When Michael Moore came to address the occupiers of Wall Street, he had no access to a mic and speakers to make himself heard. He had no access to a bullhorn. New York City requires a permit for “amplified sound”–they require permission from authority for a particular use of public space. But #occupy is all about reclaiming public space–they demand to be heard, and they won’t ask for permission to speak. But even given that many of the participants of #occupy are in full possession of smartphones, verbal address to the crowd from a singular source is still important. And the restrictions on amplification made that difficult.
So #occupy did what #occupy seems to do: They organized.
Moore didn’t need access to a bullhorn. He spoke in short bursts of words, and the crowd around him repeated them at the top of their lungs. In this way–slow and fragmentary and not always entirely understandable, but loud nevertheless–the message spread. Using what has been dubbed “the human microphone”, the participants of #occupy have given speeches, held meetings and reached consensus, and spread important information. Working together, they’ve built a workaround.
To an observer, this may appear to be a low-tech solution to the problem of technology’s absence. But the human microphone should be understood as a technology in itself. Language is one of the most fundamental forms of technology that we possess; the ability to organize around a specific task is another. These are the building blocks on which other technologies are constructed.They are foundational in every important sense. And when the technologies above them are removed somehow, the foundational elements remain embedded and embodied in our cyborg bodies and brains.
In the case of #occupy, technology is aiding protest in ways that go beyond and beneath smartphones and social media. #occupy is not unique in this respect; these are the technologies around which protests have been organized since the beginning of contentious politics. In addition to the technology of language and speech, the occupiers are printing their own newspaper–now at a print run of 70,000. #occupy therefore stands as a fabulous example of the confluence of many forms of technology in aid of both the use of public space and the “amplification” of voices. Social media and the internet are undeniably extremely powerful and special attention should be paid to them, but the spoken and the printed word clearly also have an important part to play.
It is interesting to note, as The Nation’s Richard Kim does, that the human microphone is intensely participatory; it cannot be co-opted by one person with one specific interest, because the components of the microphone must consent to their own participation. In that sense it helps to build and maintain a feeling of consensus in an environment that many have framed as ideologically fractured and unclear. The lack of amplified sound might have been predicted to weaken #occupy; instead it has arguably contributed to its strength. This should point the way toward a further idea: that when many people come together, we should be sensitive to unexpected technology working in unexpected ways.
The fundamentally political nature of the Internet is currently asserting itself with a directness and an insistence that has rarely been seen before now. But, again, the nature that is asserting itself is fundamental–it is not a new aspect of the Internet, but has been part and parcel of it since its inception. The panel over which I have the pleasure of presiding, “Augmented Engagement – Global Politics by Digital Means”, focuses on this aspect. It examines how the technological roots of the Internet’s past have helped to shape the role it plays in modern politics, as well as what is considered both possible and appropriate in the Internet as a political space. The Internet as public space is also held up for analysis, both in terms of its nature as a space in which political action can be performed, and in terms of the actors who perform within that space. Political actors obviously perform political acts, and some entities may regard those acts as threats and risks–threats and risk may be understood as cultural constructions, and those constructions are affected and shaped in turn by the technological environment in which they exist. Finally, the Internet is examined as political space in which political actors understand, mediate, construct, and maintain identities, and form communities around the identities that they construct and maintain, as rapid flows of both people and information across national borders become more and more commonplace.
Ultimately, what unites all of the papers on this panel is the way in which they address modern global politics as an augmented phenomenon–a kind of politics in which the line between the digital and the “real” is quickly vanishing, if it ever existed at all. Actions, actors, and meanings online and offline become so fluid and so deeply intermeshed that, as Nathan Jurgenson has written on this blog, the concept of “digital dualism” becomes a fallacy, a framework for analysis rendered useless by its inability to capture the richness of the subject. In global politics as they are practiced now, “online” and “offline” can no longer be understood separately–they must be addressed as aspects of a complete picture situated within the long history of humanity’s engagement with technology. These papers make powerful contributions to a deeper understanding of that picture.
