How Is “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” Poem Relevant Today? 1/2

18 min read
“The Revolution Will Not be Televised” poem by Gil Scott-Heron. Photo by Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi / CC BY-S

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a poem composed by Gil Scott-Heron for his 1970 album. Although Gil wrote the poem about half a century ago, it still resonates today. Maybe its resonance is not strongest in the literal sense (“televised”), but in the figurative one (its technological equal of today – social media). Let us analyze the role of technology, social media and the participatory nature of news-making today and how they affect democracy.

This article has two parts.

Quick Summary

  • Gil Scott-Heron’s poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” from about 50 years ago has strong relevance to this day.
  • All revolutions start with a shared idea or a vision but they cannot be sustained without some common values and indicators for measuring their progress.
  • We need to have control over our attention if we want to build and live in a better world. Invasive marketing practices and junk content seek to fill our minds with information of little value leaving little time for revolutionary thinking.

Action Steps

I want to take some action! What are some things I can do? For a start, go to the bottom of the article to learn more.

To learn more, please continue reading Part 1 of the article.

We Need To Understand The Meaning Of The Words “Televised” And “Revolution”

Before we dive deeper into the article, we need to define the two key terms, “televised” and “revolution.”

Televised, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, means “to broadcast by television.” At the time of the first public recital of the poem by Gil Scott-Heron, color TV was gaining popularity in the US.1Technology Adoption in US Households, 1860 to 2019. Our World in Data.

If Gil Scott-Heron were writing the song today, he would probably write “The Revolution Will Not Be Facebooked” [or you can enter your other favorite social media outlet, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube or other]. Instead of “staring” at TV screens, currently, many of us are glued to the little screens. In 2019, the average US person spent over 3 hours and 35 minutes a day watching TV and 3 hours and 43 minutes using mobile devices (e.g. smartphones and tablets).2US Adults Are Spending More Time on Mobile Than They Do Watching TV. (n.d.). EMarketer. Retrieved November 19, 2020, from https://www.emarketer.com/content/average-us-time-spent-with-mobile-in-2019-has-increased.

Although, as of 2019, time spent on mobile devices is greater than that of TV (and continues to rise), content consumed on TV still has strong relevance even to this day.

Revolution, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, refers to “a sudden, radical, or complete change” or “activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation.”

The word revolution has an appeal among people who feel disenfranchised, but also among the privileged. When evoking the word revolution, some people may think of the French Revolution or the American Revolution, both struggles of the common people against undemocratic governance regimes, one monarchical and the other a colonial one. However, there is also the Industrial Revolution, the 4th Industrial Revolution, or the Artificial Intelligence Revolution that catered and may cater more to those of privilege.

What helps give rise to revolutions? Certain anthropological or natural or some combination of both types of events creates better or worse conditions for seeding revolutionary change(s). For example, the COVID-19 virus caused a pandemic that helped create the ideal conditions for seeding revolution(s). But there are many actors with diverging interests and ideas for what makes a revolution. The key questions to ask are: “Whose revolution and for what purpose?”

All Revolutions Start With An Idea

For a revolution to happen, first, a change in the minds of people needs to take place (Check out Gil Scott-Heron’s brief interview in the 1990s on this topic). In this article, I will focus on revolutions that would benefit those who feel disenfranchised by the system, as these types of revolutions are most democratic in their spirit, i.e., they seek to empower the “demos,” the people.

Revolutions have one thing in common, some unifying idea that large numbers of people believe in or can identify with.

Conceiving a revolutionary idea is easier than starting and sustaining a revolution.

For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement started around a single idea; the protest of the 99% (the majority or the demos) against the 1% (the elites). Specifically, it was a protest against the vast income and wealth inequality that the system generates and perpetuates through global financial institutions like those typically found on Wall Street. Although the movement had vigorous protests during the first couple of weeks after it started on September 17, 2011 in New York City, the movement fizzled out and now, about a decade later, there are no serious indications of its revival.

