@ Is For Activism

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* Book: Joss Hands. @ Is For Activism. Pluto Press, 2010

URL = http://www.josshands.com

= a book on activism in a digital culture


1. Activism and Technology

2. The Digital Author as Producer

3. Protocol, Norm, Imperative: Networks as Moral Machines

4. Power-Law Democracy

5. Mobil(e)isation

6. @ is also for Alter-Globalisation

7. Constructing the Common: Cooperation and Multitude


By Joss Hands:

"When I first began working on the project that was to become ‘@ is For Activism’, my motivation was as much for my own curiosity as anything, and that was to try and get a sense of the inherent capacity, or at least potential, for digital communication technology to be democratically directed and to function - at the risk of being overly grand - towards emancipatory ends. The inherent flexibility of the microchip to process information in innumerable ways seems to lend itself to such ends, in particular the capacity for distributed computer-mediated-communication to enable dialogical forms of interaction. However, at the same time there are many thinkers who have understood, not just digital technology, but technology in general, to do precisely the opposite. The notion of modern technology as producing what Martin Heidegger refers to as enframing, broadly entailing a process that captures human beings in an inescapable technological alienation, is just one such theory. While this may be true of an industrial lathe or a Fordist production line it seems to miss the potential of certain individual technologies, the Internet being one such, that have emancipatory potential. So it is that when looking at various different approaches and variants of philosophy of technology, at different ends of the utopian/dystopian binary, one is led, I believe, and I argue in the book, to the conclusion that we need to think about technology as a social product, but also one that has the capacity the shape the social in equal measure – neither utopian nor dystopian but embedded in our deeper social, political and economic practices.

Given the context of a capitalist society and economy it is this technocapitalist framework within which the potential for digital communications must be understood. In the book I explore this framework, and having asked the question of what activism can mean in that context, the book then works through a range of specific technologies and circumstances, looking into the technical opportunities available therein, and the practical activities actually undertaken. For example, I explore the possibilities for digital broadcasting to contribute towards the Benjaminian ideal of the author as producer, and look at examples of production and distribution that challenge the traditional model of mass broadcast centre-to-periphery media. Here, what becomes apparent is the fundamental significance of widely available computer power and networks – and in particular distributed networks – for such challenges to dominant media systems, and accordingly to capitalist patterns of production that rely on maintaining exclusivity of access to productive capacity and the means of distribution. In that regard I further explore the specific nature of the Internet and the Web, drawing on the work of a range of media theorists, including Alex Galloway and Eugene Thacker, who emphasise the importance of protocol in enabling both control and freedom in networks. I have also been interested in how this articulates with social and political norms, in particular with theories of discourse ethics and radical democracy, which I explore in more detail in subsequent chapters.

What I was also particularly intent on exploring in the book was the actual capacities enabled through access to distributed networks, including mobile communications, and what these mean for concrete instances of protest, rebellion and the building of new commons, for which of course the tradition of peer production is of great interest. Here the book looks at a range of examples from the anti-war movement, alter-globalisation movement and the reclaimed factory movement. I also have tried to reflect on these examples in relation to recent theories developing from the tradition of autonomous Marxism, in the work John Holloway, Paulo Virno, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, amongst others.

Indeed much of what I was writing about has been come to the fore in the last few weeks with the distinct, but related examples, of the student movement and the Wikileaks ‘cablegate’ events. The two things seem to me to bring into broader public awareness the increasing centrality of digital activism to politics. In the first instance we have an effectively leaderless student protest movement springing up, circumventing traditional political structures, including the student’s union, which has simply been unable to keep pace with developments. The use of commonly available social media for organisation has been prevalent, and enabled a great deal of flexibility and speed of manoeuvre - yet at the same time offers a weak spot, given that these are still commercial and privately owned platforms whose ‘users’ can very easily be thrown off. We see with Wikileaks a cat and mouse game in which the struggle for open information sharing has been traced out in struggles between protocols, where the hierarchical DNS has been the weak point, just as Galloway and Thacker argue and I discuss in the book. Domain names are being cut off at source, while TCP/IP is able to maintain distributed access to documents, as new domains and mirrors pop up around the world. I don’t think anyone could fail to see these two events as variants of the consequences of the proliferation of digital communication, and that they should happen to take place at exactly the same moment really brings this point home. While these particular events happened soon after the book went to press, by bringing some of the debates and previous examples together - and attempting to develop a theoretical framework for thinking about the ethics and politics of digital activism - I hope the book offers some useful ideas that prove to be relevant in this ongoing situation." (via email, December 2010)


