The human mic: a live extension of Twitter?

From yesterday’s refreshingly clear-sighted and supportive report on #OccupyWallStreet in the Globe and Mail:

Perhaps the most cogent symbol of this raw democratic process is the “human microphone,” a natural form of call-and-response voice amplification that the occupiers use to overcome the police ban on speakers and megaphones. At their general assemblies, a large group of occupiers repeat the words of a single speaker, allowing the power of multiple voices to resonate through the crowd. The result is both moving and arresting. The speaker must slow down, choose his or her words carefully, and then listen as the crowd repeats those words back. Likewise, members of the crowd move from passive listeners to active participants.

Agreed. The human microphone system being used by #OccupyWallStreet is proving an effective performative tactic to work around the imposed ban on technological amplification at the Occupation’s public gatherings. And as even this short quotation suggests, the tactic offers lots to think about, especially for studies of performance, media, and culture; it readily lends itself to poststructuralist reading. Check out the people’s acoustic sound system in action as Slavoj Žižek addresses #OccupyWallStreet:

Slowness, attention, delay, repetition, and the liveness of the moment: structured around these features, the human mic system might seem a direct revolt against the proliferation of new media technologies that are now so often cited as responsible for accelerating, diffusing, and hyper-mediating contemporary communications. But it seems to me that the human mic system would have been unthinkable before Twitter. The parceling out of brief statements, and their echoing repetition by those in attendance at the time, strike me as eminently Twitter-based practices. To say nothing of the statements that then get actually tweeted and re-tweeted by the crowd.

Rather than a revolt against new media, the human mic looks more like an embodied extension of them, a corporeal remediation of social network technology — technology that is widely held responsible for “doing [bad] things to our brains” — in the service of cultivating attentive listening, dialogic socializing, and above all critical thinking. (I’d like to think there’s something anti-proprietary about the system too; its formal focus on sharing and dissemination can be read as a critique of tightening copyright laws that are entirely of a piece with the kleptocracy against which the Occupation stands.)

I could be wrong; I’m venturing an impression here, and I haven’t researched the human mic phenomenon. If it predates Twitter, I’d love to learn about where it came from, and how it developed. (I certainly don’t mean to discredit anyone with my hypothesis — or to credit Twitter too much, as happened a lot amidst discussions of the Arab Spring.) In any case, the Occupation’s critical mass (which is at the same time, paradoxically, a global dispersion) of converged new media and embodied assembly producing some new kind of body politic?

2 responses to “The human mic: a live extension of Twitter?

  1. I like the human mic. The resonance with Twitter is an interesting angle, and however it came about, it’s a beautiful expression of affinity. I wish the people who typically get to use corporate media as their microphone had to use the human mic instead. Democracy would be much more interesting, if representatives of state and corporate power, in order to be heard, had to rely on everyone else’s willingness to repeat what they say.

  2. Seems to me that it takes its roots in oral traditions and kerygma – and a much more recent example is line singing (gospel singing – and another example (non-gospel) –

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