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Barcelona’s local elections in the global spotlight

May 29, 2015

Less than a week ago, on 24 May 2015, local and regional elections were held across Spain. In Barcelona, Madrid and other major cities, new anti-establishment candidates either won or came very close to winning, signalling a major change in the country’s political landscape. These events are being followed with great interest around the world. Here is a quick round-up of some of the reports coming out of Barcelona. Screen-Shot-2015-05-26-at-1.36.52-PM

Image by Maria Castelló Solbés via Popular Resistance

Soon after midnight, the Diagonal news site already reported (in Spanish) that ‘the citizen candidatures have overturned the political panorama’, with the grassroots coalition Barcelona en Comú, led by the anti-eviction activist Ada Colau, ‘making history’ with its Barcelona victory. “A victory of David against Goliath”, as Colau put it. “We had a historic opportunity and took advantage of it. Like so often before, the common people have risen”.

Meanwhile, Xavi Herrero and Lali Sandiumenge reported (in Catalan) from the winner’s camp that ‘the 15M [indignados] citizen mobilisation will run the municipality’.

— Really? We’ve won?

— We’ve won the fucking elections!

For the green activist David Cid, this was “the left’s most important political victory since 1931”.

Communication and ‘the common people’

Writing on 27 May about ‘the common people’ behind Ada Colau (in English), Kate Shea Baird points out that ‘since the launch of Barcelona en Comú less than a year ago, Colau has taken pains to emphasize that she is just the most visible face of a movement that is horizontal in structure and collective in spirit’.Their electoral programme was drafted by over 5000 people, ‘with contributions made in open assemblies and online, and the strategic and political decisions of the platform are made by the ʻplenaryʼ assembly, held twice a month’.

The new platform also gave birth to SomComuns, a network of internet activists campaigning on social media, as well as a collective made up designers and artists called The Movement for The Graphic Liberation of Barcelona.

For the Dublin-based Municipal Revolution research group, writing on their website soon after the results were announced, the Spanish citizen platforms ‘were doing something that resonated with people. If [you are] doing something people don’t really care about, then whatever way you communicate it people still won’t really care about it’. Communication was, nevertheless, key to their success. This took on two main forms:

Firstly, the platforms used the lexicon and the ‘vibe’ of the 15M movement – this is all about people, the 99%, against corrupt and incompetent political elites who had facilitated public institutions being held hostage by private interests. It was about getting involved, participating, having your voice heard. It was positive, creative and confident – the emphasis wasn’t only on how much the people are suffering or how bad the other guys are, but on the fact that there’s more of us and we’re smarter and more intelligent than the elite. …[T]his message was communicated online and through various media (image, video, music), as well as through traditional media (TV). Secondly, beyond the campaigns run by the platforms themselves, there were spontaneous art and images produced by individuals and artist collectives, especially clear in the case of Manuela Carmena, who heads up Ahora Madrid (check out the Madrid for Manuela Tumblr).

Colau’s digital guerrilla

The El Periodico journalist Saul Gordillo perceives a powerful confluence between ‘the real Barcelona’ and ‘Twitter Barcelona’ as one of the keys to understanding Barcelona en Comú impressive results (in Spanish).

While the ‘spin doctors’ analysed the candidates’ clothes and appearance, or the appropriateness of this or that soundbite, [Ada Colau] played an understated role that was inversely proportional to the 2.0 buzz. The nationalist trolls merely confirmed that Colau was the queen of the Twitter trending topic. The squares and streets were converging in the networks.

Gordillo anticipates novelties in the digital realm should the winners continue to link politics with transparency. In this spirit of openness, he promises to monitor the new councillors’ digital activities lest they fall into the tired old patterns of their predecessors.

Writing on the eve of the elections (in Spanish), Lali Sandiumenge highlighted the ‘intensive, creative and collaborative use of technology’ as an integral part of Colau’s campaign. As a result, the then candidate ‘was taking social media by storm’ (arrasa en las redes). Quoting the data researcher Pablo Aragón, Sandiumenge refers to the platform’s ‘technopolitical’ approach as consisting of ‘harnessing the potential of the new technologies to connect and coordinate like-minded multitudes without the need to organise closed structures such as political parties’ (see also Monterde et al 2015).

SomComuns participants are free to experiment with language and media formats. As one political technologist put it, ‘If a message works, we promote it, regardless of who created it. In fact, some of our top virals were made by anonymous people’. An example of this ‘new electoral narrative’ is the video “El run run” (The buzz), featuring a joyful Ada Colau. This idea was put forth by the musician Ivan Lagarto, who had already been a YouTube sensation with his song “El Caloret” (The warmth), a remix dedicated to Valencia’s mayor, Rita Barberá. Not only did “El run run” strike a chord with the campaigners, it also found its way into the mainstream media.

