Information and Power

by: David Faris

Mary has, I think, gotten us off to a great start thinking about the substance of digital activism.

Allow me to offer some thinking about this question, that uses examples or anecdotes to illustrate some theoretical thinking about what might be new about activism using digital technology, rather than reasoning directly from the anecdotes. As Mary argues, one of the things that’s truly different, truly new about digital activism is the ability to connect diffuse actors with common interests – assemblages that transcend borders and orders, and allow actors to agitate together even though they may never meet. Even this though can be conceptualized as a kind of automation, or amplification – things that were possible, but more difficult in the past, there is something new about this too. A global Facebook group is not simply the automation of previous interest group politics – Planned Parenthood slapping a Facebook page into cyberspace and expecting a revolution in its capabilities, but rather it is a tool that, as Clay Shirky argues, allows for the nearly effortless creation of new groups. I would offer that digital activism makes possible a democratization of contentious politics, about which my colleague David Karpf knows more and hopefully will write about here.

One thing we have to think about is the information-gathering and aggregating capabilities of both mobile tools and what Adam Greenfield calls ubiquitous computing. What’s novel about a project like Ushahidi is that it makes possible a gathering and archiving of real-time information that can be used by activists to organize and mobilize. What’s also different to me about this kind of activism is the way it makes ordinary citizens the guardians and curators of the everyday – everyday practices of subordination that they can use digital tools to subvert. When ordinary Americans make off with video images of police brutality, we are not seeing the automation of traditional journalism, but the transformation of the very idea of journalism itself. The act of creating this footage is a kind of activism, in a form that is both unique to the digital age and dependent upon its advances. The fact that these tools can also be used by agents of repression and by states does not change the fact that they make new forms of activism possible. In other words, we have to stop thinking about “winners” and “losers” or whether the state has the upper hand – what a stale discourse that is – and try to conceptualize the different kinds of activism that are being created.

Last week I saw the documentary Garbage Dreams, which concerns what are known as the zabbaleen of Cairo – a community of largely Christian Cairenes who have traditionally collected the waste in the sprawling megalopolis of Cairo. Yes, Garbage Dreams has a Facebook page. So do the zabbaleen. The community is involved in a battle with the Egyptian government, which has contracted out waste collection to foreign companies in an effort to “modernize” its trash system. The trouble with this conception is that the zabbaleen recycle upwards of 80% of the garbage they collect, while “modern” methods clock in with much lower percentages. Twitter is not going to do much for the zabbaleen except in moments of crisis, right? A blog might help build identity and community, but we’re not talking about a community with high rates of Internet penetration here. So check out this project, which seeks to embed RFID tags in water bottles, to track whether they end up with the zabbaleen or with the huge landfills created by the foreign companies. It’s not as sexy as a protest, but it’s activism.

In Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, Adam Greenfield imagines a world of digital devices embedded in everyday objects. He writes, “Household objects from shower stalls to coffee pots are reimagined as places where facts about the world can be gathered, considered, and acted upon.”

If information is power, and digital tools allow for the collection of previously-obscure or unavailable information, then digital activism, in theory, provides for new modes of power-creation and power-sharing. But we have to continue to think beyond the newest application (does it matter of it’s RFID or some other technology?) to theorize about the ways that these applications, technologies, and tools transform contentious politics.

4 thoughts on “Information and Power

  1. I’m so glad you brought up the p-word (power), which I think is the central question of the digital activism debate (and which am about to write a post on). I also agree with you that dramatic changes in degree can lead to changes of kind (ie, ridiculously easy group formation = new kind of group formation) and that we should give up the winner-loser discourse regarding repressive regimes (we’ll see what Patrick and Evgeny think of that).

    I’m a little less excited about the “Internet of things” which I think is a marketing campaign for gadgets soon to come to market. But who knows, if these tools become ubiquitous they may have political impact.

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