Author interview by James Quinney:

There’s often a lot of hype surrounding the potential of new technologies. How significant do you think computer mediated communication has really been for activists?

In many ways activists are no different from anybody else in our media saturated society – computer mediated communication (CMC) is of profound importance for them as for anyone else, in that it offers new modes of interaction, new opportunities for cooperation and new resources for action, and has even shifted the nature of subjectivity and what it means to be ‘together’. The question as far as activism goes then becomes: does it change things in a way that can increase the capacity to hold state and corporate power to account, to build new forms of resistance and to construct alternative ways of producing and living beyond the ever more oppressive and exploitative grip of neo-liberalism? There is a strand of critical thought which very much answers that question in the negative. For example the political theorist Jodi Dean (2009) argues that much of the communication online functions in the way of what she calls, taking the phrase from Slavoj Zizek, ‘interpassivity’: that is, it is a form of communication that actually reduces action by creating the illusion of doing something, when in fact nothing is being done. Signing online petitions, blogging or tweeting about one’s outrage amounts only to adding more and more to an endlessly circulating stream of messages that reach nobody and affect nothing – but give the persons sending them a chance to salve their conscience without actually risking anything.

This is a broad view that has recently been reflected by Malcolm Gladwell, in an article that created quite a stir in online circles and represents much online activism as mere ‘clicktivism’. While it is no doubt true that a lot of what passes for activism online might be defined as such clicktivism, and that the impact of much clicktivist style activism is limited in its impact, I believe such pessimism is overstated. For one thing the act of making an effort to write something, click a link, tweet or sign a petition – even if the message itself is lost or goes unread – the commitment, however small, of reinforcing and restating ones own principles or point of view represents some kind of act of social solidarity that may otherwise never happen, and that is not nothing. And that is the worst-case scenario: some messages surely do get through, even if to a small number of people, but the interconnected distributed nature of the web means that small circles can soon expand.

Yet beyond this not all activism online is clicktivism or anything like it. The clicktivism thesis appears only to take into account immediately obvious forms of online only practices. But of course most activism, like the networks of CMC more broadly, interlaces the online and offline worlds to the point at which it makes little sense to try andJa think of them as completely separate entities, given that digital computer networks are now an inextricable part of our everyday reality. Over the last decade we have seen a great many movements and causes enhanced by CMC. The most famous of these has been the Zapatistas, whose supporters used the Internet to turn a local struggle into a global movement. But we also see this in smaller ways in everyday struggles – we have witnessed UKUncut move from a network of social media sympathies into concrete actions springing up across the whole country in unpredictable and effective ways. Not to mention the more than impressive student mobilisation and occupations – much of which has been coordinated on-line and indeed orchestrated in action via social media, and also mediated and re-mediated to huge secondary audiences, bypassing the usual constraints and filters of the corporate media system. This kind of CMC enabled action has a lot of resonance with the idea of ‘Multitude’ proposed by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2004); that is, the intelligent new collectives of technically informed ‘singularities’ can come together, coordinate themselves, and act with a kind of collective intelligence against globalized capital wherever it is present, and the fact that capital is so ubiquitous means it is also uniquely vulnerable to such action. Of course one should also resist getting too carried away. Shutting down Vodafone stores for an afternoon will not seriously undermine a corporation of such a scale and reach as Vodafone, but it can shift public opinion and in that sense contribute to political solutions - but if such a protest were generalised and widened, who knows what could be achieved. As we have seen with the scale and swiftness of manoeuvre of the students protests this has, at the very least, put the issues of public sector cuts, student fees and the corporatisation of higher education at the centre of the political agenda, as well as entailing a refusal of the usual official media narrative.

