For about 200 or 250 years, and until recently - that is, throughout almost the entire history of "politics" in the modern sense and of the labour movement - every activist, indeed everyone who reckoned to take an interest in the world around them, would regularly read newspapers, or if illiterate listen to someone telling them what was in the papers.
This is a longer version of the article than in the printed paper. See also "Bring back the pamphlet" (October 2012); "Why we should switch our computers off more" (September 2010); and "Why the revolution will not be tweeted" (January 2011) - all by the same author.
These days some young activists, alert and interested people, just do not read newspapers. A few months ago I asked a comrade how he kept up with the news.
Not TV news. Not news websites. The comrade told me that he got news through... Facebook.
Seeing me startled, he explained that friends posting on Facebook about things in the news would also post weblinks, and he would follow them. He is a thoughtful socialist who reads books, and no doubt does follow the links.
But is that comparable to the information that an activist of previous eras would get by reading newspapers? And what about those who rely on Facebook for news, but are lazier about following the links?
TV news programmes have lost viewers. Fully 48% of young people in the USA say they find out what's happening in the world by way of Facebook.
In the USA, 48% of 18-34 year olds check Facebook before they do anything else in the morning. 28% check Facebook before they get out of bed. 57% of all people now talk to other people online more than they do in real life. 18% of people under 25 in the USA say that they can't go more than two hours without checking Facebook.
In the UK, as in the USA, 52% of the entire population (including small children and the very elderly) are Facebook users. In many other countries, over 50% of the population are on Facebook; in several where you would think the technology was less affordable, such as Albania, Colombia, Palestine, and Turkey, the figure is over 35%.
This is all new, and much newer even than the widespread use of the internet, which dates only from the late 1990s.
Facebook, starting as limited to Harvard University students, has been open to all only since September 2006. Its biggest growth has been since 2008, from 100 million users to 1.1 billion.
More and more Facebook activity, and web activity in general, is carried on smartphones. The smartphone percentage of web traffic doubled between 2012 Q 1 and 2013 Q1. The Blackberry dates from 2003, but was used as a business tool. Modern smartphones took off only in 2010. Today in the UK 72% of people between 16 and 64 have a smartphone, and 89% of people between 25 and 34. Worldwide, 200 million new smartphones are sold every quarter.
People are connected to Facebook not only when they sit down at a computer, but often whenever they have their phone switched on.
Isn't this more communication? And isn't that a good thing, from a socialist point of view? These new modes of communication are credited with helping movements like the Arab Spring. They evade control by authoritarian governments. Where there is a receptive audience, a mass of people increasingly resentful of the government and confident that something better is possible, Facebook and similar channels can spread protests at a speed impossible with leaflets, newspapers, and word-of-mouth.
But it's not all good. Developments since 2011 in the Arab countries also indicate that Facebook and similar channels are not good tools for cohering, educating, and organising new political forces. Despite all fresh activity on the street, the decisive weight in those countries still rests with older forces which organise face-to-face: the Islamist movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria; the trade-union movements in Tunisia and Egypt.
A brief message flashed up on a small screen to which you're giving partial attention while doing something else may bring you to a protest you'd otherwise miss, but not more. Even when people are sitting at a computer desk, relatively focused, research has found that from screens they almost always skim-read, on average taking in about one-sixth as much as if they read from paper. Skim-reading won't generate deep thought, or reconsideration of inherited ideas, or involvement in long-term organising.
For all those, we still need conversations, meetings, debates, time spent in quiet study of newspapers, pamphlets, and books.
In the meantime, having people wrapped around by Facebook impedes serious discussion rather than helping.
Getting your news through Facebook is not as poor as being a medieval village-dweller dependent for news on village gossip fed by words from travellers from the big cities, but it's not much better.
By definition it limits your access to those news items which stir the interest of a small circle around you, and filters your access through their reactions. It breaks up the flow of political information into an array of relatively sealed-off swirls, and undermines wider debate.
The always-on, wraparound character of Facebook militates against concentrated thought. Today's university lectures illustrate this.
There have always been students who miss lectures, or day-dream, or take poor notes. Now there are students, by the thousand, lending a distracted ear to the lecturer's words and taking no notes, while they scan the online notes which the lecturer is obliged to provide for them and simultaneously browse or chat on Facebook, on their laptops or their smartphones.
Social psychologists talk of "continuous partial attention" (CPA). Paradoxically, CPA makes the ultra-connected often harder to communicate with, thus again breaking up the flow of political information into distinct swirls and eddies.
In the not-so-long-ago 1970s, there was no internet and most people did not even have phones, but if you met someone and talked with them they would almost always listen. If you wrote them a letter, they would almost always read it. If they were in range of their (landline) phone, they would almost always answer it.
Now no-one fields all their messages. People routinely ignore, or quarter-read, messages even from friends or comrades. Even if you get to speak to someone directly, they are likely to fob you off with: "Email me about that".
Social psychologists also write about the "online disinhibition effect". People who are mild-mannered face-to-face become wildly abusive online.
Writing for print, you ponder and revise, at least a little. Face-to-face, instinctive human empathy impels you to put your argument in terms which the other person could at least theoretically reply to.
Sat at a computer, or stabbing at a smartphone, you have no such restraint. Online arguments, including among the left, often descend to a level which combines the worst of old-fashioned pub brawls with a permanent record and instant amplification.
