Egyptian solidarity protest in Paris, Jan. 2011. Image by Jacques Delarue.

When it comes to thought and research on social movements and technology (separately and together), emotion is that crucial piece of the picture that everyone technically sees but hardly anyone explicitly acknowledges as worth paying attention to in its own right. Some of this is likely because emotion is hard to study in any way that social science would consider rigorous; it’s often taken as something fundamentally irrational and therefore fundamentally inexplicable. It is highly subjective. It is culturally and situationally constructed, and therefore conceptually slippery. It is interior; it is a difficult thing to see and to know. If explicitly drawing it out as an important factor is problematic for some, identifying it as a variable capable of carrying any causal weight is even more so.

Regarding technology and social movements combined, there is the question of how the digital and physical play out as far as what ends up really being important. What is the relationship between the two? Where exactly is the body in augmented contention and is the way in which it matters changing? What is really going on when we see a bunch of street protesters carrying smartphones?

Regarding technology itself, we come up against the old idea that technology and emotion are somehow antithetical, or at least uneasy bedfellows. This is more an artifact of a time when technology – at least in the digital sense of the word – didn’t yet pervade our daily lived experience in the way that it does today. Probably very few people would now take seriously the idea that technology and emotion have nothing to do with each other (Data did get that chip put in and everything, after all). And yet in many respects the idea persists, especially in regards to how we document, perceive, act within, and remember events – especially violent events.

I want to tease out some elements of these ideas, and in so doing, illuminate some ways in which how we think about technology and political action needs some expanding. Emotion matters, in the physical and the digital and the enmeshing of the two. We need to be thinking and talking about it in ways that elevate it above a background element or given structural feature of a given landscape.

It’s a given at this point that social media and Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) play a role in political mobilization. They bring people together around common experiences and political claims, they facilitate the creation and diffusion of protest materials and repertoires of contention, they enable the extremely rapid spread of information across physical and figurative boundaries. They speed up every element of this process. But that leaves a rather large element of all of this unspecified and implicit – what actually pulls all of these people together besides pure rational-choicey self-interest. What gets them out into the streets when they might otherwise not be there. What lights the metaphorical fires, before the literal ones start to blaze.

There is something specific going on here at the intersection of politics, technology, and violence – something worth paying careful attention to. My argument, essentially, boils down to this: ICTs reduce the singular importance of physical co-presence in facilitating the role of emotion in contentious political action. Put another way, these technologies can make us feel things as viscerally and as powerfully as if we were actually present at the digitally-mediated events we’re witnessing. And that act of witness does not stop at passivity. It has active consequences.

In the first part of this essay, I will outline two of the primary arguments against this and in favor of the idea that technology a) can’t supplant the importance of physical co-presence at high-emotion political events, and b) serves to emotionally distance us from images of conflict and violence. In the second part, I will go into more detail regarding why I think these positions are fundamentally wrong – or at least do not apply even most of the time – with some examples that provide effective counters and powerful pieces of evidence to suggest that when it comes to contentious politics and violence, technology is as much as facilitator of emotion as it is of information.

Effervescent bodies

Durkheim used the concept of collective effervescence – the energy created within a gathering of a group of people focused on a singular thing – as the basis for some of his most famous work on religion; more recently, Randall Collins has operationalized it in the form of “emotional energy” (EE). Both Durkheim and Collins connect the idea of the emotional energy generated in crowds to the creation and maintenance of solidarity ties and the formation of group boundaries. This is perhaps obvious, but nevertheless it is significant, especially laid out with such clarity: The generation of emotional energy is one mechanism by which people identify each other as members of the same group and lend those identities significant symbolic weight. Within gatherings – street protests, riots, rallies, and religious rituals – people are made to feel joy, rage, righteousness, fear, love, and any number of other intensely powerful and lingering emotions. People do not just come to understand who they and other are; they arrive at an understanding of why all of this matters and what is at stake. Gatherings are the locus for the diffusion of meanings, understandings, cultural and cognitive scripts – but these things are given heft and weight and solidity through the emotions that are attached to them as part of these gatherings.

Emotional energy is a mobilizer. People might intellectually understand the identities of players and the stakes of the game, but terror and outrage can impel even the most hesitant of people into action given the right circumstances. This is not to suggest that emotion is primarily causal above all other factors; only that it is significant and too often discounted when considering political action. It is not enough to just recognize that it is there. It isn’t static. We need to understand how it is generated and how it moves.