A new municipal agenda in Spain

The activist and writer Jerome Roos believes the Barcelona election has put social movements ‘in control of the city’. Quoting the ROAR editor Carlos Delclós, he adds: “Barcelona has decided that for the next four years it will be governed not by a party, but by the legitimacy we built as a radical democratic movement.” For the first time, argues Roos, ‘a major political project revolving around the commons has claimed an electoral victory in Europe’. This author regards the commons as a ‘radical alternative’ to the obsolescent state vs. market dichotomy.

In a separate piece (in English), Delclós discusses the rise of a ‘new municipal agenda’ in Spain. This agenda echoes the ideas of the founding father of libertarian municipalism, Murray Bookchin, who ‘outlined four main coordinates: a revival of the citizens’ assembly, the need for confederation with other municipalities, grassroots politics as a school of genuine citizenship and the municipalisation of the economy.

Underlying all of these coordinates is “a recovery of a new participatory politics structured around free, self-empowered and active citizens”. To understand some of the challenges ahead for Colau and her fellow activist-politicians, Delclós recommends the documentary Municipal Recipes, in which some of the candidates ‘discuss the thought process that led them to make the jump into the electoral arena, how they hope to care for the city, how to make it liveable, the relationship between citizens, social movements and institutions, and the pitfalls of representative democracy, among other key issues’.

Update 1 June 2015 Seguir fluyendo – 24M: Una victoria del 15M. Carta abierta a lxs compañerxs de Podemos (in Spanish) [The flow must go on – 24M [local elections in Spain]: A 15M [indignados] victory. An open letter to our Podemos colleagues]

20. Hacking politics: civic struggles to politicize technologies

May 2, 2015

This is the 20th of 42 posts in the ongoing Freedom technologists series.

By Sebastian Kubitschko
via Civic Media Project

Despite the longstanding equating of hacking as infused with political significance, the scope and style of hackers’ engagement with institutionalized politics remains poorly understood. Based on face-to-face interviews, participant observations and media analysis over three years (2011-2014), this case study of the Chaos Computer Club (CCC)—Europe’s largest and one of the world’s oldest hacker collectives—fills parts of this gap. It shows that hackers practice a wide range of insider and outsider tactics related to media technologies and infrastructures (MTI). The rationale is to examine hackers as actors that practice politics through, with and about MTI and by doing so to deepen the understanding of contemporary civic engagements. By considering the CCC as a civic organization that emphatically engages with democratic constellations it challenges common sense assumptions guiding understandings of the intersection of civic culture, technologies and institutionalized politics.

Considering transformations of civic engagement and politics, hackers might not necessarily be the first actors that come to mind. “Hackers” is often used as a catchall phrase to describe almost any computer-related crime and tend to be portrayed as anti-social, possibly dangerous individuals, who attack systems, invade privacy and even threaten national security (Coleman 2012). Governments’ and mainstream media’s obsession with the activities of particular groups—most prominently Anonymous and WikiLeaks—further reinforce this labeling.

Founded in 1981 in Germany and with a membership figure of around 4500 the CCC stands in stark contrast to such stereotyping and criminalization. The Club is a heterogeneous collection of multi-socialized and multi-determined citizens that bring together knowledge, experience and skills related to the functioning and political consequences of MTI.

For over three decades its members have been engaging in the area of conflict between technological and social developments.

While the Club’s organizational structure is based on decentralized local groups, prominent spokespersons and long-term members ensure that the collective communicates its political aims (more or less) coherently beyond the circle of like-minded people. Accordingly the CCC acts as an organized civic collective or what can be referred to as a civil society organization. Ever since its establishment the Club does not only practice so-called hacktivism (Jordan and Taylor 1998), but in fact engages in a plurality of political activities by acting through, with and about MTI (Kubitschko, 2015). In more concrete terms the tree attributes indicate the following practices.

First, the hackers are acting through MTI. This denotes that similar to most political organizations nowadays (Rucht 2013, 249-268), the Club’s internal modes of organization and coordination starkly rely on mediated communication amongst its members. At the same time the CCC acts through MTI by utilizing contemporary technologies in creative, explorative, playful or subversive ways. By reverse engineering a suspicious hard drive in October 2011, for example, the organization discovered that German government agencies were illegally using surveillance software.