As your question hints, one should resist the temptation to see the introduction of a new technology or media as a magic bullet – this was evident in the hype surrounding Twitter in the Iranian uprisings, which turned out to have far less significance than was reported at the time. But the aggregation of many movements and causes, working independently but also overlapping where necessary – finding links, articulating new forms and evolving through the discovery of shared interests and practices – has the capacity, I believe, to effect significant change.

Recently the Government’s outlined a proposal for far-reaching powers to snoop on email and web traffic, which the London School of Economics has said will lead to “a tipping of the balance in favour of state power and away from the individual”. How do you think this will affect activists?

It shouldn’t affect them at all, at least to the extent that they don’t allow it to intimidate or control them. That’s not to say it should be accepted or not resisted, but in notionally free societies the power of surveillance is in its capacity to discipline individuals into internalising a set of rules or norms to which they would not otherwise subscribe, to isolate them and integrate them into a particular structure of authority. This includes, I think most significantly when it comes to the kind of data mining the question implies, what Greg Elmer (2004) has referred to as ‘profiling’. Here databases use accumulated data mining techniques to predict behaviour, and in the case of activists to pre-empt and curtail dissent. However, this is not so much about individuals and their loss of personal privacy but about the creation of generalised patterns of social control. Thus the threat is actually about reducing the power of the collective, the multitude - the aim is to isolate individuals until they are totally privatised self-contained units, just as capital requires. This is an evolution of the logic of the prison and of its perpetual surveillance. Clearly surveillance in the context of digital communications is not desirable, and should be fought against, but at the same time it should not lead to self-censorship, to withdrawing from online social interaction or from seeing digital communication as a realm of hostility and risk, which is precisely what such schemes are designed to inculcate.

As Noam Chomsky has argued in the past, there is no point in activists trying to hide their views, given that one of the central aims of activism is to make the case for them, especially in democratic societies where free speech and assembly are, at least notionally, still protected. In an age when the boundaries of private and public have become so eroded, the porous line between networked spaces of communication, the public arena, and action need to be treated as zones of contestation rather than retreat. In that context counter surveillance has come to be a significant and useful tactic – we can see this in the way that digital cameras, video recorders and mobile phones have been used to capture the behaviour of the police and other groups, and has then been circulated online to great effect. The kinds of events that have previously been invisible can longer be kept so – most notably the police involvement in the death of Ian Tomlinson at the London 2009 G20 protests, which become public. So making things as public and open as possible is one way of simply ignoring the threat of surveillance, and in so doing to undermining its power. We can see this in the use of Twitter and Facebook during the student protests and occupations – the communication is mostly out there for all to see, but that hasn’t meant the students have been at a disadvantage. On the contrary their intelligence and speed of manoeuvre has led to inspiring scenes in which they have been outwitting the police, avoiding attempts to contain them with pre-emptive kettles and cordons, learning collectively as they go." (http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/activism_in_a_digital_culture/)



On Monday 15 June 2009, the ‘Twitter Blog’ announced that it would be postponing a planned maintenance shutdown, given the recognition of ‘the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran’ (Twitter, 2009).1 On the same day as Twitter’s postponed maintenance, the New York Times reported that ‘Iranians are blogging, posting to Facebook and most visibly coordinating their protests on Twitter, the messaging service’ (Stone & Cohen, 2009). This was a response to the widespread unrest in Iran in the aftermath of the perceived fixing of the presidential election. Reports of unrest, street protests and images of youth thronging the streets, chanting demands for the election results to be fairly recognised and taking on the phalanxes of armed police, were flashed around the world. The tag line of the story, in tune with increasing awareness of the social networking phenomenon of Twitter, was the notion that this was a radically new kind of protest, coordinated online in real time and producing a new kind of collective intelligence. That this was taken very seriously cannot be denied, given that two days after the Twitter Blog post the Guardian reported that the new Obama administration had requested a planned downtime be deferred: ‘The Obama administration, while insisting it is not meddling in Iran, yesterday confirmed it had asked Twitter to remain open to help anti-government protesters’ (MacAskill, 2009).

