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Theoretical Afterward: The technology of politics, and the politics of technology

Published onFeb 14, 2019
Theoretical Afterward: The technology of politics, and the politics of technology

Scholarly Context

In the hope that there are determined readers who would like to take a peek at the academic code, I here highlight some of the scholarship that has guided my thinking as I wrote this book. In Digital Politics, Taylor Owen provides a counter-narrative to the oft-told story that new technologies will transform social life for the better. His work emphasizes the power technologies have, not just for connecting advocacy groups locally and internationally, but for the entrenchment and enhancement of state authority. Though many scholars of democracy and civil society were quick to emphasize the role of social media in several major movements—notable recent examples include the Arab Uprising, #blacklivesmatter, and #metoo—Owen’s work suggests that a more measured approach is necessary.

While digital politics are two-edged swords that simultaneously increase civil society’s ability to mobilize and enhance the power of anti-democratic actors. Concerns over computational propaganda contrast with earlier hopes for liberation technology.1 Writers like Evengy Morozov have been persistent in directing attention to the enduring importance of classic political considerations, including the reality of entrenched power and the enduring repressive capacity the powerful.

In their book, Digitally Enabled Social Change, Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport document changes to the way advocacy groups organize online, suggesting that new digital repertoires of contention, especially online, push scholars of collective action to focus less on social movements writ large and more on individual acts of protest, regardless of where they occur (i.e., on the streets or online).2 This observation has lessons for students of civil society more broadly, as it highlights the importance of pivoting from organizational forms to instead focus on collective action and sites of action. Taking this logic one step further suggests we must keep an eye on technology itself if we are to stay with the action, or stay with the trouble, as Donna Haraway recently put it.3

In the Logic of Connective Action, W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg split the difference between digital technology’s fiercest critics and most ardent fans. Rather than suggesting that new digital tools, like the Internet, have changed everything for politics, or suggesting that the pressures of realpolitik ultimately override all other considerations, the authors suggest that a certain amount of hybridity is at play. Their work suggests new digital tools connect people in a way that aggregates power and produces political discourse independent of established organizational resources and irrespective of Mancur Olson’s famous free rider problem, which stipulates that people are unlikely to sacrifice much for gains they would enjoy if they did nothing.4 Selective incentives would be needed to induce most people to get involved in collective action. It is this logic that Bennett and Segerberg’s work turns on its head: “communication operates as an organizational process that may replace or supplement familiar forms of collective action based on organizational resource mobilization, leadership, and collective action frames.”5

Students of social transformation efforts should take note, as Bennett and Segerberg’s work suggests, social media have unique emergent properties, rather than simply being faster, cheaper, or broader versions of something we already have (networks, communication channels, media environments, social spaces, and so forth). This point is illustrated by their development of three different logics of collective action and connective action. Some efforts are organization-brokered, in which a resourced institution takes the lead in mobilizing constituents and the public. Other efforts are organizationally-enabled, as when a resourced institution develops a hashtag or offers supporters an online collaboration space. These institutionally brokered and enabled spaces are contrasted with crowd-organized and technologically-enabled action. Examples include Alicia Garza's creation of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag that catalyzed the eponymous movement after the acquittal of George Zimmerman and Tarana Burke's creation of #MeToo, which was dormant for a decade before catching fire after the 2017 revelations of abuse by Harvey Weinstein.6 These crowd-enabled efforts scale up quickly, mobilize large numbers, dynamically track and target incumbents, and have adaptive repertoires. In this way social media creates its own logics of engagement, apparently defying the laws of associational gravity articulated by Olson: lower transaction costs mean more people are willing to join up, fewer people engage in free-riding, and fewer people care about those who don’t engage.7

Their work has an important impact on my own field of social movements. As sociologist Brayden King has argued about social media, “sociologists who study social movements have been slow to address their role in activism.”8 This may be due to a conviction—implicit perhaps among sociologists at least—that new digital technologies simply amplify or echo older well-understood modes of communication. People speak out on Twitter and their voice is amplified on Fox News, but the general effect is the same: lots of people hear messages and then decide what to do about them. Perhaps social movement scholars consider social media to be an ever-accelerating quantitative variable rather than a dramatic and singular qualitative transformation.

