Chapter 8: The Limits of Liberation Technologies

PART III: Intensifying the Network

Now we have to investigate how the virtual can put pressure on the borders of the possible, and thus touch on the real. The passage from the virtual through the possible to the real is the fundamental act of creation.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire

 

CHAPTER 8
The Limits of Liberation Technologies

DURING THE MOST INTENSE DAYS of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, comedy writer Haisam Abu-­Samra wrote about the challenges, and the opportunities, of suddenly experiencing a government-­imposed Internet shutdown (in what has become a standard practice during popular revolts, the administration of Hosni Mubarak—­in collaboration with Egyptian and Western corporations—­suspended access to digital networks in an attempt to diminish the power of activists). While not being able to use mobile phones and web services to communicate with family, friends, and fellow activists contributed to a sense of panic and chaos, Abu-­Samra argued that it also brought a clarity of purpose and a reliance on traditional ways of organizing:

But cutting us out from the rest of the world, from ourselves even, didn’t dismantle the revolt. If anything, it removed distraction and gave us a singular mission to accomplish. . . . After suddenly getting thrust into an offline world not only did I learn firsthand how irreversibly entrenched the internet has became in my life and the lives of other Egyptians: I saw how its loss could help us focus our attention on what was happening in reality. The disconnection gave us the chance to prove that we were just as strong, if not stronger, in the face of an authoritarian self-­imposed embargo—­a decision that itself illustrated the government’s fears, not its strengths. . . . Never mind the vacant symbolism of “Twitter revolutions” and Youtube activism: losing the internet at the hand of our own government simply offers us a powerful reminder of why we actually want the internet to begin with, and why we’re doing any of this.[1]

Abu-­Samra’s experiences illustrate what it means to be excluded from digital networks, what it can do to our perception of “reality,” and what it might mean in terms of our participation in nondigital networks. However, if we go along with him and quickly dismiss the “vacant symbolism” of Twitter-­powered revolutions, and buy into his equally quick embrace of a utopian Internet that empowers citizens and promotes democracy, we might also miss an important opportunity to further clarify and unthink the role of the digital network as a dominant template for organizing sociality. To be sure, the tendency to refer to the Arab Spring movements as “Twitter Revolutions” has thankfully passed. But a liberal discourse of “liberation technologies” (digital information and communication technologies that empower networked communities to change their political realities through mediated participation) continues to influence our ideas about democracy. Unfortunately, this discourse tends to circumvent any discussion of the market structure in which these technologies operate, as if the Internet was not build on a corporate backbone with interests that sometimes run counter to those of citizens.

Even before the so-­called 2011 Twitter Revolutions of the Middle East and North Africa, we could point to a series of writings and opinions that suggested that social movements all over the world were being transformed by information and communication technologies (these include, for example, statements about the revolutionary impact of cell phones in the Philippines, YouTube in Iran, Facebook in Moldova, and so on[2]). Stanford University’s Program on Liberation Technology captures the idealism behind this movement. On their website, they state that the agenda of the program is to research “how information technology can be used to defend human rights, improve governance, empower the poor, promote economic development, and pursue a variety of other social goods.”[3]

While these are noble goals, liberation technology appears to lack an important critical component. Liberation theology (which, I am assuming, serves as reference for the concept of liberation technology) sought to lend legitimacy to the struggle of the oppressed by, among other things, questioning the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church and suggesting that institutions, not just individuals, could be the source of sin and injustice. Unlike liberation theology, however, liberation technology does not seem very interested in questioning the roles and structures of the institutions that produce the tools used by popular movements. Instead, liberation technology posits a worldview whereby technologies that emerge in the context of capitalism (precisely at places like Stanford) can be used in the developing or underdeveloped world to bring about social change, presumably in the direction of the kind of democracy that is espoused by the institutions in question.

The discourse of liberation technology tends to present social movements like the Arab Spring as the work of “wired” activists, although this portrayal excludes the work and participation of activists who are not computer literate or simply not social media users. Social change is thus imagined as an outcome of information flows within a network, and activists are portrayed as nodes transmitting dissent to other nodes. In order for liberation to happen, everyone must be connected to the same digital networks. Change and resistance are conceived in nodocentric terms.