This was not the first time that Twitter had been seen to contribute to such actions. Earlier, in April 2009, there had been the ‘Twitter Revolution’ in Moldova, in which for a while protesters, again reacting against a perceived rigged election, had occupied the Moldovan parliament. The New York Times reported that ‘[a] crowd of more than 10,000 young Moldovans materialized seemingly out of nowhere on Tuesday to protest against Moldova’s Communist leadership, ransacking government buildings and clashing with the police’ (Barry, 2009). But this was no mystery event; the protesters had organised themselves using Twitter, among other social media. The Independent newspaper reported that one protester had tweeted: ‘North of Moldova TV IS OFF!!! but we have THE ALMIGHTY INTERNET! Let us use it to communicate peacefully for freedom!!’ And one of the protest leaders, Natalia Morar, claimed, ‘All the organisation was through the internet, and 15,000 people came on to the street’ (Walker, 2009).

Yet it did not take long before the story of Twitter had been taken in the other direction, when Daily Telegraph commentator Will Heaven claimed that in Iran the ‘“Twitter revolution” has made things worse’ (Heaven, 2009), and that the hype had been badly overplayed, evidenced by the government crackdown on the protests, and the belief that they had failed to achieve anything other than bring about an even greater state repression. Such a negative view seems rather curious given the underlying point that Twitter had provoked the authorities to action, which in itself suggests that it had actually been a success in generating a threat to those in power. While it is very easy in the early days of a new medium to imagine it is at the roots of all social change, to dismiss it seems equally naive, and we do have early examples where Twitter has succeeded.

For example, we can see a related phenomenon in the case of the Guardian Newspaper vs. Carter-Ruck and Trafigura.2 While the Twitterverse responded to the protests in Iran with broad global support, but with uncertain effect, this case was different. An attempt to silence free speech, and its overturning in response, was played out in real time on the screens of thousands of Twitter users. The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger tweeted at 9.05 p.m. on Monday, 12 October 2009 that ‘the Guardian [was] prevented from reporting parliament for unreportable reasons’; at 9.49 a.m. the following morning he reported that the Guardian was ‘hoping to get into court today’. This message began to spread through Twitter; at 9.57 a.m. Stephen Fry – a well-known writer and performer with over half a million Twitter followers at the time – ‘tweeted’ that there had been an ‘outrageous gagging order’, and the cascade of support spread from there. By mid-morning ‘CarterRuck’ was the most discussed and mentioned subject on Twitter, and by midday Carter-Ruck and Trafigura had caved, Alan Rusbridger was able to claim victory, and the full details were revealed. Was this, as has been claimed, a victory for Twitter? Undoubtedly it showed the futility of trying to keep a secret, because the parliamentary question that was not allowed to be reported had been sought out by the many Twitter users, and was freely circulating through Twitter by 10 p.m. on Monday night. Whether Twitter can be credited with ensuring freedom of speech is less clear; this was a very specific case in which such bad publicity for Trafigura was not a price worth paying. In that regard the story followed a satisfying narrative that made for a compelling news item.

Twitter is merely one example of digital activism that has come to widespread attention in recent years; certainly, it has a much broader spectrum both historically and in contemporary society. But what was on clear display here was the underlying power of digital communications, of networks and of mobile technology: a limitless snowball effect made possible by the design and structure of modern digital communications. These cases demonstrate what the sheer power of cumulative connections can do. Indeed, the questions raised by these recent events are also the fundamental questions of activism for our age, and it is such questions that this book will explore."