That happened enough with email to get the terms "flaming" and "trolling" coined. In the last few years, such online brawling has become qualitatively quicker-spreading and more virulent.
Polemic within the left has always been harsh, ever since there have been such things as "left wing" and "right wing" in politics. No wonder: it is argument between people who are embattled and anxious to prevail.
But, until the time of high Stalinism, and for a while after the decline of high Stalinism, it was polemic which presupposed a common cause and, at least in theory, a possibility of debate. Opportunist, sectarian, capitulator, petty-bourgeois, are harsh words, but they always carry with them at least some room for argument that the policy complained of is in fact sober realism rather than opportunism, a sticking to principle rather than sectarianism, and so on.
That room for debate distinguished political discourse from religion. The religious do not debate, except in specialised disputations among theologians. Christians and Muslims do not hold joint meetings where they weigh evidence on whether Jesus was the son of God or just a prophet. They either rub along with a shrug - "you have your faith, I have mine" - or condemn each other as infidels.
Under high Stalinism, supposedly "communist" politics became more like a religion. Trotskyists were not people with views to be debated. They were "fascists".
After the decay of high Stalinism, that sort of denunciation was discredited for a while. It revived in Britain in the early 1980s, when the WRP of Gerry Healy ran a campaign (which won support from many Trades Councils, union branches, and so on) to denounce the forerunners of AWL as part of a single "Zionist connection" with Thatcher and Reagan.
Later in the 1980s, the SWP took up the same method. They said the forerunners of the AWL were "racists", because "Zionists". In 1993 SWPers would beat up AWL member Mark Sandell just for distributing a critical leaflet at their summer school.
That happened without help from the internet. The root of it was not technology but defeats for the labour movement and the rise of a mentality which saw fencing off each group's clique or "party" from the infidels as central.
Recent new defeats for the labour movement - the public sector pensions dispute in 2011, effectively-unresisted Royal Mail privatisation - have promoted that mentality again, perhaps most among the remnant of the 2010 generation of left student activists, now at the end of their university days, living "in exile" from the 2010 student militancy which radicalised them, and unsure where to go.
The rise of wraparound political chatter through Facebook and smartphones has made the heresy-hunting culture more widespread and faster-moving.
Real debate within the left is rare. More common is interaction between different trends on the left which oscillates between mutual indifference and charges of being "racist", "misogynist", "pro-imperialist" or such. The polemicists do not want debate from those they polemicise against: they want to put them on the defensive with charges that their words "really" mean something shocking.
Continuous partial attention helps the spread of this culture. A considered, balanced argument is unlikely to spread fast on Facebook. A vivid accusation that so-and-so is "racist", even if with little supporting argument, can spread like wildfire. It can quickly create a mood in which even those who bother to scan the text accused of being "racist" (probably by skim-reading on a screen) come to it already preconditioned to see "racism" there.
Another factor contributes to making the effect of Facebook culture like that of religion. Researchers have found correlations between heavy Facebook use and narcissism, low self-esteem, and loneliness.
In his book on Muhammad, the Marxist writer Maxime Rodinson noted that "those modern psychiatrists who hold religious beliefs are troubled... since, in all honesty, they are forced to admit that no clear distinction exists between the experiences of the mystics" - the prophets and saints honoured by all religions - "and those of the mentally ill".
For a whole era of human history, the vivid sayings by the mentally ill when they were most hurt by their illnesses, and least able to grasp reality, were hailed as the word of God. Science has changed that. We attend to the austere scientific work of Kurt Godel, the greatest mathematician of the 20th century, but not to the mysticism of his last 30 years.
Wraparound Facebook pulls us backwards. We are more likely to "flame" on Facebook when we are drunk, sleepless, overwrought, least "in our right mind". Where face-to-face conversation with our friends would help us regain balance, Facebook sends every extravagance across the world. Gets it picked up and relayed precisely because it is extravagant. Amplifies it.
This surrounds the serious left with constant noise, just as in other circumstances the left has had to deal with background noise generated by undebatable religious babble which branded socialist ideas as "infidel" or "godless".
Socialists can use Facebook and similar tools. Workers' Liberty uses Internet Relay Chat (the basic underlying technology behind what people see today in Facebook chat) for our weekly discussions between organisers from across the country, and sometimes (though it doesn't work as well) to give access to political discussions to comrades with difficulty getting to meetings.
We advertise meetings on Facebook. We use links on our personal Facebook pages to encourage friends and acquaintances to read articles on our website.
Other new technologies may be almost-unqualified boons. E-readers make it possible for socialists to get hundreds of important texts free or very cheap, and to have them and our own Workers' Liberty documents portably and in a format which encourages concentration. So far they are spreading more slowly than smartphones or Facebook. The most common form of e-reader, the Kindle, first became widespread in 2009, and sold 13 million units in 2012, while nearly a billion new smartphones are sold each year.
The balance will change with livelier class struggle, just as the balance among newspapers between trashy titles like the Sun and more informative papers is not fixed by technology.
A consumer satisfaction survey in the US found Facebook ranked low. People may use Facebook a lot and still not like it much - find it more irritating and worrying than a bringer of joy.
Face-to-face communication and serious study can light up our lives in a way that Facebook never does. To focus on them is not to make a hopeless attempt to turn back the clock. It is to do what we must do to change the world rather than give "continuous partial attention" to it.