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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

How Technology Made `Occupy Wall Street' Both Irrelevant and Ubiquitous

Who knew Skynet would be a financial, rather than a defense network?

  • October 5, 2011

Watching the protest in lower Manhattan metastasize from an eager call for volunteers on various social networks to a full-on movement has been a dizzying exercise in the power of technology to render protest both irrelevant and remarkably powerful at the same time.

How can you ‘occupy’ an abstraction? By invading the network on which it depends.

Perhaps this is the condition of all political movements in the 21st century, but Occupy Wall Street feels like a post-post-something exercise in the ability of social networks, citizen journalism and the always-on news cycle to amplify the power of symbols. It’s also a demonstration of the futility of trying to shut down an industry that has more or less completely dematerialized.

Consider for a moment that even if hundreds of thousands of protesters showed up, it would not actually be possible to “occupy” Wall Street in a way that would shut it down. If protestors wanted to actually impinge the functioning of the markets, they’d have to occupy not Wall Street itself, whose trading floor is now all but irrelevant to movement in the markets, but a nondescript warehouse just off the New Jersey Turnpike where the vast majority of trades actually take place, electronically.

Even then, you can bet that Direct Edge and the New York Stock Exchange have some of the world’s best fail-over plans for their sprawling data centers, and who knows where the backup systems are. Some day they might be “in the cloud,” at which point they would be at once ubiquitous and untouchable. (Who knew Skynet would be a financial, rather than a defense network?)

On the flip side, it seems to hardly matter that the protestors are in a small semi-public park, not Wall Street itself, and are mostly getting in the way by making the NYPD look bad. That’s because the real power here is the ability of this movement to have a voice in social networks and a news cycle that is no longer solely controlled by broadcast media.

For example, there’s this gem from The Atlantic Wire: “Media Non-Coverage of Occupy Wall Street Gets Lots of Media Coverage.”

Boiling it all down, what we have is a fairly abstract protest movement whose tactics are entirely appropriate to the abstraction its members inveigh against. Protestors aren’t articulating their goals all that well and that’s just fine, because it’s clear that what they’re against is a system that is nebulous not only because it is complicated and remote, but also because physically, it is as ephemeral as the Internet itself.

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