Last week The New Inquiry published an essay I wrote about science journalism podcasts syndicated on NPR. Shows like Radiolab, The TED Radio Hour, Hidden Brain, Invisibilia, Note to Self, and Freakonomics Radio, I argued, were more about wrapping pre-conceived notions in a veneer of data than changing minds or delivering new insights into long-standing problems. Worse yet, social and political issues that might be met with collective action are turned into wishy-washy “well isn’t that interesting” anecdotes:
Topics that might have once been subject to political debate or rhetorical argument–work demands, exposure to toxins, surveillance, the limits of love, even Marxian alienation–become apolitical subjects for scientific testing. But the results only lead to greater and greater complexity, prompting introspective thought rather than action.
This is part of a series of posts highlighting the Theorizing the Web conference, April 14th, 2012 at the University of Maryland (inside the D.C. beltway). It was originally posted on 4.2.12 and was updated to include video on 7.11.12. See the conference website for
Any study of politics is going to be fundamentally about power, and about who is free to exercise it and how: How policy is made, how the public sphere is constituted and how boundary lines are drawn around it, who has a voice and who is excluded from
discussion or consideration, who is central and who is marginalized. By the same token, the study of contentious politics – as it focuses on dissent and protest – is fundamentally about how those who have been marginalized, denied a voice, and left without power act to seize the things that have been denied them: How activist communities form and frame themselves, how their objectives and tactics change over time, how they seek entry into the public sphere and engage the actors they find there, how the voiceless find a voice and what they use it to say. Moreover, it’s about what is visible and recognized: How we understand political action in light of what’s gone before and what might come in the future.
All of this would be complex enough without communications technology, and what this panel highlights is how technology changes and enriches this already-complicated picture. Communications technology has the potential to change what we understand by “public sphere” and how we construct meanings around events, as well as how different collective actors organize and react to each other. If knowledge and information are vital to the development of a social movement, then understanding how knowledge and information flow is additionally vital.
Given recent and ongoing global protest movements, the intersection of technology and protest is a subject both broad and deep. Rather than attempt to capture all aspects of it, the excellent papers in this panel call attention to more tightly focused corners of the political picture, and in so doing, illuminate further potential avenues for research and exploration. Additionally, the geographical and cultural focus of this panel is truly diverse, allowing us to push back a bit against the American-and-Eurocentric bias that appears too often in research of this kind.
The idea that bodies are the loci and the focus for the movement of power is a well-established one in sociological thought. In this sense, bodies are inherently political things – they are not just sites for the production and reproduction of social power but they also have political significance. What they do matters; what happens to them and why matters. In social theory this is often centered around Foucauldian concepts of discipline and the production of knowledge, but for the purposes of this post I want to go back to a previous post, where I made an argument specifically about the political significance of bodies in contexts of violent protest:
[B]odies have symbolic weight and power, and often they have the most symbolic weight and power of any other part of the movement. A dramatic flush of international outrage was generated around the film of Neda Agha-Soltan bleeding to death in a Tehran street, but it was the physical suffering and death of her physical body that generated that rage. Outrage grew exponentially out of the footage and images of Lt. John Pike pepper-spraying seated UC Davis students, but again, that outrage was generated by and situated around the physical suffering of physical bodies.
It’s important to emphasize the aspect of physical suffering in itself; the body carries political, discursive significance not only when it is intact but when – sometimes especially when – it is in the process of being damaged and destroyed. And the context of this damage and destruction – the circumstances under which it occurs – is part of what imbues the body with its significance and alters what nature it already has.
Viral media saw an interesting development last week with Invisible Children’s release of its “Kony 2012” film, which at the time of this writing has garnered well over 75 million views as well as storms of heated criticism. One could practically write entire books on the issues that Invisible Children raises – both intentionally and unintentionally – in this campaign, but for the purposes of this post I want to keep the focus fairly narrow and trained on the actual components of the video that make it successfully viral – and what that potentially indicates about how information regarding especially complex issues is diffused, as well as what difference that form of diffusion makes.
In the previous installment of this series, I set up what I characterize as the two primary areas of argument that stand against my primary claim: that social media technology and other forms of ICT, far from constraining emotional connections and the emotional power of solidarity-creating rituals, actually serve to facilitate emotions and the powerful connective work that emotional interaction does.
There are a number of ways that one could argue this is done, and Jenny Davis makes an especially pertinent argument in her post about the social cost of abstaining from digitally augmented forms of interaction. For the purposes of this piece, I want to focus my attention on the capacity of ICTs to facilitate the generation of emotional energy around contentious political action – especially contentious political action in a context of violent repression.
From June 27-29 I will be hosting (throwing?) the Technoscience as Activism Conference in Troy, NY. We are currently accepting abstracts for conference presentations and workshop proposals through March 15th. The conference is sponsored, in part, through Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s 3Helix Program funded through the National Science Foundation’s GK-12 fellowship. The conference will focus on community-situated design and look for new approaches that interweave social justice and science/technology. Participants are also encouraged to submit full papers for potential inclusion in a special theme issue of the open-access journal PscyhNology. Conference participants will be expected to participate in both moderated panel sessions on the PRI campus as well as hands-on workshops held throughout the Troy community. There are two goals of this conference: 1) To facilitate the free exchange of ideas across multiple boundaries on the topic of technoscience as activism and; 2) offer an experimental alternative to the traditional role/format of academic conferences. This new experimental format includes active collaboration with the geographically-defined community that hosts the conference. more...
In the 36 hours since the Occupy Wall Street raid removed protest infrastructure from Zuccotti Park, much of the conflict strikes me as the tension between the informational (the symbolic; media; ideas) and the material (physical; geographic). It runs through how New York City carried its actions out (at night, blocking journalists), the ensuing legal fight (does occupying physical space count as speech?) as well as the new strategic challenges facing an Occupy movement where camping is decreasingly an option.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that much of my work lies at the intersection of (1) information, media, technology, the online and (2) materiality, bodies and offline physical space. At this intersection, our reality is an “augmented” one. Part of the success of Occupy (and other recent protest movements) has been the awareness of just this point: by uniting media and information with the importance of flesh-and-blood bodies existing in physical space, our global atmosphere of dissent is increasingly one of an augmented revolution. Indeed, these are not protests centered online, as Jeff Jarvis tweeted this morning, or Zuccotti park, but in the augmented reality where the two intersect.
And this intersection of the power of the image and the power of the material dramatically came to a head about 36 hours ago as I write. In the early morning of November 15th, the two-month long occupation of Zuccotti Park was eliminated by the City of New York. more...
Mass collective action is in the air, on the ground, on the web; indeed, there exists today an atmosphere conducive for revolutions, flash mobs, protests, uprisings, riots, and any other way humans coalesce physically and digitally to change the normal operation of society. [Photos of protests around the globe from just the past 30 days].
Some gatherings have clear goals (e.g., ousting Mubarak), however. there is also the sense that massive gatherings are increasingly inevitable today even when a reason for them is not explicit (e.g., the ongoing debate over the reasons for the UK Riots or the current #occupy protests). For some this is terrifying and for others it is exhilarating. And still others might think I am greatly overstating the amount of protest actually happening. True, we do not yet know if this second decade of the 21st Century will come to be known for massive uprisings. But if it is, I think it will have much to do with social media effectively allowing for the merging of atoms and bits, of the on and offline; linking the potential of occupying physical space with the ability of social media to provide the average person with information and an audience.
For example, the current #occupy protests across the United States more...
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.