Julia Schroeder, “A Cultural Sociology of Technological Risk and Cyber Terrorism”
Recent events, such as the DDoS attacks on Burma, and the Stuxnet virus attack on Iran’s Bushehr nuclear facility, point to a global diffusion of anxiety about cyber terrorism. In response, attempts have been made by the U.S. and the EU to crystallize the technological risks faced by modern nation-states as more and more services are located online. This paper will suggest an outline for a literature with which policy-makers and academics may begin to address the weighty issue of cyber terrorism from the perspective of a cultural sociology of technological risk.
This analysis asserts that a sociological understanding of risk grounded in culture is a necessary remedy to the way in which technological risk analysis has been undertaken in recent research directed toward policy-makers. Oftentimes researchers operate with an implicit framework for technological risk which is divorced from any in-depth analysis of the culture which produces the very categories of analysis. I suggest that a closer inspection of the mechanisms by which popular conceptions of technological costs and benefits are created will make a significant contribution to both academic and policy-oriented literature on solving problems which involve technological risk.
This approach has the potential begin bridging the sizable gap between the expert knowledge of quantitative cost-benefit analysis that occurs at the policy-making level and the lived experiences of risk which are perceived by individuals who may be affected by those very policies. The literature outlined in this paper is an attempt to open up a space in popular narratives about technology that exists between extremes of hyper-optimism and neo-Luddism.
In order to outline a literature of the cultural sociology of technological risk, I will first review the intellectual roots of this literature in sociological theory which critiques modern technology (Ellul 1954, Marcuse 1964, Beck 1986). The sense of caution that these authors exhibited provides theoretical heritage for an approach to technology which walks the fine line between both extremes of the spectrum of cultural narratives of technology, both the naively celebratory and overly critical. Secondly, I will examine Douglas and Wildavsky’s (1982) framework for the cultural perception of technological risk. Thirdly, I will argue that Douglas and Wildavsky’s contribution reflects the fundamental way in which academic conceptions of risk were changed after the contribution of Thomas Hughes’ systems theory (1998). Lastly, I will suggest that the case of cyber terrorism as a “test case” for this new cultural sociology of technological risk. I believe that this case is particularly useful because the population of the United States has not experienced, what I call, a “risk realization event” that exposes a vulnerability to cyber terrorism. This case also illustrates a tension between the image of the internet as a Hughesian physical ‘system’ held by its creators which is at odds with the popular image of it held by its users as a non-physical network. Therefore, the popular perception of the technological risk of cyber terrorism provides an interesting case which to understand the socially constructed nature of risk.
Louis Sagnières (@niespika), “The Internet and the rise of a transnational public space”
In two decades, the Internet has established itself as a forum for political discussion and action. The fantasies of a global public space allowing for the emergence of a transnational democracy have backfired and though they are not supported by any empirical data this view is still prevalent in the media. This does not however mean that the Internet does not change anything, quite the contrary.
During this presentation, I would like to clarify the role of the Internet on the international stage and defend the following ideas. First I would like to reframe the meaning of public space. I will argue that the Internet can be understood as a transnational public space but not in a habermassian way. Rather we have to look at it from the perspective of H. Arendt. The Internet, I will argue, is a public space because it is a place where we live our political lives, thus anyone can become a transnational political actor. And this is the second idea I will try to defend. With the advent of the Internet as a global public space we are experiencing the advent of a new type of transnational actor: “citizen initiatives” (CI), with characteristics very different from those of traditional representatives of civil society at the international level such as NGOs.
I will start by giving a definition of what counts as political action. I will argue that there are two dimensions to it. The first one is “relational”, it has to do with a political entity “fighting” with another one for power, justice, rights or recognition. The second one is “internal”, it has to do with how members of a political entity act. Building on this conception of the political, I will offer a characterization of what is to be understood as a public space. I will then show how the use of this concept allows us to make better sense of Internet politics than when using the habermassian public space concept.
