Tacit Experience and Revolutions

This is the beginning of the (long-delayed) Fear, Honor, and Interest discussion on London, social media, riots, and state power. Given the free-ranging nature of what we’re about to discuss, we’ve started with a dialogue between H. Lucien Gauthier and Adam Elkus on social media, tacit experience, and the Arab Spring revolutions.

Lucien: Michael Polyani opens his work The Tacit Dimension by stating “we can know more than we can tell” he uses this statement as a foundation from which he describes how knowledge is acquired.   Polyani continues to describe the process of acquiring knowledge in terms of Gestalt Psychology as an “active shaping of experience […] recast into a logic of tacit thought, and this changes the range and perspective of the whole subject”. [emphasis mine]

Polyani’s work centers around the pursuit of pure knowledge, yet the process he describes differs little from how anyone’s World view is shaped.  Communication is the term we use to describe a very wide swath of actions that all have the same goal—transferring information.  Our methods of communication are far from perfect, in any number of ways humans tend to leave out details that may be of significance.  More so, a detail that may be insignificant to one person can be of great significance to another.  We can forget things, never have observed details, over or underemphasize details,  the list goes on.

From such imperfections an audience is left to fill in the gaps, make judgements as to our level of under/over emphasis.  As these gaps are filled in, what was described takes on a sense that to varying degrees is alien to the intended communication.  The game of ‘telephone’ often illustrates this quite humorously.

Humans do not just communicate with words.  Body language and other subtle behavioral, contextual and visual cues communicate just as much if not more than anything spoken.  So, what happens when such cues are explicitly removed from communicating? As they are when communicating by writing, or by communicating online.  What happens in communication between two individuals who know nothing of the other’s mannerism, vocal inflections, or that we know literally nothing about?

As aspects of communication are removed the degree to which what must be tacitly understood increases.  In this tacit understanding, more assumptions are made, there is a greater reliance on previous experience to fill in for what wasn’t communicated.  In this we can find a paradigm that begins to describe the effect that social media is having on humanity, and that beyond tacit knowing there is tacit experience.

Adam: Perhaps one of the many lessons of the Arab spring is that tacit experience–while not overruling the basic and primal importance of bayonets and bullets–has a definite impact on the ground. Through empathy causes gain support, and this is true not only of social media but of mass communication in general for 200 years. Social media perhaps takes the “mass” out of mass media by targeting those messages on an more basic and individual level. Granted, the ultimate arbiter of revolution is viability–and this is determined largely by someone’s subjective assessment of the balance of power. Unless they are prepared to die to a degree that only reflects a core of true believers, most people will not stick their necks out unless they see the cause as something viable.

There is a middle ground between boundless techno-optimism and a total denial of the way that new methods of communication have intensified the existing effects of various regimes of mass communication. King’s College London PhD student Jack McDonald describes another effect of social media as well as older P2P technologies thusly:

In the process of state building, one of the key advantages of the state was that it had a form of information dominance. Nascent bureaucracies allowed states to process information better than their competitors, and they had better access to a wider range of information than the populations whom they sought to control. It is notable that the types of actor or political grouping that tended to resist state control the longest were those with similar capabilities such as aristocrats and other networks. The point here is not to figure out who was better at what, but that the various political forces involved in state building all tended to have better access to, and better ability to process and utilise, information than the “mobs” that they ruled. ..If you had said to a person in the early 1990s that a few thousand people that didn’t know each other, that had no common goal and came from vastly differing physical locations, could get together almost spontaneously and put a city of ten million or so into a state of terror, you would probably have elicited laughter. The idea of a very small minority turning the established order on its head is also quite similar to the effects of terrorism. In understanding London, I’d suggest Phillip Bobbit’s “Terror and Consent.

Hence the recent riots and street revolutions married older tendencies and emotions to new or improvised forms of command and control and information dissemination. It again should be pointed out that states have the capacity to adapt to this–the British could have clamped down in London in the very same way they often have historically in their colonies (and domestically during the 19th century) but chose not to do so.

Some other thoughts: on the benign side, people mistook Twitter power for real power in the 2009 Iran election crisis–especially since most of the most active Tweeters were onlookers in the diaspora. On the bad end, the proliferation of virtual experience and the ability to form empathy with people one has never met is what has helped radicalization. It’s why someone like John Walker Lindh could see himself as part of a coherent global ummah that he was duty-bound to defend. Or to go to the Ghost in the Shell tack, you also get fabricated empathy and identity as something of a dystopian future possibility.

Lastly, the Arab spring is also far from over. How it ends will obviously frame our understanding, just as the failure of the Green movement advanced criticism of techno-triumphalism considerably. I fear, though, that framing through the endpoint–although important, will also divorce us from looking at the importance of the tactical and operational processes of mobilization and communication that will predict the outcome of future crowd power events.


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