Figure 1. A widely shared campaign image calling for the release of Prita Mulyasari, one of Indonesia’s best known ‘ITE Law victims’ (korban UU ITE). Source: Hadin (2013).
Victims, volunteers and voices of the digital age: personifying digital issues in contemporary Indonesia [PDF]
Draft chapter to the volume Digital Indonesia. Singapore: ISEAS.
eds. Jurriens and Tapsell
John Postill (RMIT Melbourne)
Kurniawan Saputro (ISI Yogyakarta)
23 November 2016
In this chapter we draw from recent ethnographic and archival research in Indonesia to explore how digital activists in that country translate or ‘modulate’ (Kelty 2008) key digital issues – which are sometimes highly technical and abstract – to reach diverse publics, often with remarkable success. We argue that Indonesia’s digital activists have developed an effective pedagogical folksonomy in which three particular digital personas stand out, namely victims (korban), volunteers (relawan) and voices (suara) of the digital age. Each of these complexly mediated personas is endowed with unique attributes and located within a specific corner of Indonesia’s digital activism space, and each is integral to efforts to educate diverse publics about the digital issues at stake. These three ‘digital keywords’ (Peters 2016) may seem both familiar and mundane, but we suggest that the work of personification that they enable has significant consequences for the framing of ongoing civil society struggles in post-Suharto Indonesia. We conclude that whether a certain individual or group is labelled a digital ‘victim’, ‘voice’ or ‘volunteer’ makes a difference to the evolution and eventual outcome of a given techno-political contention.
Keywords digital issues, digital activism, digital politics, media advocacy, digital rights, human rights, volunteers, voices, victims, Indonesia
In early 2015 the British comedian John Oliver travelled to Moscow to interview the exiled NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden for a TV show. In the interview, which soon ‘went viral’, Oliver reacted to Snowden’s laborious attempts at explaining the privacy implications of the US government’s mass surveillance programmes by exclaiming: “This is the whole problem. I glaze over. It’s like the IT guy comes into your office and you go, ‘Oh shit — don’t teach me anything. I don’t want to learn. You smell like canned soup!”. The comedian then proceeded to ask Snowden a series of questions about the hypothetical fate of shared pictures of his – Oliver’s – penis under the NSA’s digital surveillance regime. By using his own private parts to explain privacy, his aim was to bring to life Snowden’s dry discourse (whilst extracting comedic value).
This hilarious exchange raises three intriguing questions. First, John Oliver correctly identifies a fundamental problem at the heart of today’s increasingly digitised power struggles: digital activism ‘nerds’ like Snowden are often not the best translators of key technical issues for a general public. For this reason, they frequently rely on intermediaries such as journalists, filmmakers and even comedians to communicate their political views (see Chadwick and Collister 2014). Second, and more problematically, Oliver’s gag reproduces the lazy popular stereotype of digital activists as young, white, male, Western ‘geeks’ (or hackers). In reality, this is a highly diverse constituency made up of women and men of all ages, races, nationalities and technical abilities, including people with no knowledge of coding or hacking (Postill 2014). Finally, it follows that the expanding transnational space of digital activism epitomised by WikiLeaks, Anonymous, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or Global Voices is itself highly heterogeneous. Therefore we must differentiate among its various sub-spaces, or fields, of political action, e.g. digital rights, data activism, social protest, institutional politics (Postill forthcoming).
In this chapter we take these three observations as our guiding lines. Drawing from recent ethnographic and archival research in Indonesia, we explore how digital activists in that country translate or ‘modulate’ (Kelty 2008) key digital issues – which are sometimes highly technical and abstract – to reach diverse publics, often with remarkable success. We argue that Indonesia’s digital activists have developed an effective pedagogical folksonomy in which three particular digital personas stand out, namely victims (korban), volunteers (relawan) and voices (suara) of the digital age. Each of these complexly mediated personas is endowed with unique attributes and located within a specific corner of Indonesia’s digital activism space, and each is integral to efforts to educate diverse publics about the digital issues at stake. These three ‘digital keywords’ (Peters 2016) may seem both familiar and mundane, but we suggest that the work of personification that they enable has significant consequences for the framing of ongoing civil society struggles in post-Suharto Indonesia. We conclude that whether a certain individual or group is labelled a digital ‘victim’, ‘voice’ or ‘volunteer’ makes a difference to the evolution and eventual outcome of a given techno-political contention.