If history is our teacher, we can see that many revolutions start, most fizzle out and few survive to leave a lasting impact.

One of the key reasons is that there was no unifying idea or approach on what to do afterwards. The people who have lost homes and jobs because of the Great Recession and then saw executives on Wall Street awarding themselves large taxpayer funded bonuses, experienced the unfairness in the system and took to the streets. However, this amorphous mass of people had no unifying operational goals and means of what to do afterwards. Revolutionary ideas that involve large groups of people with diverging approaches will fail to be sustained.

Common Operational Objectives Or Indicators Can Sustain Revolutions

Unlike diverse groups of people, businesses all over the world have the same operational goals and objectives: increase return on investments, raise shareholder value and maximize profitability. Business people from all over the world are familiar with metrics used to measure their organizational performance such as the values of assets, liabilities, equity, net income, EBITDA (Earnings Before Income, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) and others.

In the world of business, there is a common language and unified set of metrics to assess organizational performance. Therefore, business people of any background, of any language, of any culture can work together in achieving shared business objectives. There are codified accounting standards, the two major ones being:

  • 1) the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) used primarily in North America, and;
  • 2) International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) used across many countries in the world.

Unlike business people, most people do not have shared standards, operational means and set of metrics to achieve a common vision. Most of us can agree about the importance of a clean living environment, access to water, food, shelter, decent living wages and so forth. However, we will not agree on the best approach.

Many of us have distinct sets of values that drive our decisions. Although values are important, I do not believe they are a major handicap to sustain a revolution.

Businesses, like people, have widely different values. However, businesses have a unified set of metrics, the most recognizable and powerful one being profitability. People have no such unifying metric. This “important” metric depends on the person. For someone who is asthmatic, probably the level of air quality is most important. For a (video/computer) gamer, the speed of the internet connection is of greatest concern. For parents, it may be the cost of quality education (be it private or public) for their children that matters most.

Maybe the human experience cannot be distilled into a single metric or an index that can measure the success or quality of life. Maybe what we need is a set of visions where many people, with different values, can agree on, and then define some indicators to measure the success in accomplishing these visions. Perhaps, we, as humans, could benefit from having a framework of visions with a set of shared values and indicators that we would like to achieve. Over the years, we can vary our approach, but we need to focus on achieving the common metrics that we, as a society, defined.

It would be just like in business. Whether Bill Gates is running Microsoft as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) or Satya Nadella (CEO of Microsoft as of 2014), the indicators that are used to measure the performance of either CEO are largely the same. New CEOs do not change the metrics used to measure operational performance. They change the targets bounded by those metrics.

How We Developed A Vision For Our City And Our Country

I am a member of the Global Shapers Hub in Skopje and as a member of the initiative we developed a guide, a framework for visions for our city where we live, Skopje, and our country, Macedonia.

I come from Macedonia, which declared its independence on September 8, 1991. For about three decades there has been limited progress. Tired of seeing most young people (over 50%) aspiring to leave the country because of the poor living conditions and opportunities, we, at the Global Shapers Hub in Skopje created a guide for visions for the city in 2070, 50 years from now. You can check it out here:

The reason for choosing a 50-year milestone is that our country (and city) have not been planning for the long-term. Because of the lack of long-term vision, each governing party has created its own short-term strategy (usually 4-years long), which is not sufficient when large infrastructure projects or policies are involved (such as education, healthcare or research & development). Usually, the winning party would discontinue major projects the previous administration started.

If the average mortgage is 30-years and expected work-life is 40 years, how can a city or a country plan sustainably on a shorter time horizon than an individual?

Our aim is that, as a society, we work together in achieving the visions, regardless of ideological or religious beliefs (e.g. political left, political right, Christian, Muslim and so forth). Our belief is that we can agree on common visions, values and metrics but we can differ on the approach how to get there. Our conviction is that a shared vision will help ensure continuity across the changing governments and political parties, so we rise in the ranks and reach the most developed cities and countries of the future.