Overprivileging a networked view of activism also justifies the export of “subversive” technologies. The discourse of liberation technology accomplishes this by providing two different, although interdependent, versions of the affordances of these technologies: one for the homeland territory and one for abroad. Communicative or information capitalism provides citizens at home no real opportunities for resistance, as the majority of citizens are too occupied compulsively communicating (communicative capitalism is the idea that information and communication technologies materialize ideas of inclusion and participation while subverting resistance to global capitalism[4]). But liberation technology presents a utopian counter narrative of the emancipating and empowering potentiality of technology in places not entirely corrupted by capitalism. This narrative suggests that change, while impossible “here,” is realized through liberation technology “over there,” in a heterotopian elsewhere (that in the case of the Arab Spring includes the Middle East and parts of Africa). This is a valuable maneuver for liberal sensitivities because it redeems the technologies of communicative capitalism. Activists “over there” are using these tools to talk not just about commercial choices but about things that really matter: the overthrow of injustice, the plight of the poor, and so on. Liberation technology thus functions as a form of self-­focused empathy in which an Other is imagined who is nothing more than a projection that validates our desires, a user of the same technologies we are using—­a hacktivist who applies these tools not for the frivolous ends of consumerism, but for the betterment of the world.

This would seem to imply that the discourse of liberation technology can only serve to arrest social change at home. If that were strictly the case, it would be difficult to account for the Wisconsin protests in early 2011, the emergence of the Occupy movements, or for that matter, any subsequent act of protest in the West that uses technology to mobilize people. The fact that these events continue to germinate and spread seems to demonstrate that it is only a matter of time before social movements influence each other in this age of global media, thus making it possible for liberation technologies to fulfill their true potential wherever the social and economic conditions that fuel social unrest are present, even at home.

What is interesting, however, is that coverage of post–­Arab Spring movements in the West has not really revolved around protesters’ use of social media, or it has only minimally. Participatory media being used at home for organizing protests is apparently not that newsworthy, since it lacks the sensationalist and media-­friendly orientalism of the Twitter Revolution stories. And as the use of participatory media in social movements has become normalized and generalized, there seems to be continued support for the belief that these corporate products have fundamentally shifted the balance of power between producers and consumers and therefore between the owners of the means of production and the audience.

However, I would propose that the discourse of liberation technology conceals, in fact, how production on the new platform continues to exhibit a power imbalance. In theory, the Internet (the über liberation technology in the liberal worldview) brought about the end of communication monopolies with their one-­to-­many models of dissemination; now, in the age of user-­generated content, we have communication that is many-­to-­many. Access to the tools of production and the channels of distribution has been greatly democratized—­the theory goes—­and monopolies have been replaced by a free market with perfect competition. Everyone has the opportunity to create content, and everyone has the opportunity to engage that content. While the equation of this continuous communication cycle with civic participation is precisely what the concept of communicative capitalism seeks to critique, we need to also question whether the empowering of more voices has fundamentally changed the monopsonistic market structure of participation.

While the study of resistance movements as networks continues and will continue to be useful, a framework for opposing the nodocentric ordering of these movements into privatized templates for participation is necessary. As activists like Abu-­Samra continue to point out to liberation technologists, the struggle must go on after the Internet and other digital networks are shut off. If the fight cannot continue without Facebook and Twitter, then it is doomed. This means that the struggle is in part against those who own and control the privatized networks of participation (and can switch them off at will, or expulse whoever they want). Consequently, we have to turn to sites outside the network for the emergence of corresponding strategies of activism, strategies of intensification that transform online action into offline resistance, and expand the reality of the individual to encompass not just the digital network but the world in both its local and its globalized dimensions.

 

Alternate Realities

As an educator, I have been exploring one such strategy through the use of alternate reality games (ARG) as platforms for simulation and activism. Although still a work in progress, I have been experimenting with the idea that the digital network can be used in the creation of new forms of knowledge that transcend the limits of network logic, generating ways in which the resistance of the outside of networks can be intensified into new models of subjectivity that change what participation means.

ARG are open-­ended interactive narratives that are collectively played by participants in real time, using a variety of digital communication technologies such as e-­mail, blogs, text messages, digital videos, and so on. Although they have been mostly used by advertisers as tools for viral marketing, they can also be employed to learn about a real-­life situation or social problem and imagine different solutions or approaches to it (consider for example the 2007 ARG World Without Oil, whose motto was “Play it before you live it”[5]). The objective in this case is not only to raise awareness about a problem in a community but also to collectively propose a number of possible responses to it. This form of networked gaming can thus be framed as a form of participatory action research (PAR), which is concerned with promoting social change through iterative research activities that involve the members of a community. PAR, which has a rich history in Latin America, is a form of collective action through purposeful investigation by and for the affected community.[6]

In essence, the goal of “serious” (i.e., noncommercial) ARG is to involve communities in analyzing a real-­life problem, collectively articulating a multitude of realistic and possible responses to it, and examining the ethical question of who has the responsibility to act, and what action should look like. Since 2009, I have collaborated with students and faculty at my school to design and deploy an annual campus-­wide ARG.

