Fibreculture special issue on Activism and Technology

Robert W. Gehl

Fibreculture has a special issue on activism and technology, titled “Entanglements.” Edited by Pip Shea, Tanya Notley, Jean Burgess and Su Ballard, the issue features articles by both academics (including myself) as well as activists.

As Shea et al note in their introduction,

During the 2009 post-election protests in Iran, YouTube proved useful for raising awareness and mobilising people; but later, the Iranian government used these videos to crowd-source the identification of protesters.

Activists used Skype to communicate during the Egyptian uprising thinking it was safer than the terrestrial telephone system; however, when they examined files from the intelligence agency in the chaos after Mubarak’s fall they learnt their Skype calls were being closely monitored by Egypt’s security service .

One of the most circulated images appealing for public sympathy and money following the 2015 catastrophic Nepal earthquake turned out to be a ruse—an old image from North Vietnam—its circulation initiated by unknown people with unknown motivations.

These examples serve to remind us that while digital technologies are now deeply entangled with activist practices that are focused on contributing to social change, the philosophies and capacities embedded within these technologies often contradict, counteract, or challenge social justice and human rights aspirations—sometimes in unexpected ways that could not have been predicted.

Theirs is an extremely important argument: the communication technologies we use are never neutral, and we have to consider their politics carefully. This is a major reason we’ve started the S-MAP, and I’m hoping that more academics and activists cast a critical eye at corporate social media and start to explore alternatives. Moreover, the work can’t stop there: we have to cast a critical eye at the alternatives, as well.