Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why #Occupy will succeed

George Siemens wrote an interesting post on the Occupy Movement earlier this month. I think he gets that leaderless, connected groups can succeed but he also writes "I saw a few #occupy members on Colbert Report yesterday. They may not be representative, but I was left with a sense of  'wow, I don’t speak their language…I have ZERO interest in being a part of what they are talking about.'" I think that is a win for the media!

Essa-queta, Kiowa Apache chief. http://lewisan...Image via WikipediaThere is a real problem with understanding what the Occupy Movement is all about. It is not the so-called incoherence of the message, its that the power structures that are being protested against include the very media that is reporting on the movement. Even the Economist gets it - when discussing the media's take on the movement they report that "They also give the lie to the idea, spread about when the protests first began, that the people behind the protests don't know what they want. What they want is pretty clear: jobs, cheaper health care, cheaper education, and relief from suffocating debt." If all you knew about the Occupy Movement was what you saw on CNN or Jon Stewart, then you will not get it. CNN, Brian Williams, or Stewart are not in the business to give you the big picture. Television is entertainment. It is the circus in "bread and circuses." If they don't have a goof-ball with aluminium foil on his head, it is not good television. They have to trivialize this to assuage the frayed nerves of their corporate sponsors. In this time of financial corruption and economic recession and depression, how comfortable are those sponsors with a protest movement that is centered on accountability, bank and financial reform, and general expressions of public frustration? The critics of the movement want a bullet-pointed executive summary. In an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Cornell West said "It’s impossible to translate the issue of the greed of Wall Street into one demand, or two demands. We’re talking about a democratic awakening."

This is an international movement. This movement has been compared to the protests in the 60s and I remember that those protests also suffered from a so-called lack of a coherent message. Ending the Vietnam War sounded to many as strange and abstract as Bank Reform. It sounded clear later as more people were seeing the impact of the war. The real story of those protests in the 60s and early 70s did not come from CBS News (although images in the media from Vietnam were instrumental in turning public opinion), the message and organization of those protesters came through underground newspapers, pamphlets, and books. There were radio stations too.

And now this is why I am writing about this. The Occupy Movement has all it needs to succeed: it has a message, boots on the ground, and its own media. A useful model for understanding this movement comes from the book "The Starfish and the Spider." The idea behind "The Starfish and the Spider" is that centralized organizations are like spiders and can be destroyed with an attack to the head. Decentralized organizations rely on catalyst-leaders in the field to make decisions. These organizations are like starfish: no single blow will kill them, and parts that are destroyed will grow back. Some points from the "The Starfish":
  • When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized;
      We have seen this over and over throughout the Middle East in the Arab Spring. Nothing strengthens or legitimizes a movement more than over-reaction by the governing authorities.
  • An open system doesn’t have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system;
      This is why interviewing individuals for "the message" can be pretty pointless. The real message is found in the network of the participants.
  • Open systems can easily mutate;
  • The decentralized organization sneaks up on you;
    Who saw this coming?
  • Put people into an open system and they’ll automatically want to contribute;
  • When attacked, centralized organizations tend to become even more centralized.
The examples from the book include a look at how the Apache indians dealt with the Spanish invasion of the Americas - their organization was loose knit and flexible enough to allow them to go from living in villages to being a nomadic people. Other examples of decentralized organizations include AA or Al-Qaeda.

Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr are all important tools for organizing this movement. The Economist says of the Occupy Movement "what's going on in America right now may be the world's first genuine social-media uprising." I think the Arab Spring might hold that title, but the media's lack of understanding how social networks are shaping politics in the U.S. and the world is quickly making the mainstream media's lack of relevance even more apparent.

George Siemens wrote "#Occupy can be leaderless and diverse and still succeed. It can be distributed and networked and still succeed. However, if its message doesn’t resonate with a significant portion of society, due to lack of coherence or limited capability of individuals to form personal coherence around numerous voices, it will fail." But the interesting part of this is that in his work, knowledge comes from the connections; meaning can emerge out of chaos.

Don't wait for CNN to figure this out for you - go out and talk to those people who are standing in front of your city hall. Think about how you feel about these issues, talk to others, and don't accept every thing the banks tell us as inevitable in "this economy." Check out your local credit union. When you do that - the movement succeeds. 

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