becoming a central source of information for the handful of people who hadn’t gotten frustrated with all the bungling. Meanwhile, every attempt to start a print newsletter or a street-canvassing drive died in the crib. All we really had going for us in the world of the living was LoRa. And now it’s struggling.

This summer, it’s been the Occupy sites focusing on solid-state, old-fashioned, face-to-face community organizing that have continued to log successes. Perhaps it is hometown bias, but I would point to Occupy HomesMN serially protecting foreclosed homeowners from eviction as such an example. And perhaps it is only because I have recently been reading Studs Terkel that I suddenly feel such despair for my asocial techno generation and nostalgia for times for which I was not yet born, times of real struggle and sacrifice on a real human level, eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand. Times that brought real change. I have always been a luddite at heart, but I am more sure now than ever of my conviction that the Internet is more a toy than a tool, and we would be wise to return to tried-and-true methods. Don’t we all love to gush that Occupy “brought people together?” This has to happen in the real world, on solid ground, between real people—not on Twitter—for it to count, and for it to work.

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