One of the reason I think the Internet qualifies as a transnational public space, is, I will argue, that it allows for anyone to act on a transnational level, but mostly because it allows for a new form of political actors that are inherently transnational : what I call Citizens Initiative. In order to do this, I will start by legitimizing the distinction I make between NGOs and what I call CI, demonstrating at the same time why, in my opinion, they are a novelty on the international stage. I will illustrate my point with an analysis of the website Wikileaks.org. In my opinion the difference between NGOs and the IC is mainly based on their structure. While the former are hierarchical organizations that have a « territorial » and legal existence, the latter are often just websites behind which individuals scattered throughout the world are brought together that do not particularly want to be recognized as an association. I will also show that while there are CI of national scope, there are plenty of transnational scope.
Joseph Obi, “Cyberspace, Place Polygamy, and the Distributed Self: An African Viewpoint”
The internet has forced an interrogation of our notions of community and identity. If anything, it has compounded the fluid, polyvalent, and distributed nature of its users’ selves. Many scholars have drawn attention to (a) the specter of a flattening “McWorld” global culture, (b) a valorization of the local in the face of the former, and (c) a syncretic “glocalization” or “creolization” emerging from the relentless forces of transplanetary integration characteristic of our times. In the wake of political and economic deregulation across the world, there has been an intensification of trans-border flows of human traffic , thus enhancing centuries-old processes of diasporic-community formation. Our concern here is what the internet might mean for such groups. How does the use of this complex of technologies play out against the backdrop of the cultural homogenization / heterogenization / hybridization debates by globalization scholars? By extension, what might be the implications of the internet for processes of assimilation and pluralism amongst diasporic groups in their host countries? We begin from the premise that, in comparison to the pre-network society period, there is a different quality to the immigrant/diaspora experience . With the compression of time and space, the globalization of biography enters new realms. We join with Ulrich Beck who argues that “what is coming to the fore is the inner mobility of the individual’s own life, for which coming and going, being both here and there across frontiers, at the same time has become the normal thing.”
Speaking of African immigration in the US, the Migration Policy Institute says: “The number of African Immigrants in the United States grew 40-fold between 1960 and 2007, from 35,355 to 1.4 million. Most of this growth has taken place since 1990.” Auspiciously, that year, 1990, coincided roughly with the fructification of windows-powered pc technologies which would later launch robust global platform-based connectivity in what Tom Friedman has since called the “Netscape moment.” As with many immigrants in the US, the potential of these technologies to alleviate the challenges of adapting to a new environment was not lost on Africans. Using preliminary indications from an African online community representing one of the continent’s largest countries , this paper attempts to answer the questions posed above by considering some of the ties between technology, place polygamy, and identity in the age of the internet.
Miles Townes, “The Spread of TCP/IP and the Political Origins of the Internet”
This study describes the spread of TCP/IP and therefore the diffusion of the Internet, beginning in the 1960s until the early 1990s. Understanding how TCP/IP emerged and spread provides insight into the changes and challenges brought by the Internet into world politics. Against arguments that the Internet reflects primarily economic or military concerns, I argue that notions of “academic” freedom are embedded in the fundamental technology of the Internet, TCP/IP, and that this embedded norm is essential to the Internet’s consequences for modern political life.
In its first twenty years, the Internet grew from a novel experiment among a few scholars to a global phenomenon, connecting millions of people and changing the way people look at the world. This was achieved on a largely ad hoc, informal basis, with minimal guidance from government leaders. The source of this spread was the work of computer scientists associated with the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, and the diffusion process followed closely the alliance patterns of the Western bloc in the Cold War. Within the international relations literature, the best descriptive analogy for the process comes from Finnemore and Sikkink’s ‘life cycle’ of norms—emergence, cascade, and internalization. From this perspective, this study argues that academics served as ‘norm entrepreneurs’ working in an ‘organizational platform’ established by ARPA.
