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9. Freedom technologists series: a first recap (part 1)

November 7, 2014

This is the 9th post in the freedom technologists series, a blog series dedicated to exploring the contribution of tech-minded citizens to new protest movements around the globe. In this instalment I summarise the discussion so far, before moving on to some preliminary anthropological reflections in the next post.

This blog series opened with a Savage Minds post (reblogged here) in which I argued that 2011 was not only ‘The Year of the Protester’, as TIME magazine once famously put it, but also ‘The Year of the Freedom Technologist’. By freedom technologists I meant ‘a new global vanguard of tech-minded citizens determined to bring about political change, often in connection to national crises’. I then fleshed out this proposition with examples from Tunisia and from my own fieldwork among the indignados (15M) movement in Spain.

This opening allowed me to draw a preliminary sketch of contemporary freedom technologists (to be tested against the evidence as the series progresses). The sketch goes as follows. Not all freedom technologists are techno-libertarians. In fact, they are ideologically highly diverse, ranging from radical revolutionaries on the far left through left-liberal reformists at the centre to free-market libertarians on the extreme right – as anyone who has ever attended a Free Culture Forum event will attest. Freedom technologists nevertheless share ‘a profound mistrust of large governments and corporations, and the conviction that the fate of the Internet and of human freedom are inextricably entwined’. Contrary to the stereotypes spread by certain influential net pundits, most freedom technologists are techno-pragmatists rather than techno-utopians – albeit with a healthy dose of political idealism. Some are techies (geeks, hackers, engineers), others are not (lawyers, journalists, bloggers, artists…); some are women, others are men; some are white, others are not. Their ages range from around 20 to 50 and beyond, and they can be found in cities around the world. Most are urban, educated, middle-class ‘rooted cosmopolitans’ who are well aware of international affairs but tend to focus on issues affecting directly their country of birth or adoption for both pragmatic and affective reasons.

This sketch raised some difficult questions about the actual contribution of freedom technologists (a small minority of the population, after all) to new protest movements in the Arab world, southern Europe, North America and elsewhere, and about the consequences of their collective actions for political change.

The second post in the series, Freedom technologists and their practices, drew from an article by Megan Boler et al (2014) on women Occupiers in the United States to address another challenging question: What do freedom technologists actually do? The answer came in the shape of four core digital practices (on core field practices, see Postill in press): adminning, documenting, connecting and mapping. For Boler and colleagues, admins are those protest participants ‘who use online social tools such as Twitter or Facebook to organize and publicize the effort of their local Occupy site’. In the view of the Spanish free culture activist and indignado Stéphane Grueso, the passion with which people worldwide have ‘documented and shared’ their protest experiences is one of the triumphs of the new popular movements. For their part, connectors seek to align their personal networks with the new movement by ‘friending’ people on Facebook, ‘following’ them on Twitter, and so on. Finally, data mapping – combined with storytelling – is a powerful technique that gives participants ways in which to orient themselves towards a protest action as well as a better understanding of ‘the 1%’ and the political class. The post ended with another open question: What becomes of these practices as a protest movement changes and turns to new priorities and struggles? Do they survive, change, disappear?

We then entered new territory through my chance rediscovery of a rich set of documentary materials made freely available by Spanish indignados on the site 15M.cc, notably a series of video interviews by Stéphane Grueso with freedom technologists featuring full transcripts. In this way, as much out of curiosity as of convenience, I was blending one of the key freedom technologist practices previously identified (documenting) with my own blogging practice.

Post 3, How Spain’s indignados movement was born, was the first in four 15M.cc interviews that I have so far abridged, translated and rewritten in the form of first-person narratives. We could call it, paraphrasing Holmes and Marcus (2006), para-ethnographic blogging. In this story, the free software specialist and seasoned activist Dani Vazquez starts by recounting his participation in the 15 May 2011 marches in which tens of thousands of people up and down Spain took to the streets to demand ‘real democracy now’. Attracted by the peaceful attitude of protesters at Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol, Dani decided to spend the night there with 40 others following an impromptu assembly. Dani then obtained approval from the assembly to set up a Twitter handle, @acampadasol, to inform the world about the fledgling encampment. He also sent out emails to his extensive network of activist contacts in which he referenced the Tahrir square occupations in Cairo and asked for moral and logistical support. In addition, and aware of the importance that their action gain international visibility and replicability, Dani’s team also set up a new ‘Take the square’ web domain. Partly as a result of these efforts, and partly due to the local authorities’ mishandling of the situation by trying to evict them by force, by 17 May the encampment had expanded dramatically and the protest was now a global media event.