The first step to get there is to share this vision. We hope that this will inspire a spark of change.

We Should Protect Our Mental Attention And Dedicate Time To Think

If we want to be part of a revolution that benefits the masses and serves to empower us, we shall not outsource our thinking. We shall not give out our attention for free.

In business, it is common to say that “time is money.” Business people are conscious that every moment an employee spends on an activity can be classified as “productive” or “non-productive.” Either the employee uses the time to produce something (that hopefully surpasses the value the employee costs the company so that the employer can earn a “profit”) and “non-productive” (when the employee uses the time for activities such as browsing social media on the phone and results in no surplus value generated that can cover the employee’s expenses). On balance, the employees need to produce more than employers spend on them in order for the business to be profitable.

Even though the system is set up in a way that encourages employers to “exploit” the workers to maximize shareholder value, the same is happening with our leisure time. There is an increased “assault” from social media companies to occupy our attention and help businesses make an additional sale. This “assault” diverts our thoughts and attention away from ideas that would truly advance us as society.

As shown in the graph, we reserve our prime thinking time for work (see light blue on the graph above), leaving little time and energy for other pursuits or deferring them for the weekends. Leisure is the free time remaining after subtracting sleep, work, household activities, commute to and from work, and average TV time per day. This leaves, less than 2 hours of free time that can we can dedicate to thinking, going to the gym, or taking part in the democratic process of our societies.

The current system awards and incentivizes companies to maximize their profits. Rather than focus our attempts and human efforts of some of our most creative and intelligent people in developing solutions to address core issues, we divert attention to produce algorithms that automates the work that studies our preferences and purchasing habits and recommends us the product or service that we may be looking for. It is just not the best use of our time, thoughts and efforts.

Amazon, Facebook, Google, YouTube and other major corporations are perfecting their algorithms and can target us with specific ads, some of them useful, some of them not. For example, Target, one of the largest retail chain-stores in the United States, has predicted that one of their customers is pregnant and estimated the delivery date, based on the shopping data they could mine. This was about 10 years ago! Technology has advanced since then.

Another example that points to this is YouTube. In 2020, YouTube was the second most visited website after Google globally and a popular entertainment platform. At the start, YouTube did not have invasive advertising. Now, it is impossible to watch a video or listen to a song without being bombarded with ads. If you have used the YouTube app on your mobile device, you probably have noticed that you could not “minimize” the app (run it in the background) and still listen to music. This point and this feature may seem trivial, but they are not. This feature is a deliberate omission because of its huge commercial potential. In 2019, YouTube generated about $15 billion in ad revenues.3“YouTube Says It Paid the Music Industry More than $3 Billion Last Year.” MSN, https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/companies/youtube-says-it-paid-the-music-industry-more-than-dollar3-billion-last-year/ar-BB100BZB. Accessed 23 Jan. 2021.

Personally, I dislike the inability to do anything else on the phone while using YouTube. I guess many of you dislike the lack of this feature. It does not make my phone feel “smart.”

For a high-tech company such as Google, with some of the brightest programmers from around the world, the “inability,” more so the “lack of will and incentives” to make such feature “free” speaks to the company’s drive (and pressure) to commercialize leisure time.

Today, this feature is available in the paid version of YouTube.

It is important that we question the dominance of major corporations such as Google. We need to question their features. Whom they seek to benefit, and for what purpose?

The good news is that there are ad-free ways to enjoy YouTube without handing over data for free to Google. This may not be the earth-shuttering discovery for you. But that we need to be control of our attention and consciously choose where we want to allocate it.

There Are Alternatives, And This Section Is Just A Start To Act In That Direction

There are alternatives, but as I will explain in the following section, they are deemed “risky,” “dangerous” or “unsafe.” There is always some element of doubt looming when exploring these options.

It may seem trivial to dedicate time to this section, but if we want to imagine a different world, we need to think of it and demand those changes from the major actors in our society.