Second, the CCC critically engages with MTI by sustaining alternative communication infrastructures like The Onion Router (Tor)—client software enhancing online anonymity by directing Internet traffic through a global volunteer network of servers. In addition the CCC is running one of the most used Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) servers worldwide – an open technology, which powers a wide range of applications including instant messaging, multi-party chat, voice and video calls. It is important to note that “alternative” in this context should not be treated synonymously with “autonomy.” As Chris Kelty puts it, “independence from power is not absolute; it is provisional and structured in response to the historically constituted layering of power and control within the infrastructures of computing and communication” (Kelty 2008, 9).

Third, CCC members are acting about MTI by articulating their knowledge, skills and experiences. On one hand, this is achieved by communicating to the general public via social and mainstream media channels. On the other, the Club has increasingly direct interactions with relevant actors like judges and legislators. Given the growing relevance of media environments for political constellations mainstream media continue to be exceptionally significant for actors to publicly voice their concerns (Couldry 2012). Over recent years both the amount of media coverage as well as the frequency of access by CCC members to mainstream media has increased drastically. Besides writing articles and maintaining blogs for quality outlets CCC members are regular interview partner to various well-established media and act as sources to numerous news media. In 2013 alone, the Club’s spokesperson had 8973 requests by media representatives via email. Parallel to these media related practices, interactions with institutionalized politics continue to grow in quantity and quality. Over the past decade, the CCC has been requested as an official expert by the German constitutional court on five occasions—among others, related to the use of computerized voting machines. At the same time, the Club is advising all major political parties in Germany and two CCC members took part in the German parliament’s committee on “Internet and Digital Society.”

Acting with, through and about MTI are interlocking arrangements that enable the CCC not only to question and supervise  technological developments, but also to practice both ‘defensive’ and ‘offensive’ modes of engagement Cohen and Arato 1992, 548-563). On one hand, their engagements are directed inward to civil society by supporting emancipatory practices related to communicative infrastructures. On the other, their activities are directed outward to institutionalized politics. By doing so, the Chaos Computer Club politicizes issues that otherwise might be understood as solely technological and are part of defining the predominant conception of what is understood as political.

Back to Freedom technologists series…


Cohen, Jean, and Andrew Arato. 1992. Civil Society and Political Theory. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Coleman, Gabriella. 2012. Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Couldry, Nick. 2012. Media, Society, World: Social Theory and Digital Media Practice. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Jordan, Tim, and Paul Taylor. 1998. “A Sociology of Hackers.” The Sociological Review 46 (4): 757–780.

Kelty, Christopher. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kubitschko, Sebastian. Forthcoming. 2015. “Hackers’ Media Practices.” Convergence 21 (3).

Rosanvallon, Pierre. 2008. Counter-Democracy: Politics in an Age of Distrust. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rucht, Dieter. 2013. “Protest Movements and Their Media Usages.” In Mediation and Protest Movements, edited by Bart Cammaerts, Alice Mattoni and Patrick McCurdy, 249–268. Bristol, UK: Intellect.

19. Freedoms and liberties in anthropological perspective

April 21, 2015

This is nineteenth post in the Freedom technologists series.

Republished from St Andrews Centre for Cosmopolitan Studies.

The Centre is pleased to announce a forthcoming conference on Liberties and Freedoms organised with the assistance of the Ladislav Holy Trust. (May 31st – 2nd June 2013).

Freedoms and liberties have been a theme of perennial concern across a range of human science disciplines – philosophy, history and political science – but curiously to a much lesser degree in anthropology. However, well-known anthropologists such as Boas, Malinowski and Leach have all written on the topic. Likewise, the works of Overing, Riesman, Lee and more recently Rapport, Laidlaw, Humphrey and others indicate that if the concept of freedom has not been understood as pivotal to the discipline, neither has it ever disappeared from anthropological discussion for long.

In the face of contemporary global events – including the expanded use of surveillance technologies in Europe, the American war against terror (in the name of freedom) waged in many foreign countries, and the growth of Pentecostalism with an emphasis on spiritual liberation in Africa and Latin America – the expectation is that anthropology can benefit from reassessing the place of freedoms and liberties within the discipline at distinct analytical levels. This, perhaps the first, international conference on the theme of “Freedoms and Liberties in Anthropological Perspective” will offer a stage to reassess the conceptual status of liberty and freedom in anthropological work.

During the conference we will examine freedoms and liberties in their epistemological aspect – does anthropology, as a mode of enquiry, demand certain kinds of freedom? – and from the side of ontology – ‘what kinds of object of thought and action are freedoms and liberties and where in particular do we see them foregrounded?’.

Speakers will include Mauro Almeida, Diane Austin-Broos, Veena Das, Nadia Farage, Peter Gow, Tobias Kelly, Alex Hall, Mette High, Hideko Mitsui, Stavroula Pipyrou, Nigel Rapport, Adam Reed, Noa Vaisman.