The important point for a discussion of emotion and technology is that Collins holds that activist political connections mediated by digital technology in its present form can never approximate the power of physical co-presence and therefore cannot possibly do the same kind of emotional work. Collins identifies several factors as problematic in this respect: television, he says, is too focused on the visual – it is distant and too removed from the sonic experience of being in the middle of a roaring crowd, which is tremendously powerful in the generation of EE. Email, he says, is not immediate enough; EE-generating interactions are both instantaneous and rhythmic in nature, and breaks or lags in the rhythm prevent energy from coming into being. In general, Collins argues,

The more that human social activities are carried out by distance media, at low levels of IR intensity, the less solidarity people will feel; the less respect they will have for shared symbolic objects; and the less enthusiastic personal motivation they will have in the form of EE.

Collins allows for a proviso: nervous system-to-nervous system electronic communication that approximates the sensation of immediate, physical social interaction.

Clearly there are arguments against this. But for the time being I want to let it stand and move on to the next set of arguments against technology as a facilitator of emotional power.

“Technologies of slaughter”

Much has been written on the capacity of technology and associated forms of rational social organization to desensitize people, to the point where they are made capable of performing horrific acts of mass murder. In Modernity and the Holocaust, Bauman argues for the role that modern manufacturing technologies and techniques played in the emotional distance that allowed Nazis to murder millions. In Murder in Our Midst, Bartov makes a similar argument: technology creates both emotional and physical distance and therefore facilitates mass killing. The dawn of the age of aerial bombing of urban centers marked the beginning of a dramatic expansion in the numbers of civilian casualties in war, not just because the technology killed many more people at once but because the bombers themselves felt less guilt, surveying their targets from tens of thousands of feet in the air. In this sense, the atomic bomb is the polar opposite of the bayonet: where one requires close physical contact and tremendous emotional expense to kill one person, the other creates mind-bendingly massive numbers of immediate and future casualties with little to no direct contact on the part of the one releasing the bomb. Now, with a greater military focus on unmanned drones, the trend arguably continues.

This process has been linked to more contemporary methods of documentation, as well. Both Jean Baudrillard and Elaine Scarry noted the strange emotional distance created by the 24-hour cable news cycle during the First Gulf War. When they wrote on that subject, cable news was still novel; now, with its long entrenchment, things proceed in that vein in much the same manner.

A final point worth noting – to be significant in the second part of this essay – is the disfiguring effect on language that technology helps to create in these cases: both Scarry and Joanna Bourke have written powerfully on the effect that things like “wound ballistics” have on our emotional connection to the sheer reality of injured human bodies; the effect of a weapon on human flesh becomes a matter of calculation and statistics. Technologized means of killing, Bourke notes, require a new language to describe such killing, a “numbing glossalalia of techno-speak”.

Summing up

We have, therefore, two different pictures of the relationship between emotion and technology. In one – Collins’s – emotion is central to the creation of solidarity and the process of mobilization into action, and physical co-presence is a vitally important part of that process, one that digital technology cannot provide more than a pale shadow of. In the other, technology creates distance between actor and action and reduces the power of emotion to the point where horrifically violent events lose meaning and significance – both on the part of the violent actor and the observer of the violence (what some have termed the “playstation effect”). Bring these two sets of arguments together and we don’t have an especially rosy picture of the capacity of technology for facilitating emotional connections and political mobilization across physical distances and without physical co-presence – at least, not with the kind of emotional energy and power necessary to hold a group together and keep them moving even when faced with intense opposition.

And yet this picture is clearly not accurate. People are coming together around common identities and claims, they are flooding into the streets, they are bearing up under intense repression, and they are doing this across large physical distances, often sparked and spurred by images of horrific violence. ICTs and social media are recognized by almost everyone as playing at least a fairly significant role in this. What remains unacknowledged is the flow of emotion through – not blocked by – these technologies. The picture painted by the arguments above may not be entirely wrong, but at the very least it is badly incomplete.

In part two of this essay I will go into more detail about this incompleteness, and suggest some ways in which we can see technology as a facilitator and creator of the exact kind of emotional energy that is created by bodies in the presence of each other – why, perhaps, it has the capacity to grant that kind of emotional energy more effectiveness than it has ever had before.