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1   THE TECHNOLOGY OF POLITICS, THE POLITICS OF TECHNOLOGY

Published onJul 30, 2020
1   THE TECHNOLOGY OF POLITICS, THE POLITICS OF TECHNOLOGY

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. The result is a bit more than an annotated bibliography and a bit less than a literature review. Casual readers are advised to proceed at their own risk, and academic readers are invited to note where I map onto current debates, and where I go off the rails.

In many ways I feel this book is an intervention that traces a number of themes introduced by Taylor Owen in Disruptive Power. There 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. Recent turmoil—whether in the form of Brexit or unsettling election results in apparently settled democracies—has made clear to everyone that digital politics is a two-edged sword that simultaneously increases civil society’s ability to mobilize and enhances the power of anti-democratic actors. Concerns over computational propaganda contrast with earlier hopes for liberation technology1 and 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 of the powerful. Where others have been enthusiastic, Owen and Morozov suggest caution: the rules of the political game still matter. They are certainly right, and this volume represents my attempt to address the emergence and adoption of new technology in light of what have certainly been a sobering few years.

And what of the relationship between social movements and new technology? In 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 contentious 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, as noted on the jacket of their book: “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 Bennett and Segerberg’s 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, which 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 Bennett and Segerberg’s 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 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. The Oxford University Press series on Digital Politics is exemplary, 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 The Hybrid Media System.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 and that 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 that also apply 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.

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