Chapter 6 - Some New Ideas About Protest Tech
Matters Beyond Geospatial Affordances
Animal rights activist Steve Hindi films hunters. The logic is simple: most people would disapprove of violence towards animals if they were to see it for themselves.1 That’s why video is important to Steve and his organization, Shark Online (SHARK). The mostly volunteer organization has been documenting animal abuse through film for two decades. The group makes an annual pilgrimage to document Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe’s pigeon shoot. “We used to just pull up on the road, and set up our cameras,” explained technician Mike Kobliska, “but then they pulled back, beyond our line of site. So we bought a small helicopter.” Eventually, the team replaced the RC helicopters with custom-built octocopters that allow them to fly directly over the shoot itself. From the air they document the release and slaughter of the birds, and the subsequent bulldozing of the carcasses (I have watched the footage; it’s not for the faint of heart). Directly over a pigeon shoot is a great place to film a pigeon shoot—but it is also a great place to get shot by pigeon shooters. That’s exactly what eventually happened: the hunters took aim and shot down the group’s octocopter, demonstrating the utility of the kinetic interdiction approach described in the previous chapter.
Adopting new technology is not a straightforward affair. The organization also targeted the Philadelphia Gun Club (PGC), a who’s who of the wealthy stretching along the Mainline corridor that traces a band of wealth out of New York City and into the Pennsylvania countryside. That group also holds a pigeon shoot. Twice a month. When members arrive, SHARK is there, moored in the Delaware River in a boat with their camera equipment. Since two can play at that game, the PGC erected a wall, effectively blocking activists’ view of the proceedings. As the wall was going up, however, drone prices were coming down. Hindi and his colleagues sold their boat and continued to monitor the shoot by drone.
Despite resistance, SHARK is going strong. The reasons for this are three-fold. First new technologies fit solidly within their theory of change. Kobliska explained to me “people need to see something. You can tell them that it’s bad, write thousands of words, but that doesn’t have the impact of seeing it happen to animals.” If you need video, and the actor your campaign is targeting builds a wall, then you get over it somehow. “We started out with a helicopter,” Kobliska reminds me. This flexibility points to a second reason SHARK’s work continues. They have demonstrated disruptive creativity in their back-and-forth interactions with authorities. This is true for the Philadelphia Gun Club struggle, but can also be seen in a further example. The group is using remote cameras controlled by Raspberry Pi and Arduino microprocessors. These devices are used to track state wildlife officials in Illinois as they flush and kill deer. When the officials learned of the cameras, they began panning the woods with their flashlights in order to identify and immobilize the devices before commencing the hunt. SHARK responded by devising light-responsive lens caps that would swing down, cover the glass lens, and thereby eliminate glare and reduce the likelihood that the camera would be discovered and dismantled. Kobliska chuckled, telling me: “now they’ve switched to infrared” to identify the cameras; “It’s an arms race … we find one way, then they bump up their end.” Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Gun Club has brought a lawsuit against SHARK. All signs point to the Club’s demise, as unfavorable press coverage has led to the suspension of the event.2
In this chapter I argue that the experimental adoption of new technologies may be predicated on their visibility, accessibility, affordability, usefulness, and appropriateness. This case also illustrates the fact that technology can be used in numerous ways, but change-oriented actors, and especially social movements, tend to adopt them for three primary reasons: to gain clarity on a situation, to communicate to the public, or to raise the cost of the status quo. An important line of scholarship focuses on the role social media plays in advocacy work. This communication capacity is critical if advocacy efforts are to gain attention, influence the public, and change policy. It is therefore important to focus on the tools that help movements communicate with their followers, bystanders, the media, and those in power. Yet, movements also use technology to gain clarity about the issues at hand, well prior to and possibly instead of public action. Likewise, movements are keenly focused on rendering business-as-usual practices unsustainable—that’s the logic behind boycotts, sit-ins, and investigative journalism. If the maintenance of old patterns of behavior becomes too expensive—in terms of lost revenue, votes, or public support—the thinking goes, then the targeted behavior will change. To push beyond a narrow focus on communication, it is important to emphasize the wide range of tools and technologies that have a real impact on the process of understanding key issues and communicating critical messages. I have written this final chapter in an attempt to emphasize the non-digital technologies at work in fairly traditional advocacy efforts. The broader argument is that there is much to see if we think broadly about tools in use, rather than narrowly about new digital technologies. Artifacts are important for gathering data, making decisions, disseminating information, raising costs, and so forth.