Conference organisers are Moises Lino e Silva and Huon Wardle. Read more…

18. Political technologists and civil society

April 20, 2015

By Muzammil M. Hussain

This is the eighteenth post in the Freedom technologists series. The following are some passages taken (with permission) from chapter 4 of Hussain, M. M. (2014). Securing Technologies of Freedom after the Arab Spring: Policy Entrepreneurship and Norms Consolidation Practices in Internet Freedom Promotion (Doctoral dissertation (Ph.D.) — University of Washington).

This quote captures the gist of Hussain’s ‘political technologists’ concept:

I focus on the community of technology designers and political hacktivists working on self-described “liberation technologies”—discussions, tools, and practices aimed explicitly at helping dissidents and human rights activists use digital infrastructures and ICTs for their political goals. I refer to these actors who are helping civil society stakeholders as political technologists. They are important because they are generating the important new norms about digital infrastructures that are most relevant to citizens and users.

In the last chapter (Chapter 3), I […] examined how the internet freedom proto-regime lacks cohesion in promoting coherent policies to implement internet freedom, and is currently balkanized between two opposing communities of practice generating and incorporating distinct and competing norms. Therefore, stakeholders have thus far failed to meaningfully consolidate a viable set of norms that policies can be enacted around that work effectively with the multiple layers constituting digital infrastructures. On the one hand, states are overly concerned with the internet’s backbone and approach it as a “critical” infrastructure and ignore citizen’s needs. On the other hand, civil society actors are producing some innovative norms and practices but lack the power to enforce them. In both cases, technology providers and the private sector have evaded meaningful participation and their responsibility for doing so.

Given these precarious issues at play, where might we find the best spaces or communities of practice working to consolidate these seemingly diametrically opposing normative frameworks? Where, if at all, is the substantive intellectual and experiential knowledge surrounding digital infrastructure politics and the social shaping of political technologies being formulated and aggregated? What new and innovative norms might emerge from here of use for internet freedom norms consolidation? Read more…

17. Digital rights in Southeast Asia and beyond: a review of RightsCon 2015

March 31, 2015


Update 1 April 2015: See also PDF version.

Last week I was in Manila to attend the 4th meeting of the RightsCon series, held on 24-25 March 2015. This series of conferences seeks ‘to advance solutions to human rights challenges by concentrating on the possibilities within the tech sector’. The Manila conference was organised by Access, a digital rights NGO, in partnership with Engage Media and the Foundation for Media Alternatives.

As stated on the conference website, the first ever RightsCon event to be held in Southeast Asia set out to pursue the following goals:

• Protecting rights online in the age of surveillance
• Technology and infrastructure interdependence
• Digital rights and economic development
• Freedom of information and Open Data
• Tech solutions for human rights challenges
• Limiting and measuring risk in the ICT sector

In the following review I first discuss eight of the sessions I attended by clustering them into four paired sessions under the subheadings ‘Ruling the internet’, ‘Regional networks’, ‘Online fundamentalism’ and ‘Social media interventions’. I then offer some first reflections on the event.

Ruling the internet

In the morning of the second day, I attended a mock international human rights tribunal in which legal and technological experts mulled over the validity of a YouTube video submitted by a civil society group purportedly showing a war crime.

The importance of triangulating the digital evidence with witness statements was pointed out by a panelist. Another issue raised was the need to bring together legal, digital and media expertise so that international jurisprudence can advance in an increasingly digital world. This echoes my working hypothesis about the key role played by lawyers, IT specialists and journalists in new protest movements such as the Arab uprisings, Spain’s indignados and the global Occupy movement (Postill 2014a).

Missing from the Q&A, though, was the potential role in future juridical developments of other specialists such as scholars in the humanities and social sciences (these fields were, in fact, under-represented throughout the conference). For instance, at one point in the proceedings one of the digital experts referred to the video’s narrative intent, an area of inquiry well suited to the humanities. Or consider the just mentioned significance of online-offline triangulation: here ethnographic expertise could be of invaluable assistance.

One thing is clear: technology alone will not lead progress in the fight against war crimes. As one audience member put it, we must ‘manage our expectations’ when it comes to technologies such as satellite imagery, for there is a wide gulf between the digital wizardry of Hollywood films and the actual evidence that satellites can provide, which very rarely comes in the form of a ‘smoking gun’.

A related session was devoted to the ‘chilling effect’ of state interventions in the digital realm. The case studies ranged from Pakistan’s blanket ban of YouTube following the uploading of a film about Mohammed, to India’s imminent ruling on intermediaries’ liability, to the EU Court of Justice’s 13 May 2014 ruling that internet users can request companies like Google to remove unwanted information about them, to examples from South Korea.