An informal review of the major publication venues in the social movement scholarship—including journals (Mobilization and Social Movement Studies) and topical series (Social Movements, Protest, and Contention [now defunct] at the University of Minnesota Press and Contentious Politics at Cambridge University Press)—suggests this may be the case. Social Movement Studies has published more articles on social media than has Mobilization, but both have specifically focused on technology as a means of mobilization. Books on the topic are thin at Minnesota and Cambridge. The former published Roscigno and Danaher’s work on the importance of the radio,9 as well as Schurman and Munro on activism against biotechnological innovation.10 Cambridge published Bennett and Stegerberg, but no similar volumes appear in their catalog. Oxford University Press’ series on Digital Politics is going strong, but powered mostly by studies of political communication.

A review of communication scholarship is more revealing, as it becomes clear leading movement scholars11 have been crossing over to publish important work in journals like Information, Communication and Society as well as New Media & Society. In those publications, movement scholars join a vibrant community of communication scholars exploring the intersection of new media technologies and collective action. The same can be said of Social Science Computer Review and First Monday, but not of leading journals in sociology. It may be that social movement scholarship is in a specific kind of denial or doldrums in relation to technology, but I suspect this is an issue within scholarship on civil society, advocacy, and human rights more broadly. This much is suggested by Andrew Chadwick, who argues that mainstream scholarship on political communication has tended to ignore digital media and the Internet, and that the favor has been returned by scholars of the Internet and politics, who have neglected non-Internet media forms and that are unhelpfully “dominated by assumptions about ‘revolutionary’ change or by a too narrowly drawn frame of ‘politics as usual’.”12

Scholarship at the intersection of new media and political change has made significant headway in the past decade, the aforementioned challenges notwithstanding,13 and Bennett and Segerberg make significant contributions to our understanding of critical social processes. Indeed, they are explicit in stating that it is social processes rather than technology qua technology that has their attention: “the question here is not whether a particular medium is being used, but how and in what context, by whom, and with what sort of control and conflict within organizations and broader user communities.”14 Here the social, rather than the technical or techno-social, retains pride of place in the causal explanation. Likewise, more work must be done to unpack the relationship between the online and the offline.

This interplay of online and offline is taken up by Andrew Chadwick in Hybrid Media Systems.15 Chadwick suggests a “holistic approach to the role of information and communication and politics” is necessary to move scholarly work beyond the false dichotomies of old and new, digital and analog, online and offline.16 To develop such a holistic approach, Chadwick turns to the concept of hybridity. Hybrid media systems emerge when established broadcast media exist in the same cultural space as snippets shared on social media. The story is not new versus old, but new and old evolving simultaneously. But new and old what? Chadwick’s approach to media is of particular utility to the argument I am developing here.

The notion of media logics is used to accommodate a plurality of forms (i.e., hybridity). By media logics, Chadwick points to “technologies, genres, norms, behaviors, and organizational forms—in the reflexively connected fields of media and politics.”17 This broad-ranged approach considers more, far more perhaps, than particular media tools or spaces and opens his inquiry to a much broader view of what phenomena might be under consideration. The result of this approach can be seen when Chadwick argues that “older media practices in the interpenetrated fields of media and politics adapt and integrate the logics of newer media practices.”18 Central to this approach is a skepticism over the term new technology, since, as Carolyn Marvin points out in her book When Old Technologies Were New, “new technologies is a historically relative term”.19 Chadwick’s work helpfully troubles the space between “new” and “old,” confounds efforts to dichotomize the digital and analog, and adds dimensionality to studies that privilege social factors over technology (what Bennett and Segerberg refer to as medium). Each of these dichotomies are useful, but for the purposes of this volume I have chosen to turn them into a continuum and to then put them into conversation with one another.