In other words, tools needn’t be new or digital in order to be disruptive.
A world of technology exists before and beyond the tools technologies that social media represent. There is more to human rights advocacy than awareness-raising and more to social movements than getting people onto the streets and aligning their demands to what’s feasible. Technologies are used to communicate, but they are also used to gather information. Technologies are used to connect people, but they are also used to change the cost-benefit calculus of incumbent lawmakers, elites, or rights violators. In the remainder of this chapter I apply the book’s approach to technology as “tools in use” to a number of cases beyond drones, satellites, kites and balloons. This exercise highlights the material and technical reality of communication materials themselves. Social action is often predicated on particular configurations of tools and technologies.3
Change-oriented social actors craft communication opportunities out of the materials they have at hand. Social movements scholarship on tactics suggests that individuals, institutions, and initiatives promoting change are often pressured to boil their assessment of a situation down to a slogan, a banner, a placard, a petition, a chant, or a tweet that can frame the issue for a broad audience.4 Lengthier promotions come in the form of press releases, email campaigns, and websites. These proclamations link to reports, raw data dumps, curated datasets, documentary films, archives, installations, and performances. One need not say more about this phase, as it is easily the most broadly covered in the literature on social movement technology.
The story of what happens to this raw material is increasingly focused on the spread of particular messages though social networks, often facilitated by social media and increasingly amplified by computational propaganda. This is a terribly important phase of the process, but its operation has already been well-told by many others, including Phil Howard, Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport, Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg, Bruce Bimber, Andrew Flanagin and Cynthia Stohl, Andrew Chadwick, Taylor Owen, Evengy Morozov, and Zeynep Tufekci.5 Readers interested in compelling accounts of the way political actors use technology to generate the pivotal messages that impact public life should start with their work.
A sustained focus on the importance of social media might lead one to believe that tweets, memes, and viral videos are social movements’ primary mode of technological engagement. Anyone who has made it this far in this book is under no such illusion. A focus on the stuff of advocacy communication emphasizes instead the tools and technology that are used to draw attention to the data gathered via smartphone, data mining, interviews, or geospatial affordances. Movements produce a copious quantity of everyday stuff, about which there is little mystery: pamphlets, websites, reports, datasets, press releases, documentary films, and photographic exhibitions. I will not inventory here, as the point is by now clear: taking technology seriously requires taking communication infrastructure and ecosystems seriously. If we care about social media, we must care about the tools and systems that make it possible.
Capturing Data—Critical geographsers long ago noted the implications of enhanced data capture. In 1969 Jeremy Anderson mused, in the inaugural issue of the pioneering journal of critical human geography, Antipode; “May I look at you? Listen to you? Smell you? Feel? … May I overfly you? May I remotely sense you?”6 Anderson’s interest in the moral problems of remote sensing technology (as he termed his article) was in direct response to the “development of miniature cameras, telephoto lenses, highly sensitive microphones and miniature tape recorders … [and] air- or satellite-borne remote sensors.” A flash-forward to the present finds geographers at work with every one of these tools, and many more to boot. They are not alone, as arrays of sensors herald a computational planet stitched together by sensors in the billions.7 Camera-equipped devices are one of many visible data-capture technologies within civil society’s technological repertoire. Advocacy groups also rely on imagery captured by an array of supportive technologies, such as SHARK’s use of Raspberry Pi and Arduino processors, light-detection sensors, and servo-connected lens covers. Critical geographers also debate the use of tools—in some cases for decades.
