Tyrannis Populi: Who are “the people” anyway and who says they’re always right?

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Confused pointing figures on a road signThe rule of the masses, what we like to affectionately call “democracy”, has been on my mind a lot lately, especially since I commented on Darren Rowse’s post about a new service called Linebuzz. Democracy is all about the effects of, and the interaction within, vast communities of people. You can’t really understand the effect that large groups of people have on the world, until you understand what affects these large groups of people. Since the advent of mass media, vast swathes of the population have been touched by world events and important turning points in world history and human endeavour. It is said most people who were alive and sober in the 60’s have a clear memory of what they were doing when they first heard the news of Neil Armstrong taking his one small step on the powdery lunar surface. So, I think it very appropriate to start this post with a simple question: what were you doing during the great Digg user riot of 2007?

I found out about it after the fact when all the virtual raping and pillaging was over with and the dust was beginning to settle. I was reading John Chow’s blog when I got a brief description of the details, and immediately I thought, “Revolt? Revolution? Power to the people?? Please…!”

Let’s look at the facts here: a privately owned site (Digg.com) decides to do the smart thing and follow the “law”. They don’t let users publish proprietary information on their servers. Then some users who don’t agree with the decision of this private site which provides them a free service which they do not pay for, decides “You can’t tell me what I can and can’t do in your home! You’re not the boss of me!”, and then proceed to spray paint inartistic and childishly derivative graffiti on all the virtual walls they can reach, all of which involve swear words and badly drawn pieces of human anatomy “cleverly” mixed in with the proprietary information. That’s really what it comes down to: mob rule. And who amongst us considers that a good thing in the real world? Anyone? I didn’t think so.

Why did all this come to pass? The official anarchist spin is that “big brother” Digg was messing with their freedom of speech on the internet. Really? I never knew the internet in its entirety could be accessed by typing in digg.com into your browser. Digg was only messing with people’s freedom of speech on their private server, in their home, on their land, not in the whole world. And that is their right. You might be surprised to know that this sort of controllist behaviour exists out there in the real world too, in other great places of intellectual exchange. Before the more zealous ones take out their pen and paper to right down the address of this new fascist regime to bad-mouth on their anonymous blogs, I was talking about the Public Library. I don’t see any large protests on the steps of every city library of the world with banners and slogans shouting “Down with the scary woman with the spectacles!”, or “You can’t silence the noise of the people”, or “We shall not be shushed!”. If anyone happens to actually fancy the above idea and would like to take action in that direction, please contact me with a time and a place, I would love to take some photos while you’re at it.

The thing about mobs is that most of the individuals are card-carrying cowards. They will act only in the safety and the anonymity of the mob and would not have the chutzpah to take responsibility for any of this on their own. There’s a whole extra level of cowardly anonymity on-line when you are only known by the charming moniker JarJarKicksFrodosAss23, but the anonymity factor works just as well out side the electronic frontier. In recent days India has been abuzz with the story of an art student arrested for displaying “obscene art” – As a side note, India is always abuzz with something or the other, as is the USA, or the UK, or Digg.com. The one thing you can depend on democracies to do well is to be in a constant state of shock and offence. We in India are proud in our solidarity with our fellow democratic brothers and sisters from around the world in being offended by absolutely anything frivolous that we don’t really know about or actually care about. We have raised our offence to an art form. — But to get back to the topic at hand, an anonymous mob walked into a private exhibition in an art college in Vadodara in India and proceeded to administer tender loving care on to one of the student artists for his supposedly obscene depiction of religious icons or something of the sort. The police then came in and saved the now truly suffering artist by arresting him and throwing him into jail. The exhibition of paintings in question was not open to the public. The “offended” actually happened to be one man who simply happened to have enough clout (or money) to gather the Angry Mob™ and also possibly the police. The religious zealots are now offended by the imminent demise of their millennia old culture (which they know nothing about) being caused single-handedly by a bunch of paintings they have never seen. The art community is offended by the offensive offence of the religious zealots. We are all offended together and proud of it! Thankfully the artist has since been released from custody to suffer in freedom instead.

Are you beginning to see a pattern? I certainly am, which is what drove me to write this post. And the disturbing pattern that distils down from these two stories seems to be that nothing good can ever come out of a mob. That’s kind of a depressing conclusion to come to about large groups of people, don’t you think? After all, we are a planet of 6+ billion people and growing. What of democracy and the power of the people? Are all our hopes of a broad based system of fruitful human interaction baseless and pure fantasy? I’m glad to report that it’s not quite as dire as that just yet. Mobs of people properly channelled can lead to great things. To return to the on-line world for a small-scale example, I recently participated in the group writing project over at Problogger.net. 893 people from around the world contributed their time, effort, and thought into writing a post based on the assigned theme (Top 5), and they each came up with their unique take on the subject — each one perfectly valid and each one completely different from the others. Better yet, they have all continued to share in the experience, link to each other’s blogs, comment on each other’s work, and generally enrich their small part of the web in one way or another. In all the browsing I have done looking through these posts I didn’t find one thoughtless remark or frivolously dismissive criticism. Why? Because they are all thinking, doing, productive members of the community. Every one of them has produced something and therefore has an appreciation and respect for the work of others who produce something. How many of the goons who beat up the artist in India ever did anything, or produced anything or created anything of value in their lives? Probably none. How many of the digital graffiti artists who choose to vandalise Digg for a few days have ever actually produced something or created something or contributed something of even 1/1000th of the value of Digg.com to the community or the world at large? My money is on “none”.

“The people” often end up being the least sensitive, the most unproductive, and the most loud and vocal minority of any community. The very appropriate hackneyed idiom that comes to mind is that empty vessels make the most noise. And that is the truth. The loud empty vessels rule the world with their deafening din. That’s not to say that all the silent vessels are brimming full of ideas and contributions to the world, but at least the silent empty ones have the dignity of being still in their emptiness and not clattering. Perhaps the answer is for the productive part of a community to be vocal as well, no matter how much it might go against their instincts. At least be noisy enough to counter all that empty clattering. For the unproductive are most often light-weight in their emptiness, and with any substantial outpouring of ideas and thoughts they shall either be filled with wisdom or swept away in the deluge. We the people owe it to ourselves.

What do you think of democratic systems, and group dynamics, both on-line and off? Be vocal, make a little noise and let your voice be heard below.

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