Regional networks

Panelists at the Asia-Pacific digital rights networking session were agreed that this region is far too large and unwieldy to allow for a common strategy. It makes more sense to organise at the sub-regional level, e.g. South Asia, Southeast Asia. Even then, national differences in infrastructure, legislation, political culture, economic development, and others, are still vast within these sub-regions. One area of concern is the highly uneven levels of English competence among civil society actors from different countries. As one participant from the Philippines noted, Filipinos tend to dominate conversations because of their fluency in English compared to their counterparts from neighbouring countries.

Southeast Asia provided the geographical setting for one of the sessions devoted to freedom of expression online. Internet activists from Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines compared and contrasted their experiences, with Thailand and Philippines standing at two ends of an authoritarian-democratic continuum. One of the Indonesian participants stressed the need for solidarity with Thailand, arguing that there are no guarantees that other countries will not return to military rule. Meanwhile, a Filipino member of the audience wondered whether his country’s ‘slow Internet’ was not a form of state censorship, despite the Philippines supposedly enjoying a ‘free’ internet. An unwired population, he added, poses less of a threat to the ruling elites than a net-savvy one.

Despite its Southeast Asian focus, the participants stressed the importance of overcoming regional parochialism and learning from the digital rights experiences of countries both near and far. Indeed it was during this session that we heard the good news that India’s Supreme Court had struck a draconian internet law that had been used by police to arrest critics of the government. The news soon spread to all other sessions, lifting our spirits throughout the remainder of the conference.

One major challenge identified by civil society participants was the speed at which both digital technologies and donors’ priorities change, making the task of building sustainable networks and coalitions increasingly difficult. One speaker encouraged us to think in terms of events rather than structures – echoing long-standing debates within anthropology and other social sciences. Here I would suggest the need to critically interrogate whether most of us suffer from a pro-sustainability bias. Perhaps it is time to remind ourselves that some ephemeral actions can have lasting effects – and that the most solid of structures can ‘melt into air’.

Online fundamentalism

On Wednesday I was fortunate to attend two back-to-back sessions on religious fundamentalism online in its multiple variants (Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc.) and how to curtail it. Panelists noted that ‘hate speech’ has become a global buzzword, yet one whose legal and everyday meaning is poorly understood. Often conflated with ‘offensive speech’, the latter notion is frequently used by religious conservatives to limit freedom of expression online.

A presenter from the South Asian region drew laughter when she said that we are too ‘beholden to the beards’. She also added that internet libertarians may not like the word ‘protection’, but that in many countries more state protection from the fanatic mobs was actually needed. This suggests to me a faultline running through the international digital rights scene dividing an anarcho-libertarian sector deeply mistrustful of the state – most firmly rooted in global North hubs such as Silicon Valley or Berlin –  from a secularist-rationalist sector, most active in the global South, where religious extremists and conservatives are often given a long leash by their governments.

A range of responses to hate speech against women, LGBTIQs, religious minorities, secularists and others were presented and taken up in the lively discussion. These included various forms of humour (mockery, parody, satire), with lessons to be learned from the Soviet era; the use of critical, rational, research-based evidence to counter dogma; and meeting online discourse with more discourse, not less. In addition, the role of men working alongside women to respond to sexist cyberbullying was highlighted, as well as the importance of building coalitions with like-minded groups and of exercising great caution when countering hate speech.

There was an interesting contrast between two of the main strategies presented, namely an inter-faith vs. a secularist approach.  One speaker was sceptical of  inter-faith campaigns in the face of the mounting aggression and intolerance from extremist quarters. This participant suggested that secularists should set the terms of the discussion rather than allow the fanatics to do so.

We also heard about the new YouTube moderation tools from a Google representative and listened to an entertaining talk from a Wikipedian. On Wikipedia, he explained, each speech ‘community’ has full autonomy to make its own decisions about controversial issues. For example, pressure from Orthodox Jews within Wikipedia led to the creation of a sanitised version of the Hebrew-language encyclopaedia that can be downloaded and consulted offline. Also, whilst the Malay-language Wikipedia does not show the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammad, the German-language site does. This raises the question, not voiced during the session, of whether Wikipedia truly is ‘All the world’s knowledge’, as it claims to be.

The presenter also encouraged audience members to make more use of Wikipedia, yet adopting a ‘neutral viewpoint’, something that ‘opinionated’ activists may find hard to do: ‘Educate, don’t advocate’. By shedding light on certain issues, civil society actors are still furthering a cause, albeit on the basis of evidence, not opinion. The beauty of Wikipedia, he concluded, is that its volunteer editors are protected by America’s First Amendment wherever they are in the world. This means that a repressive state wishing to force Wikipedia to reveal information about a contributor would require permission from a US judge to do so. So far, this has occurred ‘zero times’.