That is exactly what Steven Livingston and Gregor Walter-Drop do in their recent edited volume, Bits and Atoms.20 Building off of Max Weber’s notion that statehood involves a monopoly on violence, the ability to make and enforce rules, and provide public goods, the authors suggest that limited statehood describes the absence of these capacities. Bits and Atoms demonstrates, in case after case, that the digital and the non-digital are running alongside one another in areas of limited statehood—the focus of their book—this is exactly what happens everywhere. While they set themselves a particularly ambitious task of exploring the extent to which new technologies can reliably stand in for the state—as a form of governance—multiple case studies suggest the importance of this question across polities and national contexts. In cases drawn from the Global South—but also worldwide, I would argue—digital tools approximate and patch in for important systems and processes, including public goods that the state is meant to provide. However, sustained and sustainable social, political, and economic life emerges from the complementary interplay of both digital and analog technologies. Here we find both digital communication tools and the older technologies of bureaucracy and infrastructure, to name a particularly important combination, operating in unplanned but patterned ways.

Each of these studies complicates our received understanding of new digital technology, pointing instead to the ways that the new intersects with the old and the digital overlaps with the analog. Yet, virtually all of these focus on the role of technology in political communication, the clear exception being the work of Livingston and Walter-Drop. For scholars of political and social change, this approach resonates, as it emphasizes the importance of the digital tools increasingly used for communication and mobilization.

However, the task at hand—exploring the politics of tools like drones, satellites, kites, and balloons—requires thinking beyond communication.21 Scholarship on science and technology is needed if we are to capture not only the way advocacy groups publicize issues, but also to understand the material artifacts people use to realize change. Collective action efforts rely on, respond to, and operate within important technological and material realities that scholarship on social movements and political communication simply does not cover.

An Alternative History of Social Movement Theory

Scholarship on political communication draws—implicitly and explicitly—on the work of luminaries like Marshall McLuhan and Manuel Castells. But what if we instead started our inquiry with Karl Marx? To foreground my argument, I read Marx as a more nuanced observer of the interplay between structure and agency than he is sometimes given credit. Better specifying Marx’s recognition of the interplay between these factors highlights the places where agentic, culture-, and emotion-centered approaches to movements may have overcorrected, effectively championing individualistic voluntarism over (rather than alongside) structural factors and forces. Keeping a better eye on the dialectical nature of structure and agency—a process which necessarily recognizes the material—may help movement scholars to avoid technological determinism while also focusing attention on technology’s social role. The implications for this are not insignificant. We can ask ourselves what classic social movement theory would look like should it attend to technology, rather than technology’s fruits.22

The first intersection between technology and movements lies at the macro level, as broad changes in science and technology shape socio-political relationships and opportunities for contentious politics. This line of scholarship traces back to the work of Karl Marx, whose focus on changes in the means of production led to his theory of radical social transformation and political change. This approach was adapted by Charles Tilly in his influential 1978 book From Mobilization to Revolution. There Tilly drew on Marxian principles to illustrate the relationship between key movement factors—organization, repression/facilitation, and opportunity/threat—in explaining mobilization and collective action. From whence do these factors spring in Tilly’s argument? Not from Marx’s organization of production, but instead from a combination of power and interest. The important decision to replace the organization of production (Figure 0.3) with interests (Figure 0.4) underemphasizes the very real material factors that shape the context movements operate within. This has the effect of reducing consciousness to opportunities and threats (as Tilly would later frame it) and suggesting all paths lead to collective action. Absent is a sense of how interests are turned into action. Also missing is Marx’s recognition that consciousness and action have a recursive relationship.23

Figure 0.3 Tilly’s Simple Marxist Model (Organization of Production). Source: Tilly 1978, p. 43.

Figure 0.4 Tilly’s Simple Political Process Model (Interests). Source: Tilly 1978, p. 56.

