How can activists and engineers work together?

Part I - Introduction

Part II - Panspectric Surveillance and War

Part III - Citizen journalism, pirate parties and activists

We can make a tripartite division of activities that may challenge the increasing use of legal and technological means of mass surveillance; citizen journalism, pirate parties and activism. They may sometimes resonate in the same direction, towards a clear goal, but their basic properties and relations are essentially heterogenous.

Moreover, there is no need to fix or stabilise the identites of actors within or connecting to a certain category. Somebody may be a citizen journalist while blogging, a parliamentary agitator while trying to change legislation and an activist while programming an anonymity plugin for a web browser. If we treated panspectric technologies from their abstract capacities and performances, we must preserve the same kind of openness when talking about human resistance*.

Blogosphere quakes

Issues, such as the FRA-law, can only stir up a reaction and become issues if, following Dewey, there is communication between actors allowing them to react to what is imposed on them. It has been said that the case of the FRA-law was the first time in Swedish history that traditional newspapers lagged behind an interconnected blogosphere, and for the center-conservative government the force of citizen journalism probably came as a complete surprise.

The blogosphere displayed a few interesting abilities, however, they are of course not given by the medium per se, but require co-operation and knowledge sharing if they are to succeed. The first aspect is speed. Paul Virilio argues in his book Speed and Politics, that:

If speed thus appears as the essential fall out of styles of conflicts and cataclysms, the current “arms race”is in fact only “the arming of the race” toward the end of the world as a distance, in other words as a field of action”. (Virilio 2006: 152, italics in original)

Speed turns distance into action, and the speed of citizen journalism has a higher velocity than the media dependent on printing presses, paid and professional journalists, or hierarchical organisation. During the passing of the FRA-law, the only ones being able to read legal documents, do proper research, and have a constructive discussion, were bloggers. In this case (and I do not want to generalise this observation to be valid for "the media" in general) the allocation of resources were much more efficient than those of large media corporations.

The critical task for the blogosphere to make a successful attempt at stopping this law is knowledge production. Surveillance technologies and intrusive legislations are complex matters which are often secretive in character. Signals intelligence is maybe an extreme case, since details about methods and search criteria is necessarily kept away from the public.

The first step in the case of the FRA was ontopolitical, in the sense that there was (and still is) a struggle to define whether signals intelligence is mass-surveillance, which would be a disaster for integrity, or simply a means to target very few "enemies of society" (terrorists). Bloggers analysed legal documents and government white papers, as a distributed work-process, and could argue convincingly that there were many legal exceptions for the FRA in registering political opinions, sexual orientation or religious background. The counter-argument from advocates of the law did not convince the bloggers, and the traditional media covered extensively. During the summer of 2008 there were articles in the newspaper almost every day for months and many bloggers wrote extensively in both arenas.

From a technical point of view, the struggle was indeed also ontopolitical. It can be summarised in the question "How does the Internet really work?". I may sound simple, but the understanding of the nature of technologies, may be encoded in many different ways. The legal documents in many ways still regard data-transfers in cables as if they were basically the same as the ether-waves that once gave birth to signals intelligence. Also, the advocates of the law stated that the FRA would not read the e-mails of ordinary citizens, and that it would be impossible to store all information that passed the fibre-cables on the net. This is of course true, but it displaces the question of mass-surveillance by only considering content-data, rather than the more intrusive kind of traffic-data the FRA has unlimited access at recording and storing (Dagens Nyheter, September 3rd 2008, english translation availible at: The FRA Law – Sleepwalking into a Surveillance Society).

Thus. In order to arrive at a citizen journalism which is able to form a strong public around an issue, both legal and technical expertise is needed, alongside social scientific and historical insights. If this is conveyed in a medium that is faster than traditional media, there is a chance of converting distance into action and make politics.

.... to be continued

Coming posts:

How an engineer can be an activist, and and activist can be technical?
The Internet(s) – a democratic space or a panspectric surveillance minefield?

* This is called theprinciple of immanence within philosophy, or "generalised symmetry" within science studies.

Skriven av admin den 07 november 2008