Yesterday, 12 October 2016, I took part in a seminar titled “Resolving Spain’s political deadlock” held at my home institution, RMIT University, in Melbourne. I presented alongside Marta Poblet and Antonio Castillo, both from RMIT. We each spoke for about 15 minutes and there was a lively discussion with the attendees. Here’s a blurb announcing the event:
Spain’s political deadlock continues… In this seminar, Spanish and Australian experts from the Centre for Communication, Politics and Culture (CPC), the Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC) and the European Union (EU) Centre at RMIT University, will make an attempt at unlocking some of the issues behind the political crisis in Spain and its impact.
And here is a rough version of my handwritten presentation notes, pictured above (with many thanks to Elisenda Ardevol, Arnau Monterde, Ismael Peña-López, Laura Pérez Rastrilla and Annalisa Piñas for their views and suggested readings prior to the talk – any errors and omissions related to these responses are my own).
Seen from a Spanish civil society perspective, the current political impasse in Spain arguably the third in an ongoing series that started in 2004 with the Madrid bombings, followed in 2011 by the 15M (indignados) protests and now in 2015-2016 as a result of the irruption of two young political parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos, onto the parliamentary scene, putting an end to the till now seemingly eternal two-party arrangement by the Conservatives (PP) and Socialists (PSOE). All three have contributed to the end of the ‘PPSOE’ (to use a favourite 15M term) duopoly we have witnessed since the Dec 2015 general elections.
At stake is the end of what the Catalan journalist Guillem Martinez calls Spain’s ‘transition culture’ (Cultura de la Transición, or CT): the post-Franco regime based on a broad consensus among the main political parties (from right across the ideological spectrum) and trade unions around territorial integrity, regional autonomies, fighting ETA, joining the European Community and NATO — with a ‘market economy’ as the only possible economic system. In exchange for a place at the top table, the political left deactivated its mobilisation power, whilst the leftist cultural sector blunted its critical edge so as to secure state subsidies. The outcome was stability, a docile population and substandard cultural products. As a sociocultural anthropologist I cannot but be drawn to Martinez’s CT model.
I argued that there are 5 main forces for change in Spain, in no particular order:
- Podemos, now 3rd party, yet lost votes in second election when joined United Left = Unidos Podemos. Current dispute between Pablo Iglesias faction (pablistas) and his deputy Íñigo Errejón faction (errejonistas). Iglesias the upper hand at present, took a leftist turn, went down to grassroots (circles) and reasserted his charismatic leadership. Meanwhile Errejón reeling from aborted ‘coup’ and his moderate stance towards PSOE now discredited given that PSOE seem ready to abstain so that the Conservative (PP) leader can become once again PM (see Esther Palomera analysis, 10 Oct 2016, in Spanish).
- New local governments rooted in 15M (indignados) movement in Madrid, Barcelona and other major cities. Extraordinary democracy labs, social justice agenda, trying to curtail worst of neolib capitalism. Not a lot of people know about them outside Spain. Important not to reduce politics to national level.
- Occupational or industry-specific movements known as ‘tides’ (mareas), e.g. health, education, etc. born once again from the 15M protests and filling the gap left a long time ago by co-opted trade unions like UGT or CC.OO. – though some argue that they haven’t achieved much (text in English).
- Politicised nerds, polnerds for short, i.e. people who like to mix their politics with their tech, aka freedom technologists. Spain boasts an extraordinarily vibrant techno-political scene, with a large variety of initiatives in four main domains of political action: digital rights, social protest, data activism and institutional politics, e.g. former activists like Gala Pin or Pablo Soto who are now local councillors or political newbies (in English).
- Catalan secessionists, a grassroots mass movement (like Scotland) that kicked off in earnest in 2010. PP viscerally anti-Catalan, PSOE too dependent on Southern voters to contemplate concessions to Catalan national aspirations, Podemos is unionist but accepts notion of pluri-national state, open to federal model. Secessionists currently in power at the regional level, calling for referendum on self-determination, but always thwarted by Madrid.
