I have a complicated relationship with technology. I acknowledge that it’s a useful tool for so many aspects of life and to be honest, I don’t know where I’d be without it. But I’ve never really trusted it, and as it advances year by year I get scared of our dependency on something that the majority of us don’t really fully understand. The internet can give us the power to engage with politics in a whole new way, but what power does it take away from us? And is it really a space for challenging structures of power or is it subject to those very structures?
Our studies have made me realise the way that advances in technology can be used as a tool to be unruly in so many varied ways. I’ve come to understand the power that the smart phone can bring to each of us in a political way. When we discussed photography, I realised how the smart phone gives each of us the power of the journalist. Where media coverage of protests and other unruly actions has previously been dominated by select newspapers, the phone equips us all with a tool to instantly share photographs on social media and frame these in our own ways. Social media also gives us the power to organise riots, with the London riots organised through BBM, the use of twitter in Tahrir Square, and the current use of social media to coordinate political protests in Burundi.
I think our interactions through technology take us back to the heart of the question of who we are as political subjects. The internet can give us the power of anonymity. We can seemingly comment on anything, share anything, without it being instantly obvious who we are outside of the technological realm . As Donna Haraway argues, through communication technologies we have ‘fractured identities’ as we construct multiple interactions. Technology can be an ‘embodiment’ of ourselves rather than something to be demonised and feared (Haraway, 1991). But whilst I think that we can create compound identities through the internet, these compounds still appear to be subjected to complex networks of power relations.
Last week I was reading John Gaventa’s work on spaces of participation. He uses the model of the ‘power cube’ to consider how spaces were created, on which level they operate, and the visibility of this power (Gaventa, 2006). The internet strikes me as an interesting and unique space for participation because of its many dimensions, which blur the lines of who has created the space and who is in charge. Although I’m sure that coders and hackers might be able to shed more light on the matter, to me it’s not clear who the ‘leader’ is and where the power structures lie. The internet is perhaps a network of constantly evolving spaces, each with their own set of power relations, which often operate on a ‘hidden’ level.
Despite the freedoms that the internet can give us to nurture and explore unruliness, does it really give us as much power as we think? Perhaps, as Zizek says, ‘we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedoms’ (Zizek, 2002). I recently went to a talk by Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, who spoke about the infringement on our civil liberties by government operated surveillance. The complex networks that share our data mean that our ‘embodied’ technological identities created through social network sites are often not as anonymous as we might think. Even without using my smart phone as an unruly tool, I feel violated by this infringement on my privacy in the name of security. When government programmes such as PRISM are gathering data on us, they are enforcing power structures that mostly remain unseen and unconsidered. If we embody technology, then they are violating our bodies.
This can particularly work to undermine created spaces of participation. I recently read an article about surveillance of the internet in China. I’m sure you’re not surprised to learn about extensive internet censorship going on in China, but what surprised me is that censorship appears to focus not on silencing criticism of the government, but on silencing collective expression. Unruliness is monitored and curtailed, and potential spaces of participation are shut down.
So what does the internet offer us in the way of an unruly tool? I think that technology can be a tool for recreating power, but only if you know how to use it without compromising your own civil liberties. How can we trust something unless we understand it? There is evidently a complicated power play in the use of technology. I believe that the internet is revolutionary in its potential as a space for participation and for challenging power structures, but we should also be aware of the power structures that it creates less conspicuously. There is a great deal of ambiguity on whose space it is, how it is controlled, and what rights we have within this space. With the rate at which technology is advancing, it is both exciting and disquieting to think how advances in technology will shape our participation as political subjects in years to come.
Further reading: I found a link (thanks to our beloved internet) to a lot of interesting articles on the subject of social media and politics: Global Protest, Technology, and Social Media