Between the Stirrup and the Ground: Relocating Digital Activism
In this peer reviewed research paper, Nishant Shah and Fieke Jansen draws on a research project that focuses on understanding new technology, mediated identities, and their relationship with processes of change in their immediate and extended environments in emerging information societies in the global south. It suggests that endemic to understanding digital activism is the need to look at the recalibrated relationships between the state and the citizens through the prism of technology and agency. The paper was published in Democracy & Society, a publication of the Center for Democracy and Civil Society, Volume 8, Issue 2, Summer 2011.
Cross-posted from Democracy and Society.
The first decade of the 21st century has witnessed the simultaneous growth of the Internet and digital technologies on the one hand and political protests and mobilization on the other. As a result, some stakeholders attribute magical powers of social change and political transformation to these technologies.
In the post-Wikileaks world, governments try to censor the use of and access to information technologies in order to maintain the status quo (Domscheit-Berg 2011). With the expansion of markets, technology multinationals and service providers are trying to strike a delicate balance between ethics and profits. Civil Society Organizations for their part, are seeking to counterbalance censorship and exploitation of the citizens’ rights. Within discourse and practice, there remains a dialectic between hope and despair: Hope that these technologies will change the world, and despair that we do not have any sustainable replicable models of technology-driven transformation despite four decades of intervention in the 6eld of information and communication technology (ICT).
This paper suggests that this dialectic is fruitless and results from too strong of a concentration on the functional role of technology. The lack of vocabulary to map and articulate the transitions that digital technologies bring to our earlier understanding of the state-market-citizen relationship, as well as our failure to understand technology as a paradigm that defines the domains of life, labour, and language, amplify this knowledge gap.
This paper draws on a research project that focuses on understanding new technology, mediated identities, and their relationship with processes of change in their immediate and extended environments in emerging information societies in the global south (Shah 2009). We suggest that endemic to understanding digital activism is the need to look at the recalibrated relationships between the state and the citizens through the prism of technology and agency.
It is appropriate, perhaps, to begin a paper on digital activism, with a discussion of analogue activism (Morozov 2010). In the recent revolutions and protests from Tunisia to Egypt and Iran to Kryzygystan, much attention has been given to the role of new media in organizing, orchestrating, performing, and shaping the larger public psyche and the new horizons of progressive governments. Global media has dubbed several of them as ‘Twitter Revolutions” and “Facebook Protests” because these technologies played an important role in the production of :ash-mobs, which, because of their visibility and numbers, became the face of the political protests in di)erent countries. Political scientists as well as technology experts have been trying to figure out what the role of Twitter and Facebook was in these processes of social transformation. Activists are trying to determine whether it is possible to produce replicable upscalable models that can be transplanted to other geo-political contexts to achieve similar results, as well as how the realm of political action now needs to accommodate these developments.
Cyber-utopians have heralded this particular phenomenon of digital activists mobilizing in almost unprecedented numbers as a hopeful sign that resonates the early 20th century rhetoric of a Socialist Revolution (West and Raman 2009). (ey see this as a symptom of the power that ordinary citizens wield and the ways in which their voices can be ampli6ed, augmented, and consolidated using the pervasive computing environments in which we now live.
In a celebratory tone, without examining either the complex assemblages of media and government practices and policies that are implicated in these processes, they naively attribute these protests to digital technologies.
Cyber-cynics, conversely, insist that these technologies are just means and tools that give voice to the seething anger, hurt, and grief that these communities have harboured for many years under tyrannical governments and authoritarian regimes. They insist that digital technologies played no role in these events — they would have occurred anyway, given the right catalysts — and that this overemphasis on technology detracts from greater historical legacies, movements, and the courage and efforts of the people involved.
While these debates continue to ensue between zealots on conflicting sides, there are some things that remain constant in both positions: presumptions of what it means to be political, a narrow imagination of human-technology relationships, and a historically deterministic view of socio-political movements. While the objects and processes under scrutiny are new and unprecedented, the vocabulary, conceptual tools, knowledge frameworks, and critical perspectives remain unaltered. They attempt to articulate a rapidly changing world in a manner that accommodates these changes. Traditional approaches that produce a simplified triangulation of the state, market and civil society, with historically specified roles, inform these discourses, “where the state is the rule-maker, civil society the do-gooder and watchdog, and the private sector the enemy or hero depending on one’s ideological stand” (Knorringa 2008, 8).
Within the more diffuse world realities, where the roles for each sector are not only blurred but also often shared, things work differently. Especially when we introduce technology, we realize that the centralized structural entities operate in and are better understood through a distributed, multiple avatar model. For example, within public-private partnerships, which are new units of governance in emerging post-capitalist societies, the market often takes up protostatist qualities, while the state works as the beneficiary rather than the arbitrator of public delivery systems. In technology-state conflicts, like the well-known case of Google’s conflict with China (Drummond 2010), technology service providers and companies have actually emerged as the vanguards of citizens’ rights against states that seek to curb them.
Similarly, civil society and citizens are divided around the question of access to technology. The techno-publics are often exclusive and make certain analogue forms of citizenships obsolete. While there is a euphoria about the emergence of a multitude of voices online from otherwise closed societies, it is important to remember that these voices are mediated by the market and the state, and often have to negotiate with strong capillaries of power in order to gain the visibility and legitimacy for themselves. Additionally, the recalibration in the state-market-citizen triad means that there is certain disconnect from history which makes interventions and systemic social change that much more difficult.
We draw from our observations in the “Digital Natives with a Cause?” research program, which brought together over 65 young people working with digital technologies towards social change, and around 40 multi-sector stakeholders in the field to decode practices in order to gain a more nuanced understanding of the relationships between technology and politics.