The following post, titled We don’t know how to participate, tells the story of Marga Padilla, 53, another long-time activist and free software entrepreneur. Like thousands of other citizens, Marga was moved by the Puerta del Sol ‘silent cry’ on the eve of the Day of Reflection, a day prior to the elections in which political demonstrations are banned in Spain. She found that after many years of political quiescence and keyboard isolation, people needed to mix their smell and their sweat in the squares. It was also a time to find out, in true ‘copyleft’ fashion, what kind of expertise each person could contribute to the new movement. Thus Marga used her digital skills to collaboratively create a conceptual map of the 15M movement which was then remediated onto A4 sheets to form a giant poster displayed at Sol. She was also active in the movement’s thought commission which allowed ordinary citizens to discuss issues of importance to them in public spaces. Although 15M gave Spain a much needed ‘political upgrade’, for Marga contemporary societies still have a long way when it comes to finding effective ways for citizens to participate in public life.

We then heard the story of Julio Alonso, a Spanish blog entrepreneur based in Miami (Florida), in the post The long-term impact of the new protest movements. Julio was actively involved with other netizens (internautas) in the struggle against a copyright bill known as Ley Sinde, drafted under pressure from US entertainment industry lobbies. In early 2011, when the bill was passed despite a massive online mobilisation against it, Julio and a small group of internet freedom fighters created a new platform named #NoLesVotes (#Don’tVoteforThem, or NLV). This group encouraged Spaniards not to vote for any of the major parties in the coming elections for betraying their trust and giving in to the demands of powerful lobbies and foreign governments. Soon, NLV joined other platforms to call for marches around Spain on 15 May 2011 that led to the square occupations described in earlier posts. Just as the Sinde protests brought together netizens from right across the ideological spectrum united by their belief in a free internet, the square occupations were highly heterogeneous gatherings of citizens who no longer believed in ‘fairy tales’, says Julio. Like the eponymous hero of the film The Truman Show, Spaniards had finally awoken to the fact that they lived in a cardboard world, packaged and sold to them as ‘democracy’. For Julio, too, the road to democratic systems fit for the 21st century – systems that combine direct and representative democracy – will be long and challenging, with the fight against corruption and greater data transparency being a first step in the right direction. Civic initiatives such as the corruptódromo, a web platform that maps known instances of corruption across Spain, are for him the way forward.

Our next narrative, The Mediterranean Spring, came from the Spanish-Syrian blogger and freelance journalist Leila Nachawati, who has collaborated with media outlets such as Global Voices, Al Jazeera, El Mundo and eldiario.es. Leila describes the first few days of the Sol occupation as sheer bliss, in contrast to the gloomy protests against the Iraq War that she experienced whilst living in America. During the first stages of the Arab uprisings, she was delighted that for once the southern Mediterranean ‘Other’, the Arab South, was teaching the global North how to carry out peaceful demonstrations to demand social justice and democratic freedoms. It was Spain’s 15M, however, that made better use of the decentralized nature of the Internet, albeit in a less repressive environment where protesters didn’t have to pay for their dissent with their lives. For embedded, low-budget reporters like Leila, the easy availability of smartphones meant a newly found freedom from cumbersome technologies. This agility gave them an edge over the more traditional mainstream news media.

Then came the 15M story of Juanlu Sanchez, Journalists and indignados: the importance of being there. Juanlu is a young journalist with the small independent media outlet Periodismo Humano. He founded this online news medium with a group of colleagues who felt that the mainstream media were not satisfying their calling as journalists. Inspired by WikiLeaks and by the popular revolts in Iceland and the Arab world, Juanlu and his associates deployed across Spain in preparation for the 15 May marches well ahead of their colleagues in the larger organisations. Equipped with little more than a smartphone, his live streamings from Sol were followed by countless people and eventually picked up by international media such as the New York Times. In his story, Juanlu takes pains to distance himself as a professional journalist from the 15M movement, however much he concurs with many of its demands on a personal capacity. His deep immersion in the encampment was highly rewarding but was also fraught with ambiguities and tensions — for instance, when calls were made for barring all but 15M’s own communication teams from attending the assemblies. He nonetheless commends the extraordinary work of @acampadasol and other 15M media initiatives.

We also had the invited post Freedom technologists: revolutionaries or secessionists, by Trent MacDonald. Trent is a PhD candidate at RMIT University, in Melbourne, currently researching cryptoanarchists. These are political activists who seek to decouple statehood from territoriality through both legal and technological means, such as the digital currency bitcoin. Trent argues that cryptoanarchists are freedom technologists of a special kind. Instead of seeking to reform or revolutionise nation-states, their aim is to secede from the nation-state system altogether, creating overlapping networked states across current international borders.

As readers may have noticed, in this ongoing series of 42 blog posts I have no road map, no grand design. This is a venture fuelled by nothing other than curiosity, a venture that mirrors anthropological fieldwork in its open-ended, exploratory character. So, what can we make of these first nine instalments? What are the main themes emerging from them? And where can the series go from here? These are questions that I will address in the following post.

Back to freedom technologists series

References

Boler, M., A. Macdonald, C. Nitsou and A. Harris (2014). 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, p. 8.

Holmes, D. R., & Marcus, G. E. (2006). Para-ethnography and the rise of the symbolic analyst. Frontiers of capital: Ethnographic reflections on the new economy, 33-57.

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

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