Social media interventions

By far the most fun session I joined was the workshop ‘Hashtags, memes, and more: creative communication strategies for advocacy’. How can a civil society group or organisation make and spread successful hashtags? This was the challenge for the small groups who were given three topics to choose from. Our group – made up mostly of Southeast Asian activists – chose online censorship, taking Malaysia as our case study. After a series of brainstorming activities we finally settled for the hashtag #untrulyAsia (a play on the country’s famous tourism slogan “Malaysia, truly Asia”), which had its 15 seconds of fame during the whole-group discussion. We also proposed a transmedia strategy that built on existing networks to launch the slogan via Twitter and numerous other channels, both old and new.

The workshop convener, a seasoned campaigner, made some intriguing observations about the orality of digital culture, the demise of ‘digital dualism’ (that is, the idea of the online and offline as distinct realms), the reasons for the spread of protest sign language, and the cumulative effects of micro-affective campaigns over time, i.e. individual hashtags may be short-lived but a long series of them can make a difference (I have made a similar case about Spain’s indignados’ ‘nano-stories’, see Postill 2014b).

The session rightly assumed that most of us in the room were urban middle-class people with advanced digital skills and ready access to laptops and/or smartphones. But of course, countless millions in Southeast Asia — and around the world – are not in the same position (e.g. only 17% of Indonesians were online as of 2014). This gulf was addressed in the session ‘Social media without the internet’. Thus the smartphone app Firechat, made famous during Hong Kong’s 2014 ‘Umbrella Revolution‘,

works by creating its own network outside the internet, relying simply on the Bluetooth or Wi-Fi link that exist between one phone and another.

According to the presenter, Firechat can also help poor communities in the global South form their own local communication networks. Another presenter introduced Bubbly, a social voice platform that works across smartphones and feature phones. School staff in Jakarta successfully used Bubbly during last month’s floods to advise students to stay at home.

We also learned about engageSPARK, a messaging service that allows users to communicate through multiple channels, including SMS, voice, email, social media, and fax. This platform was used to send recorded messages to people in remote areas of the Philippines with timely updates about approaching typhoons and other valuable information. Surprisingly to spam-averse Westerners, local people did not tire of receiving the recorded messages, which they regarded as being both relevant and as a sign that they were at last ‘connected’ to the outside world and not forgotten (see Castells et al 2009 for a discussion of connectivity as a key factor in the popularity of mobiles in the developing world).

At this point, followers of the internet commentator Evgeny Morozov (2014) may dismiss these social media interventions as nothing but techno-utopianism. This would be the wrong inference to make, as I did not once hear anyone in the room announce that ‘This technology changes everything’, or words to that effect. Instead, participants displayed the familiar techno-pragmatism that I have encountered many times among internet-savvy people. This is, in fact, one of the chief characteristics of the political actors I am calling, at least for the time being, freedom technologists. The idea was not to hold hands and sing together whilst awaiting the imminent coming of a new digital dawn. It was a far more modest ambition: to experiment with some of the discursive and technical tools at their disposal.

A nagging issue

All in all, this was a highly successful event. As the conference hosts put it during the closing ceremony, the Manila conference provided a safe, gender-balanced space for civil society and technology actors from many different countries to meet and network. It was also an event where the importance of evidence-based (as opposed to opinionated) advocacy came to the fore.

As an anthropologist currently researching internet activism in Indonesia, this last point about the urgent need for empirical research was music to my ears – although in the present enthusiasm for Big Data we should not forget the equally crucial need for theoretical development. There is much scope here for future collaborations between anthropologists and other social scientists with colleagues from civil society, journalism, computer science, and the legal fields.

For me, RightsCon 2015 was an excellent opportunity to ‘follow’ my Indonesian research participants to another field site, a site where they engaged with counterparts from other parts of the region and beyond, setting their current activities against a much larger backdrop. In a sense, Manila was an extension of my Indonesian fieldwork.

Yet something about this event has been nagging at me. I am not entirely sure how to formulate this, but it has to do with the entrenched social inequalities of the world system. These inequities are glaringly obvious as soon as you step out of the comforts of an international hotel and walk the streets of Manila (or London, for that matter). By way of an experiment I tried to enter a beautiful gated community aptly named ‘Arcadia’, just across the road from the conference venue.  I was refused access by the security guards for not having a contact name and address inside the vast compound. ‘Sorry sir’, one of them apologised, ‘it’s SOP, Standard Operating Procedure’. Meanwhile, Arcadia’s army of workers was streaming out on foot, whilst the occasional luxury vehicle was allowed to enter through the gates.