… pitted against 4 status quo forces:
- PP (Spain’s Conservatives) led by Rajoy. Corruption scandal ridden, now finally reaching the courts, after backbreaking efforts by X.net techno-political activists, or polnerds. By millions of Spaniards, and against all the evidence, seen as the only guarantors of stability of economic growth, and the only party able to keep the allegedly Marxist-Bolivarista threat of Podemos at bay.
- PSOE (Socialists): excellent piece (in Spanish) by historian Juan Andrade, 3 Oct 2016: current leadership crisis, with abrupt departure of leader Pedro Sanchez, is 1978 regime crisis (see CT above) – PSOE weakened in regions, too dependent on Southern voters who against plurinational model of Spanish state favoured by Podemos – old regime now coming to an end based on PP-PSOE consensus on fundamental issues but faux ideological bickering – PSOE has imploded – in both 1979 and 2016, Felipe Gonzalez in the thick of it, key to both – crisis caused by rapid ascent of youthful force from the left then and now (Podemos) – conflict between those who don’t acknowledge Podemos and those unsure what to do – Sanchez tried nostalgic return to old, pre-15M regime, wishful thinking about going back in time – though relatively young, his change discourse not persuasive, too contrived.
- Tamed, co-opted, corrupt trade unions (see above).
- New centre-right, neolib party Ciudadanos, led by Albert Rivera, Catalan but staunchly anti-secessionist. Presenting themselves as the equally youthful, non-threatening answer to Podemos, in reality they are just the old 1978 regime in new garb.
Cartoon credit: Pedripol
This is the tenth (10th) set of notes under the theme of media and change in preparation for the volume Postill, J., E. Ardevol and S. Tenhunen (eds.) forthcoming, Digital Media and Cultural Change. The notes are taken from a wealth of media anthropological research into this question over the decades that has remained to this date largely hidden from mainstream media, communication and internet studies. This research deserves to be read more widely.
Notes prepared by Fran Barone (my emphases)
Used with permission.
Gibb, Camilla (2002) “Deterritorialized people in hyperspace: creating and debating Harari identity over the internet” Anthropologica (New Series) 44(1): 55-67.
The Harari (Muslim Ethiopians from the city of Harar) are “invoking a new language of nationhood in order to give shape to a now dispersed community” by using new media to create a sense of national identity via email lists and websites for people in diaspora. In 1991, Ethiopians abroad celebrated the revolutionary displacement of the socialist dictatorship (Dergue) that had ruled the country for 2 decades and committed many human rights atrocities causing mass population displacement (p. 55)
Hararis in Ethiopia are excluded from this technological process due to lack of access (p. 56)
This paper draws on 3 years of multisited fieldwork in Harar and Toronto (online and offline), including discussions on the email list H-Net. H-Net requires “nomination by one or more Harari ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’, which means that to some extent, this virtual community is founded on real-world connections” (p. 57).
The process of Harari migration and political unrest in Ethiopia: p. 57-59.
Communication within the Harari diaspora community takes place via the Internet, at soccer competitions and cultural festivals. H-Net, est. 1996, is one of the most popular mailing lists among teenagers and young adults (p. 60).
Young people born and raised in diaspora feel little desire to “return” to Harar. “Young Hararis who have had limited direct contact with the actual city of Harar are engaged in redefining community and identity in the global and largely impersonal arena of cyberspace, a space which largely excludes both elders in the diaspora and Hararis in the homeland” (p. 60).
Many diaspora Harari find religion (Islam) to be the most important factor of identity (p. 60). There is some confusion over the key features specifically Harari identity in diaspora beyond Islam (p. 61).
“Where members of their parents generation see return to Harar as a moral imperative, the discussion of repatriation among youth on H-Net is voiced primarily as a response to the perceived fears of increased racism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the US [and] Canada” (p. 62) “The notion that their rightful place is back in the city of Harar is reinforced by the perceptions of racism against Muslims in North America” (p. 63).
Younger people find more support/ contemporary sense of community in adopting a pan-Muslim identity and dress within the US than a specifically Harari one. Through Muslim discourse, Hararis can take on simultaneous identities (p. 64). “While young Hararis in disapora appeal to the idea of Harari as a nation, it is at the level of the nation-states, Ethiopian, and American and Canadian that reconciling multiple identities appears to be problematic” (p. 64)
Image credit: Wikipedia
Update 9 Sep 2016. @Liberationtech wrote: Why Silicon Valley is having trouble exporting its best practices https://engineering.stanford.edu/news/lost-translation-can-silicon-valley-export-its-best-practices …
Takhteyev, Y. (2012). Coding Places: Software practice in a South American city. MIT Press.
