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The Revolution Will Not Be Web-Cast

by Stephen F. Nathans

May 08, 2020 | In 1975, an R & B singer named Gil Scott-Heron released a landmark, politically charged album called From South Africa to South Carolina. Its lead-off track was a jazzy cut called "Johannesburg," with a chorus that became the rallying cry of '80s anti-apartheid campus activism: What's the word? Johannesburg! Intermingled with the fervid amanlas of college kids who no more knew Scott-Heron's song than the snatches of Zulu they phoneticized by rote, the rousing call-and-response chant missed the message of the song. Far from simple hey-ho sloganeering, "Johannesburg" took aim at the selective myopia of American mass media and declared that a new means of communication was needed to break the silence and get the real story out about South Africa. Scott-Heron sang, "They tell me that our brothers over there are defyin' The Man/We don't know for sure because the news we get is unreliable, man."

In 1992, I covered a university lecture by Chuck D, then of the insistently topical rap group Public Enemy. Chuck D echoed Scott-Heron's sentiments by arguing that rap music needed to become "black CNN," to fill the information void left by white-owned news organs whose coverage offered little insight into black affairs around the the world. At the time, of course, he had no way of knowing how many blacks rap music would land on CNN with the record label wars of the mid-'90s that took out Tupac Shakur and others. But Chuck D might have anticipated the tedious sociological contextualizing about black-on-black violence reaching celebrity ranks, life imitating art, and what-not, and hastened to remind us that these issues were never raised about white casualties of a mob-ruled record industry in the 1960s (Jimmie Rodgers, Bobby Fuller).

Shortly after that came my first encounter with what then passed for the Internet. It was 1993 and the lonely surfer was a long-term houseguest (read: freeloader) at my then-girlfriend's mother's house. We'll call him by his old campus agitator name, Red Reuben. You know the type: aging '60s radical, always shoving a petition in your face without explaining what it was, regaling you with endless tales of the good old days on the barricades (always punctuated with a self-congratulatory cackle), hatching big plans to open a leftie restaurant named for Che Guevara, and ever finagling free (read: stolen) goods and services a la Abbie Hoffman's Steal this Book in the name of a revolution he'd presumably be re-joining sooner or later.

Naturally, with eons of time on his hands and a sizeable house and PC at his disposal, Red was a devoted 'Net surfer, constantly engaged in supposedly seditious online exchanges with like-minded folks. Guys like this, of course, never wore shoes, choosing instead to plod through life with soapboxes on the soles of their feet, and one of Reuben's favorite harangues concerned his vision of how the Internet was going to change the world. How The People, connected-nay, united-by this intricate web of wires a million small intestines long, could finally break free of the Ministry of Truth that kept information so tightly controlled in this country. "Finally we'll get the real story," he'd say, "passed on by the people for the people," and that would be the end of Secret Wars, CIA drug trafficking at home and abroad, and best of all the nefarious Tri-Lateral Commission that pushed all the buttons.

Of course, what I probably don't need to tell you about my old pal Red was that he was upper middle class, male, and white. In the early '90s, the 'Netsurfer profile was a lot more uniform than today; they all had one chromosome combo, one tax bracket, and their standard-issue Crayola box had one "Flesh" crayon and no more. Some revolution.

So maybe Red was jumping the gun a bit. But who's to say the demographics wouldn't someday align, and Clinton's crusade to get the whole nation online wouldn't eventually backfire and oust him and this whole so-called "democracy?"

Well, the demographics have shifted, and if Web access hasn't exactly reached the masses and transcended race and class, it's certainly reached critical mass. And it's become critically important to millions of people who don't need computers for their jobs, and couldn't care less about programming, using software, or buying anything that puts those machines in the service of The Man. And The Man is furious, absolutely up in arms about what the Web has become and what it's enabled.

But has it become the ever-flowing Freedom of Information Act that Red Reuben and his ilk envisioned, a veritable Noam Chomsky-fest of here's-what-your-government-is-really-like anecdotes? Does anyone go on the Web expecting to get The Word from Johannesburg, like you couldn't get on CNN? Hardly. What's taken the Web Top 40, of course, is what it's done to the Top 40. That the staid, corporate entities of rock 'n' rap can't hold onto their merchandise anymore because it's landing in every listener's lap via MP3. And if you doubt how pervasive the in-joke is this time, just try fighting the rest of your ISP for a little 'width on Napster. And check out how many proletarian 14.4 modems are edging in on the upload side. But however deep it goes, this isn't the bust-the-CIA revolution some chops-licking early adopters envisioned for the masses. This is just the free ride they wanted for themselves.

I feel for Red. I really do. It's tough being part of an intellectual elite that knows what's best for the masses when you find out they don't want it. I hate to lump Gil Scott-Heron in with this crowd because I doubt he would ever have been so deluded. His suggested communication method was a tried-and-true one from another era: get it from the drums. And after all, Scott-Heron was the guy who popularized the saying, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"-if you expect to watch the revolution from your couch, there won't be a revolution. Odds are you won't end up starting one from your ergonomic computer chair either. But you might as well grab the song on Napster while you can.


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