When Doug McAdam set out to refine this approach he reintroduced the causal importance of science and technology (in the collapse of King Cotton) while incorporating the Weberian emphasis on attribution and appropriation in a secondary role. Echoing Marx in the 18th Brumaire, incumbents and Incumbents or challengers find themselves operating in conditions beyond their control (broad destabilizing changes), but exercise agency in deciding what to do next (attribution, appropriation). In so doing McAdam effectively split the difference between Marx and Weber to produce a model extending from the broad destabilizing changes that are themselves rooted in social and economic transitions beyond the movement (Figure 0.5).

Figure 0.5 McAdam’s Theory of the Onset of Contention. Source: McAdam 1998.

This approach laid the groundwork for a generation of scholars focused on tracing the moment when communities realize that certain conditions contradict their interests. Surprisingly little work has been done to explain the relationship between these broad changes, the moment when communities realize that certain conditions contradict their interests. “Political opportunity” thinking emerged in an effort to describe the nature and operation of the broad destabilizing changes that “opened” or “closed” opportunities for challengers. Vibrant debate over what constitutes an open or closed system has evolved into a debate over perception of opportunity or threat, effectively (and deliberately) shifting the arena in question from structure (broad changes in a system) to agency (attribution and appropriation). I am in favor of these efforts to reclaim an important role for culture and emotion, but believe that a counterbalance is in order.

I am not alone. Andrew Walder has convincingly argued that a focus on the process of mobilization—the marshaling of resources, recruiting of adherents, and navigating of politics—leaves to the side a more pressing question: where do their ideologies, aims, motivations, and tactical choices come from?24 While this may invite speculation about cultural norms, Walder answer is that they lie in broader factors and forces, and he advocates for the revival of explanations that draw on the causal power of social structures, as seen in the work of Michael Schwartz and Rory McVeigh.25 New work by Jeff Goodwin and Gabriel Hetland suggest that even identity movements and “post-materialist” movements are powerfully shaped by capitalism. Like Walder they are at pains to remind movement scholars of the importance of scholars who identified the impact that “capitalist dynamics” had on movements (Tilly chief among them). After all, Goodwin and Hetland point out, many classic movement cases revolve around labor mobilization in sites of capitalist expansion and institutions—assembly lines, for example, are sites of both exploitation and collective identity.26

A parallel line of scholarship is rooted in the 1974 publication of Immanuel Wallerstein’s The Modern World-System. Wallerstein suggested changes in the means of production are important, as the world economy is predicated on a division of labor between (1) a hegemonic economic core, (2) a semi-periphery that facilitates transactions, finishes goods, and buffers shocks, and (3) a peripheral zone punctuated by extraction and exploitation.27 The means and system of production are the primary causal explanation for the situation that marginalized communities find themselves within. Scholars like Michael Schwartz suggest that protest groups develop assessments of the problem and decide on possible solutions based at least in part on their class position, itself tied back to the way in which labor markets are organized within a broader economic context punctuated by forces of production.28

My intent is not to resurrect a deterministic approach to technology, but to instead emphasize one way technology might have been more directly incorporated into social movement theories. An alternative history of mainstream movement thinking can perhaps be envisioned if we consider for a moment the way Tilly chose to address the role of technology in contention. In his influential Regimes and Repertoires, for example, technology is introduced for just long enough to be dismissed on the grounds that technical innovations are subordinate to local political processes, and that “purposes override techniques.”29 Having disposed of the material by suggesting technological determinism is the only way to conceptualize technologies (41), and by dismissing technologies as mere “techniques,” Tilly introduces political opportunity structures, effectively directing the reader’s attention back to the realm of politics. Technologies are a subset of resources, to be sure, but their role in shaping the organization of production are minimized.

