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1. The year of the freedom technologist

July 10, 2014

By John Postill. Republished from Savage Minds

This is the first in a series of 42 blog posts devoted to exploring the connection between freedom technologists and the new protest movements. See the next post here, and the whole series here.

Two and a half years ago, TIME magazine declared 2011 to be The Year of the Protester. From the Arab Spring or Spain’s indignados to the Occupy movement, this was undoubtedly a year of political upheaval around the world.

But 2011 was also an important year for a new global vanguard of tech-minded citizens determined to bring about political change, often in connection with national crises. Let us call these citizens, at least for the time being, freedom technologists.

Consider, for instance, the loose network of freedom technologists who spearheaded the Tunisian uprising. On 28 November 2010, after long years of struggle under one of the world’s harshest regimes, the lawyer and blogger Riadh Guerfali created the site TuniLeaks. A WikiLeaks spin-off, this site released US diplomatic cables that were highly embarrassing to Ben Ali’s autocratic regime. These leaks helped to prepare the protest ground. The trigger came through the actions of another freedom technologist, veteran activist Ali Bouazizi, who recorded on his smartphone the self-immolation of his cousin Mohamed, a street vendor. He then shared the video via Facebook, where it was picked up by journalists from Al Jazeera – barred from entering Tunisia – and broadcast to the whole nation (and the rest of the Arab world). Al Jazeera’s freedom technologists relied on blogs and social media to bypass the official restrictions and report on the fast-moving events on the ground. When the government censored Facebook, the transnational online group Anonymous launched Operation Tunisia, carrying attacks against government websites via dial-up connections provided by Tunisian citizens.

In nearby Spain, where I was doing anthropological fieldwork with internet activists when it all kicked off in May 2011, the imprint of freedom technologists on the nascent protests was also strongly in evidence. After Spain’s political class passed an unpopular digital copyright bill under US pressure in early 2011, the digital rights lawyer Carlos Sanchez Almeida and other net freedom fighters responded by creating #NoLesVotes, a new platform that urged Spanish citizens not to vote for any of the major parties. Shortly afterwards, tech-minded activists such as Gala Pin, Simona Levi, Javier Toret and others formed Democracia Real Ya, an umbrella group calling for peaceful marches across Spain on 15 May 2011 to demand ‘real democracy now’. Inspired by the occupation of Tahrir square, a small number of protesters, including the hacker collective Isaac Hacksimov, decided to set up camp at Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol. This action was soon replicated across Spain. As in Tunisia, tech-savvy journalists played their part in the fledgling movement. Joseba Elola, a reporter with the centre-left daily El Pais and WikiLeaks admirer, described ‘young people conscious of their civil liberties who have risen to head a protest in search of a great change’. A few months earlier, Elola had secured a place for El Pais in the global release of WikiLeaks’ US diplomatic cables following a secret meeting with Julian Assange in London [1].

A preliminary sketch

The energy and sacrifice of ordinary young protesters is undeniable, especially in the more repressive regimes, but it would be unfair to leave freedom technologists such as Elola, Pin, Bouazizi or Guerfali out of the protest picture. The Tunisian and Spanish experiences – along with those of countries as diverse as Egypt, Iceland, the United States, Malaysia, Mexico, Turkey or Brazil – allow us to draw a first sketch of these new political actors. As my stories suggest, freedom technologists are not the naïve ‘techno-utopians’ found in a certain strand of internet punditry, poor deluded souls who believe there can be technical fixes to complex societal ills [2]. Most are, in fact, sophisticated people who are well aware of how difficult it is to translate technological ingenuity into lasting social gains. In other words, they are techno-pragmatists (with a healthy dose of idealism).

Whilst some freedom technologists are techies, others are non-techies – with some rare individuals being both, e.g. news reporters who are also gifted programmers. Among their ranks we find computer geeks and hackers, as well as bloggers, journalists, lawyers, politicians, artists, sociologists, even anthropologists. Many of them couldn’t write a line of code to save their lives.

Contrary to media portrayals of young ‘digital natives’ leading the protests, freedom technologists range widely in age, most of them sitting somewhere along an ample 20-50 age spectrum. Both women and men are well represented, as are people of all ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds (yet with a high proportion of secularists). As in all fields of endeavour, some seek the limelight where others are happy to remain invisible [3].

Although their outlook is global, most freedom technologists are ‘rooted cosmopolitans’ [4] who both for practical and emotional reasons will limit themselves to one or two national struggles, usually in their own countries of origin or residence.

We should not think of them as ‘techno-libertarians’[5], for ideologically they are highly diverse, too, ranging from radical anarchists through left-liberals to free-market libertarians. Depending on their skills and on the causes they espouse, some will focus on information freedom, others on developing free encryption software for activists, still others on furthering individual freedoms, and so forth. What unites them is a strong anti-authoritarian streak, a profound mistrust of large governments and corporations, and the conviction that the fate of the internet and of human freedom are inextricably entwined [6].

When it comes to their class position, we find less diversity. Predictably, freedom technologists are mostly urban, educated, and middle-class. This explains their perennial search for bridging devices (images, slogans, narratives, apps, web platforms) that will align their techno-political goals with the hopes and aspirations of the general population. Examples of this quest include the broad-appeal narrative created around the Tunisian self-immolation video, the Spanish chant ‘We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers’, or the global Occupy slogan ‘We are the 99%’.

New blog series

But perhaps I am giving freedom technologists too much credit. What exactly have they contributed to the new protest movements? With what consequences, if any, for real political change? What can we expect from them in future global and national crises? More importantly, what can the rest of us do to help? These are precisely the questions I will be asking in a new series of 42 blog posts over at my research blog, media/anthropology. This public scholarship marathon will run for a year, each post symbolically standing for one kilometre.

To reach the finishing line I will require a great amount of stamina, as well as a steady supply of feedback from readers via the blog, email, or some other channel. Please feel free to subscribe to the blog or to follow me on Twitter for regular updates on the series.

Go to next post: Freedom technologists and their practices

Notes

[1] This first section draws from parts of Postill, J. in press. Freedom technologists and the new protest movements: a theory of protest formulas. Special issue of Convergence journal, “New Media, Global Activism and Politics” Vol. 20, no. 3 (2014). ↩

[2] See, for example, Morozov, E. (2013). To save everything, click here: The folly of technological solutionism. New York: Public Affairs. ↩

[3] Boler, M., A. Macdonald, C. Nitsou and A. Harris in press. Connective labor and social media: women’s key roles in the “leaderless” movement of Occupy Wall Street. Special issue of Convergence journal, “New Media, Global Activism and Politics” Vol. 20, no. 3 (2014). ↩

[4] Ganesh, S., & Stohl, C. (2010). Qualifying engagement: a study of information and communication technology and the global social justice movement in Aotearoa New Zealand. Communication Monographs, 77 (1), 51-74. ↩

[5] In an earlier piece I used the term ‘techno-libertarians’ rather than ‘freedom technologists’. I am grateful to Gabriella Coleman for querying (via Twitter) my use of this notion, presumably on account of the considerable baggage of the term ‘libertarian’, especially in an American context. After exploring various alternatives (e.g. liberation technologists, liberation techies), I finally settled for freedom technologists as a more neutral term that captures the shared concern with freedom (free culture, information freedom, individual freedom, etc.) of an otherwise culturally and ideologically highly diverse universe of political agents. ↩

[6] See Brooke, H. (2011), The Revolution Will Be Digitised: Dispatches from the Information War, London: William Heinemann, page 23. ↩

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