The recent war of words over the future of Spitalfields Market raises questions about the power of public protest in the digital age. Spitalfields Market Under Threat (SMUT) has waged much of its campaign against the Spitalfields Development Group online. Potential supporters have been e-mailed arguments for them to include in an angry letter to the planners. Several of the 25,000-plus names on the SMUT petition have 'signed' online.Mike Bear, chief executive of the Spitalfields Development Group, argues that it is simply too easy to sign online without bothering to look at plans or check the facts. The speed with which e-mail can become a chain letter has been well documented - witness the case of the unfortunate solicitor who wrote a smutty e-mail to a colleague only to have it circulated around the globe within the space of a few hours. But is digital protest an efficient way of educating and harnessing public opinion, or simply an irresponsible means of whipping up ill-considered discontent?
It may well be that the first names on the list are people who would have been involved in any case, and that e-mail has simply made it easier to coordinate their support. But once a document has gained a critical mass of names, those who might otherwise have been noncommittal are more likely to pledge support. Aside from the natural herding instinct, they are likely to make the practical calculation that the possibility of repercussions diminishes, the more responsibility is shared.
The AJ recently received an online petition to persuade the German federal government to continue to fund the Bauhaus Foundation in Dessau. According to the accompanying letter, people 'connected to Walter Gropius'have objected to the fact that Bauhaus staff and students have questioned the heritage and history of the Weimar Bauhaus, and are urging the government to withdraw its funds. You can register your support at bauhaus@whp. com. au.Who could resist the invitation to join in the battle of the Modernist giants? Then again, if the letter had arrived by post, we would probably never have got round to addressing a letter to Germany and finding the appropriate stamp.