The first case study is from Taiwan, where the traditionally accepted uni-linear idea of senders-intermediaries-passive receivers is challenged by adopting a digital information architecture model for a physical campaign. The story not only provides insight into these blurred boundaries and roles, but also offers an understanding of the new realm of political intervention and processes of social transformation.
As YiPing Tsou (2010) from the Soft Revolt project in Taipei explains, "I have realised how the Web has not only virtually reprogrammed the way we think, talk, act and interact with the work but also reformatted our understanding of everyday life surrounded by all sorts of digital technologies."
Tsou’s own work stemmed from her critical doubt of the dominant institutions and structures in her immediate surroundings. Fighting the hyper-territorial rhetoric of the Internet, she deployed digital technologies to engage with her geo-political contexts. Along with two team members, she started the project to question and critique the rampant consumerism, which has emerged as the state and market in Taiwan collude to build more pervasive marketing infrastructure instead of investing in better public delivery systems. The project adopted a gaming aesthetic where the team produced barcodes, which when applied to existing products in malls and super markets, produced random pieces of poetry at the check-out counters instead of the price details that are expected. The project challenged the universal language of barcodes and mobilized large groups of people to spread these barcodes and create spaces of confusion, transient data doubles, and alternative ways of reading within globalized capitalist consumption spaces. The project also demonstrates how access to new forms of technology also leads to new information roles, creating novel forms of participation leading to interventions towards social transformation.
Nonkululeko Godana (2010) from South Africa does not think of herself as an activist in any traditional form. She calls herself a storyteller and talks of how technologies can amplify and shape the ability to tell stories. Drawing from her own context, she narrates the story of a horrific rape that happened to a young victim in a school campus and how the local and national population mobilized itself to seek justice for her. For Godana, the most spectacular thing that digital technologies of information and communication offer is the ability for these stories to travel in unexpected ways. Indeed, these stories grow as they are told. They morph, distort, transmute, and take new avatars, changing with each telling, but managing to help the message leap across borders, boundaries, and life-styles. She looks at storytelling as something that is innate to human beings who are creatures of information, and suggests that what causes revolution, what brings people together, what allows people to unify in the face of strife and struggle is the need to tell a story, the enchantment of hearing one, and the passion to spread it further so that even when the technologies die, the signal still lives, the message keeps on passing. As Clay Shirky, in his analysis of the first recorded political :ash-mob in Phillipines in 2001, suggests, "social media’s real potential lies in supporting civil society and the public sphere — which will produce change over years and decades, not weeks or months."
These two stories are just a taste of many such narratives that abound the field of technology based social transformation and activism. In most cases, traditional lenses will not recognize these processes, which are transient and short-lived as having political consequence. When transformative value is ascribed to them, they are brought to bear the immense pressure of sustainability and scalability which might not be in the nature of the intervention. Moreover, as we have seen in these two cases, as well as in numerous others, the younger generation — these new groups of people using social media for political change, often called digital natives, slacktivists, or digital activists — renounce the earlier legacy of political action. They prefer to stay in this emergent undefined zone where they would not want an identity as a political person but would still make interventions and engage with questions of justice, equity, democracy, and access, using the new tools at their disposal to negotiate with their immediate socio-cultural and geo-political contexts.
In their everyday lives, Digital Natives are in different sectors of employment and sections of society. They can be students, activists, government officials, professionals, artists, or regular citizens who spend their time online often in circuits of leisure, entertainment and self-gratification. However, it is their intimate relationship with these processes, which is often deemed as ‘frivolous’ that enables them, in times of crises, to mobilize huge human and infrastructural resources to make immediate interventions.
It is our proposition that it is time to start thinking about digital activism as a tenuous process, which might often hide itself in capillaries of non-cause related actions but can be materialized through the use of digital networks and platforms when it is needed. Similarly, a digital activist does not necessarily have to be a full-time ideology spouting zealot, but can be a person who, because of intimate relationships with technologized forms of communication, interaction, networking, and mobilization, is able to transform him/ herself as an agent of change and attain a central position (which is also transitory and not eternal) in processes of social movement. Such a lens allows us to revisit our existing ideas of what it means to be political, what the new landscapes of political action are, how we account for processes of social change, and who the people are that emerge as agents of change in our rapidly digitizing world.
About the Authors
NISHANT SHAH is Director-Research at the Bangalore based Centre for Internet and Society. He is one of the lead researchers for the “Digital Natives with a Cause?” knowledge programme and has interests in questions of digital identity, inclusion and social change.
FIEKE JANSEN is based at the Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation (Hivos). She is the knowledge officer for the Digital Natives with a Cause? knowledge programme and her areas of interest are the role of digital technologies in social change processes.
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West, Harry and Parvathi Raman. 2009. Enduring Socialism: Exploration of Revolution and Transformation, Restoration and Continuation. London: Berghahn Books.
 Morozov looks at how ‘Digital Activism’ often feeds the very structures against we protest, with information that can prove to be counter productive to the efforts. The digital is still not ‘public’ in its ownership and a complex assemblage of service providers, media houses and governments often lead to a betrayal of sensitive information which was earlier protected in the use of analogue technologies of resistance.
 Following the revolutions in Egypt, China, worried that the model might be appropriated by its own citizens against China’s authoritarian regimes, decided to block “Jan25” and mentions of Egypt from Twitter like websites. More can be read here: http://yro.slashdot.org/story/11/01/29/2110227/China-Blocks-Egypt-On-Twitter-Like-Site.
 Models of digital communication and networking have always imagined that the models would be valid only for the digital environments. Hence, the physical world still engages only with the one-to-many broadcast model, where the central authorities produce knowledge which is disseminated to the passive receivers who operate only as receptacles of information rather than bearers of knowledge. To challenge this requires a re-orientation of existing models and developing ways of translating the peer-to-peer structure in the physical world.