I document this process through extensive use of primary sources, as well as published and online sources, to examine the motives and incentives behind the spread of the Internet. I argue that neither military necessity nor economic reward drove the process, but rather an academic desire to solve problems for scientific prestige. I show that the process unfolded at an interpersonal scale across the group of industrialized countries anchored by the United States, without being driven by U.S. government policy. In this process, TCP/IP competed – and beat – alternative technologies proposed by international standards bodies and private corporations to become the backbone of the modern Internet.
Understanding this process and its product is crucial to proper adjudication of contemporary debates regarding the ownership, neutrality, accessibility, anonymity, and security of the Internet. Many of the alternative configurations proposed to remedy ‘problems’ of the Internet in fact duplicate previous alternatives which TCP/IP proved superior to. Moreover, I argue, any change in the underlying technology which diminish the embedded normative commitments risk diminishing the Internet’s transformative power in the world.
Given the recent events in the Middle East (and elsewhere, as protests continue in Wisconsin and ominous rumblings begin to issue from the direction of China) a great deal has been written in the past few weeks on the topic of social media and social movements/revolutions. Some of it has been a bit frothy, while much of it—including this, this, and this commentary on the Cyborgology blog—has been very insightful. However, while commentators have come at this issue from various angles, there hasn’t yet been much in the way of writing that seeks to wed an analysis of these forms of social action with existing theories of social movements and contentious politics.
The speed at which events have moved is a point on which a number of people have remarked. The wave of political anger expressed as protest that spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and points beyond has been likened to dominoes falling—or, and this is more appropriate to the point I want to make, to the spread of a contagious disease. Democracy, it has been said, has “gone viral”.
In a sense, this is exactly what has happened. Strategies of protest and dissidence, discourses of political claim-making (“repertoires of contention”, to use Charles Tilly’s phrase), ideas regarding what is desirable and how one might get there—in other words, “logics of appropriateness” as regards political protest. The rapid spread of these is due in large part to the technologies and social networks that enable the rapid spread of everything else (as discussed on this blog by Nathan Jurgenson in his writing on liquid modernity); the wave of protest spreading through the Middle East is the result. I want to favor the rapidity of the wave over the existence of the wave itself—The “wave” itself has a pre-existing place in theory; the idea of an international “demonstration effect” is not a new one in the more political realms of social science. In her book, States and Social Revolutions (1979), political sociologist Theda Skocpol emphasized the importance of positioning a social revolution within a wider international context as a key to understanding how it came about.
Skocpol was speaking primarily of the pressure involved in inter-state warfare, but she also allows for the possibility that a revolution in one nation might—if the arrangement of other factors is conducive—help to spark a revolution in another, simply by virtue of dissidents in one nation observing and learning from what has happened in the other. The Russian Revolution, she says, may have helped to bring about the one that occurred in China.
It is impossible to look at the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and other nations and not see parallels—Tunisia was identified by protesters in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere as the model by which they were operating, and the event that helped spark their own action. The difference between what has occurred in these countries and what Skocpol describes is, again, the speed at which it has occurred. News and information spread more rapidly now than ever before, and it is arguably more difficult to control the dissemination of the same (though repressive regimes are always finding new ways). Journalists and pundits talk about a “Twitter Revolution” in relation to the ways in which social media supposedly helps political dissidents to coordinate their actions on the ground, but too often coordination (for which the evidence is still less than more simple but arguably more powerful element of spreading and sharing information and discourse—again, repertoires of contention. The protests in Tunisia were seen by other potential activists as both effective—a leader was removed from power—and legitimate—there was widespread international support for the protests. They were able to see all of this, and to exchange news and information with other dissidents across borders, because of the Internet, in general, and social media, in particular. This played an enormously important role in the identification of opportunities for action, and the form that the action took.
If there is a “Twitter Revolution”, therefore, a vital component of it must be the ways in which social media enable visibility; not coordination, then, but the broader category of communication. “The whole world is watching” has never been more literal a truth than it is now, and that world’s polypresent gaze has never presented a greater threat to autocratic regimes. When analyzing this intersection of technology and political activism, it is vital to recognize that what we are seeing is not a new phenomenon in contentious politics, but a new variant of an old thing.