For those interested in exploring alternative ways to enjoy videos online (typically accessible via YouTube), listen to music without ads and “minimize” (play in the background), I recommend NewPipe. It is free (no paid subscription), ad-free Android app to watch videos. Unfortunately, there is no iOS version, but there are some other apps similar to NewPipe that could work.

NewPipe is available from F-Droid (an Android marketplace that is an alternative to Google Play). If you wonder why NewPipe is not in the Google Play store, my assumption is that the app probably “violates” some terms and conditions of Google (most likely because it competes with its flagship app, YouTube).

Before we jump to the conclusion that this is malware or that everyone is out there to steal data, I believe that there are people who genuinely want alternatives and are creating them. Instead of relying on ad-sponsored funding, these types of initiatives rely on donations.

On my desktop, I use Mozilla’s Firefox browser with Ublock Origin ad-blocker extension. In both devices (my computer and my phone) I can enjoy music without diverting my attention to ads. I believe that as users we need to do our best to limit the invasive of ads assaulting our leisure time. By the way, none of these links are affiliate or sponsored links.

For those who want to explore alternative options or extend the functionalities of their smartphones, there are tools and techniques that exist that receive little publicity (because there are no large corporations sponsoring them). If we want to see more such human-centered apps that care about our attention and protect our privacy, I believe we should support FOSS (Free and Open-Source Software).

I believe that we, the people, should fund such initiatives collectively. This way we collect funding to support developers to create applications and software that will have the human development in mind, not perpetuating endless and mindless consumerist habits that seek to reproduce the “not-so-great-parts” of our capitalist societies.

We should protect our attention from invasive advertising. All of us will not become philosophers and use our spare time for thinking about improving the human conditions, but neither should we allow invasive advertising to turn us into couch potatoes and impulse shoppers.

The Non-mainstream Is Labelled As “Risky,” “Dangerous,” “Unsafe”

Non-main stream opinions are immediately categorized and stigmatized.

Following the example in the previous section, given that many of the readers of this article would probably read it on a smartphone, it is probably safe to assume that either the user would be Android or iOS.

If you are an Android (or iOS) user, you may be surprised to learn that there are other mobile application stores (app stores beyond Google Play or Apple Store) available out there to legally install applications that would give you more freedom to use your phone (without artificially imposed restrictions by the major vendors).

For Android users, there is F-Droid, which I mentioned earlier. It is a little known brand and a non-mainstream app store. There is also Amazon app store, which is a mainstream brand, but non-mainstream app store for Android users. I have used both.

For iOS users there is AltStore. I have no personal experience with this store. However, there is an article on Engagdet about it and also a direct link to the Patreon page of AltStore’s developer, Riley Testut. As of the time of writing, he has a relatively large number of supporters on Patreon (over 4,500) and generates over 13,000 USD per month in donations to support his work. It seems like there are people who believe and benefit from the work he is doing.

However, when the casual users try to install non-mainstream apps, with both Android and iOS users, the phone will give a notification that this is an unwanted application. Although some apps may genuinely be dangerous, we can attribute some of the same risks to apps installed through Google Play or the Apple Store. Since Google Play is the dominant player (in the Android world), they can set the terms of what constitutes “a safe” or “unsafe” application, and it not always is related to security, rather business (revenue loss) risk.

Labels Can Dismiss And Discredit Alternative Thoughts

Just like the two major app stores discredit “non-mainstream” apps, the mainstream media does the same to alternative opinions. The mainstream media focuses on viewpoints that perpetuate the status quo, or ensure its controlled reformation or transformation. The economic models can change, as long as the underlying power structures are not severely affected. Once the prevailing power structures are affected, they retaliate, often violently.

A case in point are the violent responses of governments to citizen protests that challenge their power: such as in the United States to protest police brutality, in Belarus to protest Presidential electoral results in 2020, in Bulgaria to protest ingrained corruption among top-ranking politicians, including other countries. These are all events that made headlines in 2020 alone.

