Home Slacktivism From Our Book: Digital Activism’s Infrastructure

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at Amazon.com. For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt, by Mary Joyce, is from the Introduction and explains the technological infrastructure of digital activism.

….The infrastructure of digital activism is based on the digital network— an interconnected group of devices that use digital code to transmit information. The beauty of networks is that connectivity is distributed. Networks do not connect us only to the center, they link us to each other as well. And, when large numbers of citizens are able to more easily connect to one another, to send and receive original content, and to coordinate action, they are able to create effective political movements.

Networks can be fashioned of different physical materials— physical materials matter. The difference in materials from country to country provides a great example of how the interplay of
infrastructure, economic, social, and political factors leads to different digital activism outcomes. Modern cable infrastructure, such as fiber optic, which transmits a signal more quickly, is more
expensive than older and slower cable—which might be made of copper. Thus, those living in rich countries are likely to have faster Internet connections than those living in poorer countries. Politics plays a role, too: in many developing countries, particularly in Africa, state-owned firms have historically monopolized Internet service, leading to higher prices. As a result, people in richer countries are usually more able to participate in digital activism because of the cost and quality of Internet connections available to them.

If the differentiator of digital networks is material, the unifier is code—the series of the digits 1 and 0 that transmit all information on the Internet. Digital code is the universal medium of digital activism. If an activist in Gaza wants to upload a mobile phone video so it can be watched by a college student in Minneapolis, digital code transmits those sounds and images. If an activist in the Philippines starts a Facebook group opposing the corruption of a local official, Filipino expatriates from Abu Dhabi to London can join the group and coordinate in English or their native Tagalog. In a 2009 article in The New Republic, technology theorist Lawrence Lessig of Harvard University described the nature of digital as “perfect copies, freely made.” If you create any piece of content and upload it to a digital network, a copy of that content will become immediately transmissible to anyone else in the world with Internet access. The whole world speaking one language—that is the power of digital code.

Even though we use digital networks to send each other 1s and 0s, we don’t think of digital activism in terms of code. We think of it in terms of applications, the software programs that interpret those 1s and 0s into meaningful information. Fortunately, digital infrastructure is, according to Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain, “generative.” People can easily develop applications that operate on top of the network and create content using those applications, both of which may not have been intended by their creators. The inventers of Facebook, a group of American college students, probably did not see it as a tool for activists around the world, but it is nevertheless used for that purpose. Likewise, the Silicon Valley technologists who founded Twitter did not imagine that their service would be used to broadcast protests in Moldova. While dedicated activist applications and open source software also play a role, most digital activists co-opt commercial applications like Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, and YouTube to do their work. It is through these applications that most of us define our use of network infrastructure.

Applications are the most visible element of digital activism and many handbooks, blogs, and training sessions focus on the use of specific applications (also called “apps”) for campaigns for
political and social change. However, applications are a poor foundation for the study of digital activism: They change constantly, are popular because of media hype as much as actual utility, and have outcomes intensely affected by other contextual factors that differ greatly from campaign to campaign. Applications are only a part of the digital activism environment. We are most aware of them because they define our experience of digital activism, not
because they are more important than other factors.

We access applications on “end devices,” the piece of hardware that connects the user to the network. In the world of digital activism, the most common end devices are currently the computer and mobile phone. Computers currently allow for a wider variety of activism applications than mobile phones because they allow users to connect to all the applications on the Internet while most mobile phones are limited to SMS and calling. Yet, as the release of Apple’s iPad tablet and the rise of Internet-enabled smart phones illustrates, the differences between these types of devices is becoming more blurred as computers become more like mobile phones and mobile phones gain the capacity of computers. This change results in more powerful and cheaper devices for activists and thus a greater capacity to use digital infrastructure for their goals of political and social change.

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