Yet Tilly’s own argument for why particular repertoires emerged in England between 1750 and 1830 points to a number of factors that are fundamentally rooted in changes in technological innovation and transformations of the means of production, including their concentration, which led to the unique growth of British capitalism30 and the subsequent concentration of that capital, which led to the proletariatization of the British workforce.31 My goal here is not to set aside the key causal roles of political, social, or individual actors but to instead highlight the enabling and constraining roles technologies play in already-familiar stories. Tilly’s own causal argument relies on an understanding of technologies as more than broad enabling environmental factors.

Technology also stalks current theoretical accounts of movement emergence. Early resource mobilization theorists John McCarthy and Mayer Zald identified the importance of key economic resources to movements.32 This is usually seen in terms of financial capital, but may also be leadership capacity or technology transfers from elite supporters. These resources have the effect of providing selective incentives for engagement from prospective supporters33 and also provide crucial institutional infrastructure necessary to pursue key movement goals.34 What can these resources buy you? Buildings, tables, chairs, computers, posters, websites, busses and bikes, weapons, phones, and faxes, for example. New digital tools and techniques have served as key resources in many contemporary movements, and have considerably reduced the opportunity costs required for engagement.

The literature on issue framing is focused on the process of matching movement claims with social values, such that the movement’s issue is actionable and legible to others, including bystanders, targets, and both current and prospective supporters.35 Here technology makes an appearance, for example, through the media of pamphlets, newspapers, posters, webpages, Facebook groups, and hashtags. The role of the amplifying organization or institution, so prominent in scholarship in the 1990s, is diminished significantly, since activists can use new digital technologies to more democratically crop, capture, and tag their own images.36

The importance of technology in terms of resources and framing goes without saying, and indeed much of this volume has been dedicated to the technologies that make possible the capture, storage, distribution, interpretation, and spread of data. Clearly tools and technologies are implicit, if unrecognized, in most conventional explanations of collective action.

Our attention, however, might helpfully focus one step back in the process, as innovations in science and technology generate broad socioeconomic changes that create new socioeconomic issues while also opening the window of opportunity to new expressions of identity or rights claims, which themselves rely on tools and technologies, some borrowed directly, others invented or hacked to get the job done.37 Increased industrial capacity in the American north led to the Great Migration, attracting African American laborers away from the south, and further undermining the cotton industry.38 Such industrial capacity can be thought of in light of even larger historical economic processes driven by technological innovation and turnover in heavy machinery and other industrial equipment.39

Materialist projects face stiff resistance from critics who argue that they overlook what makes humans life what it is, especially emotions, culture, and contingency.40 I am broadly sympathetic to this criticism as are some targets of this criticism41 but have decided to instead tack into the wind and argue that movement scholarship has not taken technology seriously enough. Stakeholders on both sides of the structuralist debate overlook the importance of materiality, the thingness, of technologies, focusing instead on its supporting role in economic transformations. A sensible first step might involve better interrogating the relationship between macro-economic waves and contentious politics. This would set the stage for subsequent studies to follow the socio-political ramifications of whole technical systems or particular technologies along their trajectory.42 One could map, for example, the relationship between contentious politics and the emergence and evolution of such technical systems. This approach could prove useful—necessary perhaps—in helping anticipate the kind of contentious politics automation and artificial intelligence will precipitate.

To be clear: material forces are not primordial and deterministic. Weber long ago observed that it was a particular set of cultural values that shaped markets and Karl Polanyi emphasized that the state and political forces lay the groundwork for capitalist economies. Even Marx, often misread as a determinist, leaves room for humans to “make their own history” as they work to shape the pace and direction of technological innovation and adoption.43

Social and economic structures do not determine the shape of human events, but it would be foolish to think that humans shape history, individually or collectively, on our own terms. Technology is very much part and parcel of the circumstances that are “already, given and transmitted from the past,” in Marx’s terms. The hard work of teasing out the causal role of these structural forces and human agency has bedeviled a long line of social theorists44, so I leave to others the more difficult empirical task of better linking these causal mechanisms to contentious politics.45 The point should now be clear: incorporating technology into our theorizing raises important questions for anyone interested in explaining or understanding collective action.


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