What Is The Net?

(InMediaHK)  What Is The Net?  By Ip Yamchong (葉蔭聰).  Speech given at the Hong Kong Social Forum on <Autonomous Media, Media Autonomy>.  December 11, 2006.

[in translation]

New Capitalism

I recently read Richard Sennett's book <The Culture of New Capitalism> in which he wrote that the new capitalism is similar to neo-liberalism.  In the opening chapter, he wrote that the characteristic of new capitalism is the transformation or partial dissolution of the stratification system, including corporations and labor unions.  This stratification system had been the subject of protests in the 1960's or even earlier, and it was the reason for pursuing liberalism in the age of protest culture.  This is a very European-American experience.  Many people in Hong Kong may say that Hong Kong has never undergone an age of capitalism that was as systematized as in Europe and the United States.

But the degree of stratification is unimportant because all that is in the past.  The more important thing is that we are now seeing the transformation of many of the old stratification systems.  Today, certain stratification systems still exist but we are also seeing many new system formations, such as the sub-contracting/out-sourcing and the transnational production networks.  In those new situations, the workers are not employed directly by huge corporations.  These sub-contracted workers do not have steady income, and the sub-contractor companies do not have long-term contracts.  Such are the special characteristics of the international division of labor.  For example, Nike does not employ any production workers itself, and yet it places thousands or even tens of thousands of orders to factories around the world.

These complex organizational phenomena give us a descriptive term: "The Net."  Sennett quoted his friend Michel Foucault's thinking about freedom in which the youth in the 1960's and 1970's sought freedom but ended up with the "un-free" neo-liberalism of today.  In truth, the new media who are seeking and advocating networking -- including the independent alternative media and even Hong Kong In-media -- are products of the protest culture that promote new social organizations and criticize the existing economic systems and they are part of this "Net."

But, What Is The Net?

Let me use the independent media outlet Hong Kong In-media for discussion purposes.  We recently conducted a user survey and I would like to share with you some information about the type of network that we are.

Our website has approximately 4,000 plus visitors per day, and about 60,000 to 80,000 per month.  About 80% of our visitors come here every week.  This is almost like the circulation of a small or medium newspaper in Hong Kong.  We have about 3,000 registered users, 500 columnists (of which fewer than 100 are active) and just over a dozen editors.

For us, what is the Net?  It is about a very small core which links to a relatively large group of people.  This is the network effect.  The users do not have to participate in our work and they don't even have to be interested in our focus articles.  They sometimes run across us by accident, with many of them arriving via search engines.  Or they forward our articles to their friends.  This is our Net.

This Net is very loose.  Most of the members rarely end up engaging in social or political actions through our network.  Those who engage will engage anyway, and those who do not engage will not do so on our account.  Therefore, they are different from the constituency of traditional social movements.  In those social organizations, there are different types of participants, including decision-makers, organizers, members, donors and volunteers.  The common point is that they are all support the work and ideals of the organization.  But the majority of the people in our Net cannot be said to be "supporters" of our organization.  Most of them do not participate in the actions that we promote.  They do not even donate a lot of money, and we do not have many volunteers.

This is actually the feature of most Internet media, including the independent media that live on the Internet.  This is where we have our "self-determination."  If we believe that our goal is to reform society, then the description above depicts a rather tragic portrait.  But I am not pessimistic.

The New Poor?

One reason is the social background and political attitude of this network group.  According to our research, the political attitudes of our users are similar.  They support universal suffrage, they oppose discrimination and they support the minimum wage law.  In terms of income and education, half of them are university graduates (bachelor degree or higher) and their average income is only HK$8,000.  Even after excluding the students who have little or no income, their average income is only about HK$10,000, or approximately the median income in Hong Kong.  Hong Kong In-media describes them jokingly as the "New Poor."  I have to ask whether it is possible to form a class movement and whether the Internet can be the foundation of a grassroots movement.

I don't expect this group of "new poor" to participate in the work of Hong Kong In-media to a large degree.  Of course, it would be a good thing for more people to take up the work.  But I wish more for them to form their own independent media.  The network structure is there already, but the problem is that people are not using it.  Hong Kong In-media cannot possibly become a big media outlet like Apple Daily, and it is not our goal to do that either.  We do not want to become a big NGO or social organization with many members who may help us increase the size of Hong Kong In-media.  We want instead for people to establish more new Internet nodes.  This is what many researchers of independent media and networking think.  The point is not to dominate the scene or monopolize the market.

For example, if some of our users would begin a free software movement and then others would use Creative Commons to expand the network, then this would be very good.  There will be two functions.  On one hand, it will expand this network which will have some grassroots flavor because it will let software and information flow more freely and widely.  On the other hand, it will be a new node in the network through which one can protest against the demolition of the Star Ferry clock tower, organize community actions, etc ...

The Non-standard Public Domain

Some people use the views of Jurgen Habermas in his latter years to point out that the Net is a non-standard public domain in which people exchange information and support each other.  But the social characters and ideologies of the members are different.  This group is not unified by consensus, so that cooperation is possible only through continuous negotiation.

In America and Europe, the type of Net has two implications.  First it symbolizes the demise of organized capitalism and the rise of new capitalism.  Second, it represents the renaissance of progressive politics (such as the direct anarchistic actions of Indymedia).  It is a point of debate over whether this is good or bad.  But here I want to say that this type of Net has new implications for social movements in Hong Kong.  Many people have pointed out that social movements in Hong Kong follow the pressure group model that came out of the 1980's.  The crowds are small, and they are unstable and influenced by specific incidents.  While the Net also reflects this feature of Hong Kong social organizations, the network effect can magnify the political effects of an organization by bringing in more active people and linking with other organizations.

The above are only my conjectures, or my best hopes.  There are many problems with the Net.  The people have low political awareness, so they will not be very interested in democratic politics or class politics.  Also, the ability to take action will be low, because there are only very few people on the Net who can be said to be activists.  The problems of how to develop more nodes and converting network communication into social mobilization and actions are important but far from solvable.  That is why we continue to develop and encourage people to form more organizations.  We cannot be relied upon to do everything.  More people have to do their own thing and then make use of the Net for effect.

Finally, I think that three types of problems are worthwhile to consider:

1. Self-identity

Sennett believes that the new capitalism creates a rupture in self-identity because it is impossible to come up with an uninterrupted narrative of self-identity.  Can the Net connect and extend one's self-identity?  Can the ruptured self-identity in everyday economic life be used as the basis for the formation of solidarity on the Net?

2. Class

The Net is unlikely to reach the traditional labor union members or service workers (such as cleaners) in the new economy.  If the Net users are the "new poor" themselves, can this become a grassroots social movement?

3. Public Domain

Since 1989, each large social mobilization leads to discussion of the renaissance of civic society.  After the July 1st march, the idea of the civic or public domain re-appeared.  But we were disappointed each time, because they did not lead to big political changes and social mobilization is in even worse shape now.  Our ideas about the public domain are still systematized as if it were an organic body.  But the Net is a non-standard public domain.  So can we try to imagine how to establish and run a civic society on a more practical basis on the Net?