Economic inequality has been on the rise worldwide for decades, which have witnessed the concomitant emergence of a global plutocracy (Freeland 2012). In the opening ceremony, ‘structural inequality’ was identified as one of the conference’s main concerns. However, not much was said about it during the conference, at least not in the sessions that I attended, including the closing ceremony. Yes, it did come up in the context of communication being a universal human right, but the subject was not taken up in any sustained way.

To me, the most urgent issue to tackle in future RightsCon events is precisely how to use our collective techno-political and research savvy to address the present global system’s grotesque inequalities. There is a crucial debate to be had between reformists who argue for multi-stakeholder approaches to the future of the internet (e.g. MacKinnon 2012) and those like Aral Balkan who advocate a post-plutocratic world order in which the internet is a global public good, not a corporate and state battlefield. As Balkan puts it:

About the author

Dr John Postill is Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University, Melbourne (2013-2016), and Digital Anthropology Fellow at University College London (UCL). His publications include Localizing the Internet (2011), Media and Nation Building (2006) and the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Practice (2010, with Birgit Bräuchler). Currently he is conducting anthropological research on new forms of digital activism and civic engagement in Indonesia, Spain and globally. He is also writing a book on the Spanish indignados (15M) movement and its recent political offshoots, as well as the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Change (with Elisenda Ardèvol and Sirpa Tenhunen).

Follow on Twitter: @JohnPostill

Back to Freedom technologists series…


Castells, M., Fernandez-Ardevol, M., Qiu, J. L., & Sey, A. (2009). Mobile communication and society: A global perspective. MIT Press.

Freeland, C. (2012) Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. London: Penguin.

MacKinnon, R. (2012). Consent of the networked: the world-wide struggle for Internet freedom. Basic Books.

Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here: The folly of technological solutionism. Public Affairs.

Postill, J. (2014a). A critical history of internet activism and social protest in Malaysia, 1998-2011. Asiascape: Digital Asia Journal 1-2: 78-103.

Postill, J. (2014b). Democracy in an age of viral reality: a media epidemiography of Spain’s indignados movement Ethnography 15 (1): 50-68.

16. A letter from Jakarta

March 21, 2015

Many years ago, in 1987, I left Madrid and came to Jakarta to become a journalist. For about a year, I was a trainee at Tempo magazine and a stringer with Spain’s national newsagency, EFE.

I lived with local host families and learned reasonably good Indonesian, but couldn’t quite figure out Indonesia. So I decided to become an anthropologist.

(I was also a lousy journalist, too laid-back, or so I gathered from one of my mentors, the poet and journalist Goenawan Mohamad).

After a long detour, I am back in Jakarta. This time as an anthropologist.

I am still trying to figure out Indonesia, only this time I have entered through a portal that didn’t exist back then: Indonesia’s internet activism scene.

I started off last year in the city of Yogyakarta, the cultural centre of Java, where I learned about Engage Media, Kampung Halaman, Lifepatch, Combine and other initiatives that are making interesting uses of the internet and digital media.

In Yogyakarta I also caught up with my former PhD student Kurniawan Saputro. His thesis is a brilliant  study of the uses of digital media in the wake of the 2006 eruption of Mount Merapi. We are now working on a piece about digital media and last year’s presidential election.

I have now relocated to Jakarta. At first I was reluctant to make this move because of Jakarta’s famed traffic jams, pollution, floods, crime, disease… (“Don’t go there, it’s far worse than in the 80s”, I was warned).

But I’m actually enjoying every minute of it. I live in a permanent state of Csikszentmihalyian ‘flow’. (This is not substance-related. In fact, I made the mistake of booking into a sharia hotel, for all my sins. It’s proving to be a sobering experience).

My flowy state may have to do with having acquired a good feel for the ethnographic game, or with the excitement of being in a megapolis again (I grew up in the countryside, with no roads or telephone), or with having been able to resuscitate my cryogenically preserved Indonesian after all these years – with considerable help from my Melbourne teachers Mas Onny and Pak Tata, to be sure.

For whatever reason, being in Jakarta makes a lot of sense.

I live in the central Menteng area, where I walk 6 miles a day along busy roads (I never leave without my mask and umbrella), stopping to chat to (ngobrol) local people as I go along. I also talk to hotel staff and taxi drivers, attend civil society events, interview people in cafes and offices, catch up with itinerant academics (most recently Ross Tapsell and Birgit Bräuchler), follow Twitter and Whatsapp conversations, read the press, and watch TV.