There are terms that are essentially “labels” to categorize and dismiss someone or someone’s opinions as unfavorable to the mainstream. Probably some of you, when reading the section about alternative app stores, thought that I must be a “rebel” or a “pirate” since I am promoting something that is alternative.

Depending on the context, some words serve as dismissing labels such as “communist,” “socialist,” “conspiracy theory,” “hippie,” “hipster” and so forth. They often stifle meaningful debate and thought. Sometimes, the label may have some element of truth, but its mainstream intent is to to discredit and disarm. These labels not only stifle others but also contribute to self-policing.

Because of the constant bombardment and feeding of our minds with “junk” information, we are conditioned to think, even in the privacy of our thoughts, in particular ways that are socially expected and normative. For example: “Oh, If I think of [something non-mainstream], then people will probably consider me a conspiracy theorist, therefore I will keep my thoughts to myself.”

Often, especially in some countries, people put the disclaimer first: “Let me tell you something. It may sound like a conspiracy theory, but I am not one of those. [You know me, I am no conspiracy theorist.]”

These labels can range from the seemingly benign to the harmful. If I advocate strongly that people in cities should ride more bicycles, walk or take mass transit, and I advocate that car owners should always pay for parking or make car ownership more expensive, then I may be considered “oppressive,” “extreme,” “tree hugger,” or “hippie” by those who are used traveling by cars, prefer cars or simply need them.

If we believe in democracy and freedom of speech and critical thought is one of its key tenets, then we should encourage debates and diversity of ideas. We should spend time in school and outside of school how to debate and discuss ideas in a respectful and non-violent way.

If we ignore or discredit people, just because they propose alternative ideas, these people will either alienate themselves and group themselves with other like-minded people. It will exacerbate the effects of echo-chambers and extremist groups.

Currently, there is news for the liberals, for the conservatives, for the democrats, for the conspiracy theorists and so forth. There are news channels designed to feed information that we like to hear, not what we need to know.

Often, the truth is a hard, but a necessary pill to swallow.

Not all of peoples’ ideas are great and some opinions may be harmful, but if we do not hear these opinions, we will not know what those people think and understand where they are coming from. Today the idea may sound crazy, but maybe there will be a time for that idea.

We need to learn to live with people who have different opinions and points of view, at the same time respect and not endanger their livelihoods. Many people in the United States would be fine having a Quaker (religious group known for its strong belief in non-violence) as a neighbor, even if they are ardent atheists, but in recent times, people are not willing to even share the digital space (be friends on Facebook if they support opposing political parties). If we want to live in a democratic society, we need to learn how to debate constructively.

Just like Gil Scott-Heron has said, “The revolution will not be televised” because it is supposed to take place in our minds. No revolution can take place in our minds if we allow others to fill our thoughts with invasive advertising and mind-numbing content. No revolution can take place in our minds if we are stuck in our echo-chambers where we are fed information that we like to hear.

The struggle in the current system is that there is no financial incentive to televise opinions that challenge the current economic model, even if they are in the best interests of the people. The ideas that prevail are ones that are in line with the current economic model based on infinite growth, which clashes with our finite natural boundaries.

This article has two parts. For the second part, follow the link here.

Action Steps I Can Take

In the spirit of praxis, practical application of a theory, we propose several action steps that one can take to turn the theoretical thinking in this blog, into actionable steps.

  • SUPPORT member-funded journalism and blogs such as this one (or alternatives include, De Correspondent (Dutch), El Tiempo Argentino (Spanish) or The Ferret (English). For a comprehensive list of member funded websites, please visit The Membership Puzzle Project.
  • USE AND SUPPORT mobile and computer applications that are Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) for entertainment. For Android users check out F-Droid and for iOS check out AltSotre.
  • DISCONNECT from mobile and TV devices and set some time aside for thinking. Leave your phone at home and take a walk in a park.

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