June 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
Socialists have always been aware that if we want to influence the ways in which people think and act we must be able to talk to them. Communication is inseparable from politics. For thousands of years this involved oratory and conversational skills. Even into the last decades of the twentieth century, members of the Socialist Party have been expected to try to develop the ability to deliver talks either to groups of fellow workers at indoor meetings and/or in the cities from outdoor platforms. But one of the reasons that we now find it more difficult to attract workers to our indoor meetings is the fact that they consider the idea old-fashioned. And there are so many modern counter-attractions, such as TV.
Admittedly, these were not the only means of communication we had. Printed matter (which had been used for propaganda effectively from the mid seventeenth century) including handbills, advertisements in newspapers and magazines, was most important for putting forward the detailed case for a socialist revolution, once the initial talking was finished. Publishing our own journal and pamphlets was considered essential by the founding members of the Party. It is still very important.
For the great majority of working class people in Britain, access to means of communication remained unchanged until the last decade of the twentieth century. They got their information, carefully edited, from the BBC and, latterly, the commercial broadcasters on radio and television; and they/we read slight variations in the constant support of capitalist values and social structures from daily, evening and Sunday papers.
Telephone communication was just as limited. Even in the late 70s and early 80s the few users of mobile phones needed to carry a heavy suitcase full of electronic equipment in order to communicate with a limited range of similar users, mainly corporate, without dependence upon telephone land lines. Monitoring all or any of these channels of communication was not only straightforward but fairly simple for governments uneasy or suspicious about what their subjects were talking about. The American listening stations in Britain at Goonhilly and Fylingdales were able to intercept and process all the messages both in Britain and on the Continent, to the great advantage of American military and business organisations.
The IT revolution
The switch to digital instead of analogue handling of signals, and the application of computing power to telecommunications constituted a technological revolution. The recording, processing and transmission of information was standardised and universalised, largely owing to the selfless generosity of many enthusiastic experts in the field who took no payment for their inventions. The microminiaturisation of circuits and transistors developed at an unprecedented rate, and is still continuing, although not quite so fast. This made not only personal and portable computers possible and increasingly affordable, but it made mobile telephones as small and light as they are likely to become, if we want to continue to hold them in our hands.
For communication purposes computers have, in the main, linked into existing, landline, telephone services (although radio links are becoming popular). Mobile phones grew out of the popularity of walkie-talkie and citizen’s band radio systems. Instead of needing the power of such radio transmitters and receivers, mobile phones were much more modest transceivers, depending upon a forest of aerials deployed across the land and connected to stations which routed and boosted signals to and from them, the whole lot being capable of connecting to the land-line telephone network as well. And this is the way in which mobile phones and computer mail systems are starting to interact.
Although there are many large areas of the world where there are still no mobile phone systems and infrastructures, these are being colonised steadily because such phones obviate the need for much more expensive land-lines in sparsely populated or undeveloped areas. Millions have therefore been sold throughout the world.
There is an essential difference for users between the mobile and the land-line telephone – a call to a mobile phone is a call to an individual person, rather than to a building or an organisation, and this alters the nature of the relationship or the type of message that is being sent. The facility to send brief text messages which wait to be accessed by the recipients has resulted in a snowstorm of texting in which individuals keep in contact at low expense, sometimes every few minutes. For organisational purposes, therefore, they are becoming invaluable. Protest demonstrations have been organised and co-ordinated with their aid, just as any two people are able to locate and find each other. On the other hand, advertisers have not been slow to recognise and employ this opportunity to send messages to hundreds or thousands of individuals.
In Britain and most other countries, communication by computer has been strongly encouraged by the decision of service providers to charge for messages to anywhere in the world at local call rates. Although email systems will transmit highly complex information such as colour pictures, which take a disproportionate amount of time, the bulk of email traffic is plain text. This is treated as a simple system of numbers (the ASCII code) and is therefore extremely fast and economical. Not only brief conversational messages but also whole books can be transferred from one computer to another. They can then be printed out, if necessary, and as many times as necessary. Moreover, such emails can be despatched to many addresses at once, as we have found and utilised in the World Socialist Movement. In consequence, we can now communicate with our comrades in Australasia or the Americas or Europe or Africa with virtually the same immediacy as we can with other socialists in Britain.
Quick though socialists and many other organisations were to take advantage of the World Wide Web, industry and commerce were far quicker. Communication inside and between businesses has provided a boost sufficiently great to have helped spur growth and delay another recession. It has also opened up an entirely new field for advertising and the sale of information.
Among the many areas affected in companies’ operations, one of the most significant has been the facility to use cheap overseas labour without needing to move the workers. In the Indian subcontinent, for example, an increasing amount of clerical and telephone answering work is being done by English- speaking workers accepting far lower wages than capital needs to pay in the USA or Britain.
Another example of a qualitative difference occurring because of the quantitative difference of speed of communication is that factories in China now produce tailor-made wrought iron (mild steel, these days) gates and fences and garden furniture, based on drawings and dimensions sent by email, and ship them to Britain for a fraction of the price they would cost to make here. Similar endeavours are being made by American firms to use labour in Mexico and South American countries rather than pay the higher domestic rates for the jobs. These and related developments are bringing increasing numbers of workers into a world working class, with English (American) as the lingua franca. This makes it possible for us not only to communicate with each other but to begin to organise together.
One of the important facts about this burgeoning global electronic traffic is that no governmental or supragovernmental authority can prevent it or even regulate it to any considerable extent (as the struggle to prosecute paedophile rings indicates) without crippling legitimate commerce and information services. And the development of the World Wide Web means that when one electronic pathway is blocked another will be found for a message to get through. Even the eavesdropping efforts by the American government become helpless as the volume of mobile phone texting becomes a torrent of billions. Known organisations and known individuals can always be targeted of course, but the great majority of people’s chatter is of no interest to those in power.
There is a great deal to learn in using electronic communication so that it serves the socialist movement’s democratic methods and objective. As we have already learnt to our cost, it is easy for people to be abusive, tediously verbose, obscurely illiterate and seriously undemocratic with email. These faults, among others, at present vitiate the potential of the medium. But we are learning and this writer, for one, believes that it is essential that we do; and that we impress this upon all those workers who communicate with us. Oxford University would not have founded a Chair of Electronic Democracy if there were not a strong establishment belief that this is the medium of major communication and decision-making for the future. For the socialist movement to be left out of it because we are a hundred years old would be to agree to die of old age. As governments faced with falling turnouts at elections by disillusioned voters realise, this offers their greatest hope of renewed political interest and participation.
Such developments would direct the attention of socialists towards the propagation of socialist ideas via the internet, where an increasing proportion of the world’s thinking working class is going for its information and discussion.
As the numbers of participants grows greater for a socialist revolutionary change in the world’s dominant social system, it will be possible to chart and display its increasing strength. It will be possible to set up a worldwide proliferation of sites and forums in local languages and dialects so that workers will be able to assemble physically, if they consider it safe, in their own geographical areas. Above all, it will be possible to have world-wide discussion of the nature of socialist society; the means of achieving it in different parts of the world; the assistance needed by some areas from others; and the steps needed to establish the new social order in different parts of the world, bearing in mind the legacy left to us by this destructive and increasingly paranoid social order we know as capitalism. Speed the day!