For relaxation I read Jo Nesbo crime novels.

The guiding principle of my Indonesian research is, as always in social anthropology: “If it matters to my research participants, then it matters to me”.

So what of sort of things matter to internet activists here? A short list would include corruption, freedom of expression (especially Indonesia’s Computer Crime Act, the controversial UU ITE), internet governance, media convergence and digitalisation, internet safety, child pornography and cybercrime.

I am also finding that civil society actors here – both tech-minded and others – are very interested in learning more about other countries. For instance, I have been asked to talk about Spain’s indignados and their digital media uses a number of times. Just yesterday, I gave a talk about this topic at Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), having been kindly invited by Pak Ade Irawan.

It’s too early to say where this research is going, but I hope it will be the preamble to a large collaborative research project with partners in Indonesia, Australia, UK/Europe and other countries in the region – perhaps a cross-national comparison of digital activism within Southeast Asia.

In this connection, tomorrow I am heading for Manila to attend RightsCon, an international conference that brings together freedom technologists from across the region and beyond, including Silicon Valley — where the event originated. I am hoping it will be a good place to meet prospective research partners and participants.

Back to the freedom technologists series…

15. Location technologists: the politics of digital media in a ‘special region’ of Indonesia

March 16, 2015

Chapter proposal to Location Technologies in International Context, Rowan Wilken (Swinburne Uni of Tech), Gerard Goggin (U of Sydney) & Heather Horst (RMIT), eds.

John Postill
RMIT University
16 March 2015

As noted in the book’s Introduction, there is a growing technical literature on the proliferation of ‘location technologies’, particularly in North America and Europe (e.g. Goswami 2012, Williams et al 2011). Largely missing from this literature, however, is a conceptual vocabulary that can place these and other location technologies in different cultural and political contexts, especially in the global South. The aim of this chapter is precisely to contribute to this theoretical advancement. It does so by shifting the focus of inquiry from the technologies to the technologists (cf. Postill 2014) involved in contemporary location practices, thereby opening up a space to address questions of local power and historical agency. To this end, the chapter proposes the concept of ‘location technologists’ – those human actors with a stake in the use of digital technologies for local politics (broadly defined), e.g. local engineers, journalists, activists, entrepreneurs, artists, politicians. Drawing from anthropological fieldwork in the ‘special region’ (daerah istimewa) of Yogyakarta, a cultural and tourist hub in central Java, Indonesia, it maps out the space of possibilities within which location technologists employ social and mobile media to struggle over local issues. The analysis compares four recent local campaigns – ‘Jogja Istimewa’, ‘#SaveFlorence’, ‘Visual rubbish’ and ‘Behind the hotels’ – and places them on a matrix along two axes: ideology and geography, finding a correlation between the ideological orientation of a campaign and its geographical reach. That is, whilst the two social justice campaigns found mostly local audiences, the ‘Jogja’ branding/reputation campaigns reached national audiences, at least for a short while. The remainder of the chapter seeks to explain this correlation, and its implications for our comparative understanding of location technologies, in post-Bourdieuan, field-theoretical terms (Fligstein and McAdam 2012, Postill 2011, 2015, forthcoming).

Back to Freedom technologists series…


Fligstein, N., & McAdam, D. (2012) A Theory of fields. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goswami, S. (2012). Indoor location technologies. Springer Science & Business Media.

Postill, J. (2011) Localizing the Internet: An Anthropological Account. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

Postill, J. (2014). Freedom technologists and the new protest movements: a theory of protest formulas. Convergence 20 (3), 402-418.

Postill, J. (2015). Fields: Dynamic configurations of practices, games, and socialities. In V. Amit (ed.) Thinking Through Sociality: An Anthropological Interrogation of Key Concepts. Oxford: Berghahn.

Postill, J. forthcoming. Field theory, media change and the new citizen movements: the case of Spain’s ‘real democracy turn’, 2011-2014.

Williams, G., King, P., & Doughty, K. (2011). Practical issues in the selection and use of GPS tracking and location technologies to support vulnerable people at risk of becoming lost or threatened. Journal of Assistive Technologies, 5(3), 146-151.

Biographical note

John Postill is Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University, Melbourne (2013-2016), and Digital Anthropology Fellow at University College London (UCL). His publications include Localizing the Internet (2011), Media and Nation Building (2006) and the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Practice (2010, with Birgit Bräuchler). Currently he is conducting anthropological research on new forms of digital activism and civic engagement in Indonesia, Spain and globally. He is also writing a book on the new protest movements as well as the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Change (with Elisenda Ardèvol and Sirpa Tenhunen).




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