The year of the freedom technologist

[This is an invited post by John Postill. John is a Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University, in Melbourne. He is currently writing a book titled Hacker, Lawyer, Journalist, Spy: Freedom Technologists and Political Change in an Age of Protest. He blogs at media/anthropology.]

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.

UPDATE: Further posts in this series can be found here.

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. 

9 thoughts on “The year of the freedom technologist

  1. Great project, John. Three quick points that I know the practice theorist in you will understand. One, history. As pitched it sounds focused on the specific data and networked assemblage communication system known as the “internet.” Might not every or many networked communication technologies have had their “freedom” technologists? Individuals with the competencies to hack, make, and transform the technology or regulatory formulations of radio, television, printing presses, and semaphore before certainly exist. Secondly, I am a splitter so I question the utility of not differentiating different species of “freedom” technologists based on political persuasions. You rightly reject “technolibertarian” as the overarching genre but the term does have political specificity that your term lacks. Do right and left free techers have different interpretations of what technology can accomplish and different practices. Finally, “freedom” is loaded and I trust as the project develops you’ll unpack and repack and explain why you use such a freighted term. “freedom” means different things for different political positions.

  2. Instead of “lumpers” and “splitters,” terms that suggest discrete categories, why not “common ground” and “differences,” acknowledging the fact that people with serious differences among themselves can still find common ground in opposition to those they are united in seeing as a threat? The unfortunate habit of overemphasizing differences, leading to factionalism, is one of the major reasons why social movements fail.

  3. Many thanks for those excellent questions, Adam. 1) I’m sure that we could find numerous examples of freedom technologists going back in time if we went looking for them, even as far back as Gutenberg and beyond. This would be an interesting exercise in its own right. But here I’m focusing on the contribution of freedom technologists to the new protest movements: Tunisia, Egypt, indignados, Occupy, Bersih 2.0, etc.

    As regards question 2) the concept of ‘freedom technologists’ is not meant to replace other concepts, or to try to do everything. The notion of techno-libertarian still has its uses, incl. as a subspecies of freedom technologist. What I hope ‘freedom technologists’ will do is help us see similarities across different types of political actor (across divides of ideology as well as occupation/expertise) but without homogenising them, for I will still be using other concepts alongside it. The title of my forthcoming book tries to capture this unity in diversity: Hacker, Lawyer, Journalist, Spy: Freedom Technologists and Political Change in an Age of Protest.

    A quick empirical example: in 2010 I attended the Free Culture Forum in Barcelona, which brings together freedom technologists from right across the ideological spectrum, more specifically diverse people from around the (Western) world fighting for a free internet. I was put in a workshop which encapsulated this diversity, e.g. a radical anti-capitalist activist started off by picking on a conservatively dressed techno-liberal (libertarian?) with a background in law, seemingly for no other reason than his looks and demeanour. Yet they were both there to fight common enemies (see John McCreery’s comment above): namely powerful govs and corps seeking to curtail internet freedom. We need to pay attention to BOTH the agreements and the disagreements within these scenes.

  4. 3) Why use such a loaded term as ‘freedom’? Precisely because it signals one area in which there is broad agreement across this heterogeneous universe of techno-political actors, namely the idea that without a free internet there can be no human freedom, and vice versa – ‘freedom’ as in emancipation, or at least greater autonomy, from the tyranny/oppression of powerful governments and corporations.

    A closely related idea is ‘democracy’ (another highly polysemic notion). Freedom technologists may have very different visions of a post-financial capitalism world order, but they all agree that there is an urgent need for political systems that are far more democratic, transparent, fair, etc, than our present systems. In sum, I’m using freedom as an open, ambiguous emic (folk) notion, not as an etic (social scientific) notion with a precise empirical referent, see for instance notions such as Free Culture Forum, free software, Freedom House, Free Press…

    Anecdotal evidence from Britain, the US, Spain, and Indonesia suggests that freedom technologists themselves love the term – they feel it captures what they’re trying to do :) But it’s still early days. I’m quite happy to abandon the term if it proves to be more trouble than it’s worth.

    However, let’s not worry too much about broad ideological questions at this point. Let’s look at people’s actual techno-political practices first, at how they actually mix their techs with their politics, or there is the danger of falling into ideological determinism. The devil is in the techno-political details!

  5. “Anecdotal evidence from Britain, the US, Spain, and Indonesia suggests that freedom technologists themselves love the term”

    Vital evidence. From an older politics, consider the phrase, “united front.”

  6. Nice one John, thanks a lot for both comments. I like the pairing ‘common ground’ and ‘differences’, it resonates with much of what the indignados (15M) movement, which is still going strong by the way, have been doing since 2011 – including their freedom technologists. One often heard phrase in this regard is ‘consenso de minimos’ (minimum consensus), i.e. a compromise acceptable to two or more parties, but that doesn’t satisfy all the demands of any of them.

    The subject of a global united front of freedom technologists (FTs) is very interesting, and would probably require its own separate blogging marathon. There is certainly a global FTs ‘scene’ both online and offline (incl. offline events like the Free Culture Forum and online sites like WikiLeaks or Al Jazeera), but because the national waves of protest are so context-specific, fast-moving, unevenly timed and geographically spread – and because few of them can be highly competent in more than one or two national struggles – it’s very difficult to work effectively across national protest sites.

    If someone wants to do something about this, I’ve listed a directory of FTs groups and initiatives with a global remit here: http://johnpostill.com/2014/05/19/global-directory-of-freedom-technologists-projects-networks-organisations/

  7. My pleasure. Two classic sources that may have slipped beyond the generational radar: C. Wright Mills, Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive [http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2084524?uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21104473221653] and Terry Eagleton, Ideology:An Introduction [https://archive.org/details/TerryEagleton-IdeologyAnIntroduction]. Eagleton is fun, in a distinctly British satirical mode, e.g., a remark that, “If we are discussing patriarchy, by which I mean a system of social domination in which men are superior to women, and you mean a small town in upstate New York, we are not having a political conversation.” From the conservative side of the argument, there is also Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgoise Virtue [http://www.deirdremccloskey.com/docs/pdf/Article_249.pdf], in which McCloskey observes that most academics argue like aristocrats, obsessed with personal honor, or peasants, obsessed with protecting their territories. Both types despise the greatest of bougoise virtues—compromise.

    Hope you find these helpful.

  8. Many thanks, John. Useful feedback once again! I read Eagleton’s book back in the mid-1990s prior to fieldwork in Sarawak, but it may be time to revisit it. I don’t think I’ve read C. Wright Mills or McCloskey. Will look them up.

Leave a Reply