Notes by Tresa LeClerc
Non/fiction Lab and Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC), RMIT University, Melbourne
See other posts under Digital ethnography reading group
In the August 2016 Digital Ethnography Reading Session (DERS), we discussed the introduction to Yuri Takhteyev’s book Coding Places: software practice in a South American city entitled ‘The Wrong Place.’ The chapter starts with a question “Why would you come from California to Rio de Janeiro to study software developers?” The group agreed this was a highly intelligent, well-written introduction to Takhteyev’s research. At times trained anthropologists can get paralyzed with the weight of the tradition, but he seems to be both aware of it and depart from it. Takhteyev showed an excellent balance between what he said about himself, his context, which was Brazil, and the theory. Several talking points were discussed in depth:
- Centre vs. periphery
- Language in Coding
Centre vs periphery
Takhteyev’s research brings back the concept of knowledge being centralised as opposed to peripheral. His study takes us to Rio and centres in Rio, and how they have created their own niche in knowledge production. He discusses how culture is disseminated and thus brings back in the concept of diffusion rather than assimilation. Anthropology abandoned diffusion in the face of Malinowski’s fieldwork focus, and began to look at local ideas and cultures rather than cultural hierarchies. One problem could be the difference between dispersed practices and integrated practices. Takhteyev’s discussion of practice is quite general in the context of ‘worlds of practice.’ It is not clear that worlds of practices will travel better than single practices, which can diffuse more easily than an entire world. Is it even possible to have a global world of practice?
‘Ethnomethods’ was an interesting point in this introduction. Takhteyev learns, from within, things that work and don’t work within the Rio coding community. There is a point where he understands that the interviews aren’t giving him the full picture. He then starts running his own project on the Wiki, making himself useful to coders. After, there is a turning point where he becomes useful, a form of active participation, which provides him “with a partial solution”. It is interesting that he notes it is not complete access. We discussed this in relation to fieldwork and the way we understand things, first as researchers and then as participants. One of the group brought up the analogy of driving. “Until you become a driver,” he said, “it’s very mechanical. Then there is a point when you’re not thinking about it too much. Once you know how to do it, it’s very hard to bring up to consciousness,” noting that fieldwork can become more difficult to articulate once you get it. Following on from this, the argument that different types of engagement bring different kinds of knowledge was brought up, with the example of the Arab Spring and how the people that were on the ground did not know exactly what was happening because they were in a specific place, though the political scientists monitoring the situation had access to a range of sources of information and made different predictions. Thus, we discussed the differences between insider information, which runs the risk of being bound by empathy, and outsider information, with access to the big picture. As researchers we need to balance our empathy, for the experiences and perspectives of our informants, with other considerations such as other viewpoints and long-term consequences.
Perhaps the most lively discussions of the meeting were sparked by the issue of language within Takhteyev’s observations of the coding community. Takhteyev not only learned Portuguese in the course of his research, but also the coding language. Lua, the program used by the coders in Rio, primarily uses English. However, the group wondered if this was representative of the entire coding community. Is all coding in English? If you read Kelty (2008), who talks about the global software movement and cultural significance of free software, you get the impression that this is global, that this ‘global community’ speaks English. Yet this is not true, nor is this discussed with reference to place (as far as we’ve read). This has reference to California being or considering itself to be the center of digital production and knowledge. Investigations and discussions, after the session, established that it appears to be true that majority of programing language use English syntax and keywords. Like, however, a number of other languages developed in non-English speaking countries, Lua has a smattering of the local language, i.e. Portuguese words. English may be the lingua franca, but non-English linguistic exchanges go on in smaller local developer circles. The danger is that this linguistic code-switching and -mixing goes on routinely can be overlooked when considering the wider uses of code.
We concluded that it would be interesting to read the book itself rather than just the introduction. We wanted to know more about the global world of practice, and the extent to which English influences communication in diverse situations across spaces and cultures – what does this mean for political worldmaking?
Kelty, C. (2008). Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Takhteyev, Y. (2012). Coding Places: Software practice in a South American city. MIT Press.