It is long established that digital identity is a highly fluid concept. Since the earliest days of public engagement with the Internet, this has been a feature of the discourse: the realm of the virtual allows one to construct identity from the ground up, to assume a kind of control over self-presentation not possible in the realm of the flesh, to be or to seem to be anyone, anything, anywhere.
In practice, of course, this is clearly not the case–or not the whole case. Virtuality affords people a kind of power in the construction of the digital body that they do not have with their actual body. But when one presents the self online, they most often present that self in settings and contexts that other people have constructed. This is one place where problems with the presentation of the digital body tend to arise. When one plays in someone else’s garden, one might be expected to play by their rules. This is generally well and good, but things turn problematic when the “rules” involve the imposition of categories or identities that people may not accept.
This issue recently came to a head regarding deviantART’s “gender” field in its user profile. The trouble in question started when a user who identified as “neutrois” took issue with the fact that the choices in the field were restricted to male and female–there had been an “unspecified” option, but for unclear reasons it had been removed, forcing users to choose between only the two. There followed a number of exchanges with deviantART support personnel. These got rather heated, and it became clear that there was significant confusion on deviantART’s part regarding the difference between sex and gender (which amounts to the difference between genitalia and identity). In the end, though an “other” option was added, most people following the exchanges felt that it was not a satisfactory solution.
The response from the user: “Sex, of course, refers to the physical configuration of someone’s genitalia. That you feel you need to know what your users’ private parts look like is worrisome and troubling; it’s also dismissive of the identification of transgendered users.”
For anyone outside the gender binary, Facebook presents its own version of this problem. Facebook allows a user to select only “male” or “female” in its “sex” field. It allows a user to keep this particular piece of information private, but for the purposes of joining Facebook, the user must still select one of the two. This is additionally problematic given that Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities reads: “You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook”. Yet for some users there is literally no way to avoid doing this, given the constraints Facebook places on its users when it comes to the self-identification of sex and gender. At one point in Facebook’s existence, users were not required to choose between binary options; however, as the site has grown, this has changed.
Such constraints put users in the position of feeling like they are being forced to lie to themselves and to the world. More, they are made to feel that the site they are using does not recognize their identity’s existence. Gender/sex specifications on sites like Facebook are frequently used in the targeting of advertising; this is problematic for all the reasons that lack of representation usually presents. It is also worth pointing out that it is additionally problematic for the websites/companies involved, who are then in a position of potentially targeting advertising in the wrong directions.
But the problem goes even deeper here, beyond advertising and representation and into the core of identity and self-presentation. We are, as I said above, becoming used to a degree of control over our digital self/body that we often do not have in real life. To encounter such profound and intimate constraint in a setting of expected freedom is therefore jarring to the point of violation for those who may especially value that freedom. In addition, there is something about the online representation of the self, the “digital body”, that is essential; it is an identity predicated on, among other things, all the vital non-material aspects of what make a person powerfully unique. Online, ideally, I am a mind. I am a collection of thoughts and experiences and feelings, gendered in whatever way I prefer–or not gendered at all… until I am forced to select one of two options from a drop-down menu. At that point the constraints of the fleshly realm intrude, as do social conventions of sex and gender. In the context of a social networking site, to which we attach increasing levels of importance in the presentation of our digital bodies, is it any wonder that the pain of seeing one’s identity denied is especially cutting?
I want to close with a question: if the way many sites currently do things is inadequate to capture the richness of human experience and self-presentation, what might work better? The category of “other” presents its own problems–but if more categories are included, who decides what those categories will be? What would happen if sex/gender specification of any kind were made universally optional? And what would be the implications for targeted advertising, which, like it or not, forms a large part of the online economy?
We live in a cyborg society. Technology has infiltrated the most fundamental aspects of our lives: social organization, the body, even our self-concepts. This blog chronicles our new, augmented reality.