The Parisian riots of May 1968 were hatched in the city’s cafés, just like the ones in June 1832, March 1871, and February 1934. But the “yellow vests” movement has broken away from this historical precedent. For the very first time, the uprising was born on social media before spilling out onto the street.
In 1962, Marshall McLuhan published The Gutenberg Galaxy, a premonitory work that proved to be accurate. In his work, the Canadian sociologist explains the history of the West through its technical innovations. Before McLuhan, two schools of philosophical thought were at loggerheads over whose prophecy was correct. The idealists, inspired by Plato, believed that ideas governed our fates — a stance that always pleases intellectuals. However, Marx suggested that our material condition defined our place on the social spectrum, despite our best intentions. This all changed when McLuhan announced that, without Gutenberg’s printing press the Germans would never have read the Bible, the Reform would never have taken place, nor would the Counter-Reform. As a result, there would have been no Renaissance, no Enlightenment, and no modernity.
Today, following McLuhan’s logic, we see the mass media — an expression and a concept he made popular – are ripping us from the Gutenberg galaxy to welcome a new era in which humanity finds itself united around television screens. The sociologist also suggested a political and philosophical distinction between those who continue living in the Gutenberg galaxy through ignorance or as victims of this shift, and those who escape it. Essentially this distinction is one of generations, which explains the theory’s wild success with the rebellious youth of the 1960s.
In our current period of Facebook and Twitter, it is hard not to think of McLuhan, or of Zuckerberg — our contemporary Gutenberg. The former’s hypothesis seems easier to prove today than at the time it was put forward. We have undeniably entered an era in which our immediately available means of communication determine our personal and collective behaviors. Social media offers everyone, regardless of where or when, an unprecedented audience and universality. While there are still a handful of unconnected tribes still holding out, there is little to worry about. I recently learned new satellites will soon ensure high-speed internet is available even in the deepest recesses of the Amazon and Papua New Guinea.
But what does this actually change? Everything, in fact. For example, as far back as Ancient Greece, women have demanded dignity and equal treatment. But the Twitter soundbox made this plight into a global revolution, and is transforming our societies in ways that go beyond national cultures and social boundaries. The #MeToo movement is changing the West, but also Asia, by consistently relying on the same vocabulary, the coded and universal language of our smartphones. And in France, a form of revolution led by some of the poorest and socially unrecognized has become an uncoordinated uprising, with no leader, doctrine, or program other than posts on Facebook.
The movement seems to have been started by a Breton accordionist who posted a video on his Facebook page protesting the rise in gas prices. This was coupled with a photo in which he wore a yellow vest — a warning sign and an item all French drivers are required by law to keep in their vehicles. In the space of just three weeks, the message was shared by several million people online. The rest, as they say, is history: riots in Paris and beyond, and a government wavering before giving in.
The most remarkable part of these new social movements is just how unpredictable they are. Neither the government nor the traditional media saw it coming because the means of communication and organization were not those used in the past. Before the Zuckerberg galaxy, social movements obeyed instructions from leaders who acted as go-betweens with the organizations which in turn were structured according to certain thoughts and demands. Today, everything has changed. We find ourselves in the most anarchistic spontaneity, to the point that the enlightened elite were caught short, not only during the movement but also afterwards, as they were unable to understand what the protesters were asking for. The composition and demands are heterogeneous, but perhaps the objective of the movement is simply the movement in itself. During the events of May 1968 in Paris — a relatively organized student rebellion — placards proclaimed “Banning is banned.” The “yellow vests” looking for a unifying slogan could well chant “Outrage is an imperative!”
If history has meaning, what sense can be found in the often ill-informed spontaneity stirred up by social media? Should we see some “progress” in the fact that anyone and everyone can speak out, and that everything is equal because it takes place online? It is not inherently regrettable that the lofty elite are being challenged by those at the bottom, but not to the point of denying reality and considering falsehoods as equivalent to the truth. We should be concerned, even though the answer is unclear. While we wait, knowledge and awareness are being brutally shaken up by the new era, and politics even more so. Demands were, until now, relatively tempered by representative democracy supported by authorities that allowed dialogue.
But when the American president goes over the heads of institutions, when the yellow vests forget there is a parliament in France, and when feminists condemn everything without involving the justice system, we are left a little puzzled. How are we to live peacefully in society, or a world, without institutions on hand to moderate? The Zuckerberg galaxy kindles passions while adding a risk of violence, which makes us think of the civil wars in the Gutenberg galaxy. It appears that material progress is one thing, but moral progress is quite another. And while this is more or less common knowledge, it is useful to be reminded from time to time.