Getting word out

by Paul Maharg on 25/07/2006

Communicative power often grows exponentially at the time of revolutionary events, and finds its own channels. Before the 1789 revolution in Paris, there were around sixty newspapers throughout France. By the middle of 1792 there were around 500 in Paris alone. Many of them were short-lived, with a tiny circulation. But what is remarkable is the explosion of communication channels as well as the sheer increase in volume – newspapers and gazettes with a huge range of formats and tone; subscription journals; illustrated literature such as almanacs, copies of speeches, prints, engravings and the like. (For information on the power of the press, see Jack Censer’s impressive Prelude to Power: Parisian Radical Press, 1789-91). Same happened with the English Revolution (Digger texts, explosion of pamphlets, eg Leveller texts, etc — Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down etc [and look closely at what’s happening to James Naylor on the cover of Hill’s text to find out how revolution silences its critics], and in the Russian Revolution — Mayakovsky, Malevich, political posters, theatre, as well as the political press. Or the use of phones & faxes in the rising in Beijing in 1989. Communication & persuasion are central elements.

There aren’t many of our law students will be getting tangled up in contemporary revolutionary events (now there’s an interesting fieldwork module…), but the revolutionary moment is a wonderful case study for communication.  Should we be using it to help our students learn communications?  How did Mandela do it?  What about Robespierre?  Or Lincoln?  What’s fascinating is how, in times of national crisis, normal communication patterns are disrupted and at times seem to actually guide events.  Schama makes a similar point in his history of the French Revolution, noting how the tone and register of the most popular and radical publications helped radicalise political and factional positions. 

Can we compare this to what technology is doing now?  For example, Michael Cross, in the Guardian Online, re the NHS National Programme for IT:

‘No one can predict how healthcare will change when patients have control over their own electronic records. Or when doctors and policy makers have instant and accurate information about which drugs and treatments work and which don’t’.

Will this be anything like the facility that clients have in certain law firms, whereby they can view the status of their transaction? No: it goes much further. There are clients who want the stuff done by lawyers and don’t want to see what goes on — they just want the result. And there are those who want to see what’s going on in detail. The first won’t be interested in the glass ceiling to their transaction, unless something goes wrong. But if NHS records are put online there’ll be a lot more interested people having a look at what’s there. And the potential for third-party applications is considerable, given the audience. What people will want is not just the record, but the ability to interact with the information, to see patterns, follow up the patterns in the general population, compare postcodes & infection, disease, illness patterns, etc. Interactions such as these are crucial to amplification of the meaning of the data; and it’s the start of a new type of interaction about health data.

OK, now compare this with the quite different interaction, that of ‘smart mobs’ (Howard Rheingold’s phrase) in an article written by Andrew Losowsky in the same edition. It’s a quite different communication — the use of sms & email to communicate political dissatisfaction and organise street protest — in the Philippines against the then president Joseph Estrada, and recently in Madrid on March 14, when protesters ‘mobilised’ outside the HQ of the conservative Partido Popular and voiced their dissatisfaction with government policy. As Losowsky points out, ‘In 1981, a soldier led an attempted coup in the Spanish parliament. It was later called ‘the night of the transistors’, due to the fact that the nation was glued to its radio sets to find out what was happening. Some people are now calling Staurday, March 13 ‘the night of the mobile telephone”.

Two forms of communication, two forms of web use, each of them profoundly changing society and its modes of communication, both of them highly effective use of the web. If legal education is to do the same, it needs to be able to publish relevant data and applications that can analyse the data; it needs to use the web for personal learning and communication between students and students and staff; and it needs to help students analyse and understand what’s happening to rhetoric, communication, information, knowledge, and relationships both political and personal in our democracies.

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