We have addressed themes like budget cuts to the State University of New York system, racism on campus, the local impact of the relationship between Mexico and the United States (in terms of immigration, labor issues, the war on drugs, etc.), Islamophobia, and hydraulic fracturing. While some people would remark (in the case of the ARG that had to do with protesting budget cuts, for instance) that this is merely a replacement of real activism with virtual activism, they would miss the point that, in a depoliticized environment, faculty and students are not engaging in any real activism to begin with.

With this in mind, my students and I put together the following mission statement for our ARG:

Our mission is to conduct an engaging and interactive Alternate Reality Game to help the SUNY Oswego community address the challenges of possible near-­future budget cuts in the context of a state, national and global economic crisis. We seek to involve the community in a constructive dialogue about what we can do, individually and collectively, to prepare our school to meet these challenges. Our focus is on raising awareness, facilitating the generation of solutions, and eliciting action and involvement from members of the college community as well as the city of Oswego and beyond. Additionally, we want to research how new media can be used as a platform for simulation, collective problem solving, and social organizing.[7]

One important aspect of these simulations is how participation is structured. Playing the game is voluntary (or, in some cases, an extra credit opportunity), and students are encouraged to “compete” with one another by completing different levels of participation. These levels range from simply contributing to the online scenarios (participating in the online discussions, and helping to imagine the stories[8]), to higher levels of engagement that transcend the online environment. For example, students can attend on-­campus events (lectures, teach-­ins, screenings, etc.), actively participate in organizing those events, or organize civic engagement projects related to the theme of the ARG (awareness-­raising events, fund raisers, protests, etc.). There is also at least one community forum in which participants get together to discuss the experience and consider the question of what action, if any, they need to take beyond the game.

In this manner, the “virtual” character of these alternate realities is intensified by overcoming the limits of the very networks that give them shape. This is how the unmapping of the digital network takes place; after possibilities have been imagined and explored online, the simulation must be put aside as the community comes together to examine the question, individually and collectively, of what to do next.[9] This completes the passage from virtual to possible to real. From this perspective, ARG can serve to intensify social realities, giving shape to something that originates merely as a virtual possibility. Before becoming realities, these possibilities only exist in mediated form; they are language and media constructs that exist merely as bits of information circulating through the network. But these possibilities can be intensified into a concrete reality, a reality that subjects coconstruct through their participation beyond the digital network. If these possibilities were to never transcend the digital network that gave them shape, they would only exist as arrested mediations on the terms that the network dictates. Thus what is interesting to me is not just the medium of the ARG itself (since it is just one strategy of many that could be used to achieve similar ends) but how this medium can be used to generate possibilities that end up negating what is used to create those possibilities in the first place. The goal shifts from the mere actualization of virtualities (making possible new digitized forms of sociality) to figuring out how, in this process of intensification, the digital network itself has become what we have to examine, critique, disassemble, and leave behind—­what needs to be negated and disidentified from in order to figure out who and what we are. That is why in future iterations of the ARG, we also want to get students more directly engaged in the production of the online environment, and the questioning of the “liberation technologies” employed to do so.

As we realize that many-­to-­many communication is becoming impossible without a for-profit many-to-one infrastructure, we must question the narrative that liberation technologies can, by definition, increase democratic participation. Participation managed by monopsony only increases inequality. As networks have become not just metaphors for describing sociality but epistemes that organize and shape social realities, we must examine our investment in networked technologies and the discourses of liberation that accompany them. This way, liberation technology could perhaps be redeemed, if it shifts its focus to using the tools of monopsonies to liberate us from the monopsony itself. But in order to do that, liberation technologists must look beyond the limits of nodes for methods of thinking and acting outside the monopsony.

 


  1. Abu-­Samra, “Expulsion and Explosion,” para. 3, 9, 10.
  2. For a discussion of these and other examples, see Hands, @ Is For Activism; Rheingold, Smart Mobs; Morozov, The Net Delusion.
  3. The website for the program is http://liberationtechnology.stanford.edu.
  4. Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies.
  5. World without Oil, homepage, http://worldwithoutoil.org.
  6. For an overview of PAR, see Fals-­Borda and Rahman, Action and Knowledge; Cahill, “Including Excluded Perspectives in Participatory Action Research.”
  7. Save Oswego, About, http://saveoswego.wordpress.com/about.
  8. For a more detailed discussion of the collective writing process in the ARG, see Clark et al., “Interactive Social Media and the Art of Telling Stories.”
  9. This is a feature of the ARG we started implementing in the second year, and not something that is a standard practice across all serious ARG, although some games such as Urgent Evoke have implemented other innovative ways of “going beyond” the digital network.

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