Posted on July 07, 2003 in Washington Watch

Technology is dramatically transforming political work. This may seem like a cliché, but with this being the beginning of summer and the end of my 25th year of full-time political organizing here in Washington, I wanted to take a moment to reflect–not so much on what we’ve done or accomplished, but on how changes in technology have impacted what we do.

The technological changes that concern me here, of course, are those that have revolutionized communications–in ways both good and bad.

Take, for example, the matter of mail.

When we began the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC) 26 years ago, after salaries and printing, our biggest budget item was postage. But it was worth it. Mail was the only option, and it yielded results. Our monthly newsletter was read and when we sent out a fundraising mailing, the response was significant.

By contemporary standards, the technology we used was primitive. Addresses were kept on individual “addressograph” plates. Envelopes or magazine labels were sent through a machine and were stamped by individual plates with a less than clear imprint of the recipient’s address. In the case of a fundraising appeal, if you wanted to improve the response each envelope had to be individually typed or hand written. It worked. A single personalized fundraising appeal, for example, to 3,000 donors, could yield over 1,000 responses. A non-personalized appeal might still net more than a few hundreds.

But that was 25 years ago, when the average U.S. household was not inundated with what we have come to call “junk mail”. A letter was still special and it would be opened and read.

The same, I might add, was true for long-distance phone calls. If a certain donor, who had not responded, received a call, it was seen as special. Not like today when, each night, households are disturbed a half-a-dozen times with phone solicitors and other calls deemed as more nuisance than special.

Changes in postal rates and in the printing and addressing of mail have altered the way we look at mail. On an average day a U.S. household can receive a dozen pieces of mail–none of them wanted. Even the envelopes that appear to be personalized, have most probably been computer generated. The result is that mail receives less attention. And with so many solicitations being received daily, most of these are ignored outright. The response rate to fundraising appeals by mail, have dropped dramatically during the past three decades.

The advent of the fax machine provided an opportunity for instant communication, albeit to a small number of individuals. Initially the process was slow and not always clear, but with facsimiles it was possible to send talking points and guidance to key organizers and articles and press releases to newspapers.

As the technology of the process improved, fax transmissions became near flawless and instantaneous. As a result, the fax machine also came to be abused. Solicitations and advertisements increased, as did other unwanted communications that tied up the machine and created mounds of wasted paper.

The abuse of the fax process has been somewhat alleviated with the advent of email. But the ease and the near cost-free nature of this form of communication has created its own set of problems.

In most offices and homes people sit in front of a keyboard and screen and send and receive information all day long. Access to the world-wide-web of information has created unlimited possibilities to gather and disseminate research, political commentary, personal communication and junk–cost free.

On the one hand, we are all being “spammed” to death with an endless stream of solicitations and announcements. On the other hand we are sometimes suffering from access to too much information.

When I began the PHRC, I had a few key sources of information. In particular, there were two Israeli human rights activists who were very important to my work. One was an attorney who regularly sent handwritten letters on those light blue self-folding airmail envelopes. In urgent cases, I would receive late night phone calls from Jerusalem appealing either for action to defend a torture victim or for publicity to stop a pending home demolition.

My other source was the head of a human rights organization. He too would send handwritten airmail letters in which he would enclose his translations of shocking or insightful stories from the Israeli press. These I would have typed, copied and mailed out to a regular list of subscribers.

Today, we can access hundreds of websites, Israeli and Palestinian. And we daily receive hundreds of emails from dozens of groups and individuals that we try to read and ingest, but only end up being buried by the next wave. It’s become “information overload”–a state of affairs which, for some, has produced paralysis or a drowning in the avalanche of intake.

Maybe it’s just the missing personal touch, but none of the cases currently coming to me are as compelling or dramatic as those I once received in late night phone appeals. And none of the stories I sift through are as disturbing or informative as the ones that had been transcribed or the inside of those light blue airmail envelops.

Two decades ago, our magazine used to reach 20,000 members and supporters each month. Our “Action Alerts”, as we called them, went by mail to a smaller number, because of cost. The recipients were proven activists whom we knew would respond by writing a personal letter to their legislator or whoever was the target of the requested action.

Now, we update and redesign parts of our website daily and send out new alerts and weekly reports by email. During times of crisis, our outreach extends to hundreds of thousands of “visitors” who “log on” to our website and tens of thousands who will respond to our alerts. When I look at the numbers I am pleased, of course, but I also ask myself: Who are they? And are their email letters to legislators even being read? Is there an impact?

Another observation on the same topic: I remember that after I would appear on a national television show like Nightline in the early 1980s, the office would receive a few dozen pieces of mail. Because it required an effort to write and mail a letter we took the criticism and comments quite seriously and responded. These days, because of the ease involved, a TV appearance can generate a flood of email commentary, including a few threats and angry hate mail. Call me “old fashioned”, but I still feel compelled to respond, especially to those who have serious questions or concerns.

The drift of these reflections may be clear by now. Communications have been revolutionized and we have all become beneficiaries and victims of access to too much information. We’ve been forced to change the ways we get and dispense information. To some degree, we’ve gone from a personal world of communication and organizing to a new world in which we create virtual communication and organizations on the web. In this new world, we don’t know whom we are reaching. Their association with us, sometimes limited to a “log on” or an email, is both voluntary and fleeting.

But, it’s all okay. It is, after all, the world in which we live. Technology and communications have changed, but the issues we confront and the work we do has not. So we have adapted and learned how best to use these new communication tools to build our movement and project our concerns.

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