While the question may I overfly you is alive and well in political and cultural debates about drones, the practical answer from many quarters has been simple: yes. At the University of Nottingham’s Right Lab, my colleagues rely on satellite imagery to help better estimate the scope of the brick kiln industry and to better inform advocacy efforts on the ground.8 While these early efforts relied on crowdsourcing, the goal was to help process massive amounts of data, rather than raise public awareness. The fact that the project gained popular attention was an unintended byproduct, rather than our original objective. A range of technologies, old and new, are important for gathering the kind of data nonprofits need to make important decisions, and that scientists rely on to conduct research, and that policymakers use to inform public policy.
Transmitting Data—In order to gain clarity about the world in which they operate, change agents must circulate the data they have secured. Of course, they may choose not to, instead securing it against leaks—yet, the data has a life in filing cabinets or servers nevertheless. Sometimes these materials have a social life, as they circulate through the body politic, as seen in the case of image-making and sharing online and by social media. Often overlooked in this process, however, are the infrastructure, objects, and processes that ease and ensure the movement of data, whether digital or analog. Increased attention to infrastructure has emphasized the importance of the undersea trunk lines that allow the Internet to span the globe9 and as venture philanthropists launch gliders to provide Internet connections to underserved areas.10 An emphasis on the physicality of these ligaments also a key vulnerability: networks are difficult to establish (as seen in a recent and marvelous history of the Soviet Internet),11 easy to wall off (as evidenced by China’s Great Firewall, the semi-permeable membrane that insulates the country from the world),12 and relatively easy to simply unplug (as with Egypt’s disconnection of the Internet during the Arab Uprising).13 We must remember that the Internet can be located, has thingness, and is comprised of material objects maintained by human agents. This is evident in the case of algorithms, Virtual Private Network (VPN) services, proxy servers, and the popularity of the Dark Web. Existing at the intersection of digital spaces and physical servers, these ungoverned processes and spaces possess significant political potential.14 Some have evolved into micro civil spheres.15 Equally important are those places where technical and social processes overlap, as in the case of crowdsourcing.
Efforts to describe the relationship between technology and society must account for tools and technologies that facilitate the movement, distribution, or dispersal of change-related data. In some contexts this can be conceptualized as infrastructure, including the microchips, digital devices, modems, cables, routers, switches, branch lines, servers, trunk lines, service providers, and satellite feeds that comprise “the Internet.” In other cases it might be thought of as material resources, including the land, offices, automobiles, accounting procedures, and fundraising tools, including bake sales, charity auctions, and recurring contributions. Taken together, these infrastructural features are the technical delivery systems for the stuff that change agents traffic in: symbols, money, memes, messages, news bulletins, press releases, declarations, and so on.
They all flow over something.
CNN’s early and consistent coverage of the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square is a striking example of the importance played by communication infrastructure and networks. The anti-government protests that brought Chinese students to the street in 1989 also attracted Western media outlets. CNN’s team—forty people in total—were already in China in order to cover a visit by Mikhail Gorbachev and a conference held by the Asian Development Bank. The video feed coming from CNN’s cameras did something revolutionary: it went straight to space, ricocheted off of a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, fed directly into CNN’s programming, and was piped to televisions in American homes and those Chinese hotels that catered to the international community.16 Chinese officials immediately recognized that a satellite signal had bypassed their sensors and censors in new ways.
They cut the feed.
What makes the use of satellites so compelling in the case of Tiananmen Square is their pivotal invisibility as a conduit for instantaneous and worldwide press coverage. While militaries had this ability decades prior, more democratic control of the means of distribution by an institutional actor like CNN posed a threat to an oppressive regime, which responded with both military and technological force.17
My first job out of grad school was working for a human rights advocacy group. Disturbed by the post-9/11 rise in the use of mercenaries and forced labor—a case of hegemony outsourcing the dirty and dangerous job of both tearing down and building up—we launched a campaign called WarSlavery. The project focused on reports that the new American embassy in Baghdad was being built with forced labor. Contemporary slavery was embedded in the network of contractors tasked by the Department of State and Department of Defense with the rebuilding of America’s premier diplomatic symbol. Some city on a hill, we thought. As I worked with a team to roll out the campaign, the question quickly emerged—how should we coordinate a global advocacy network on such a sensitive topic?
At that time our organization used an online team management environment called Basecamp, so our team debated the opportunities and threats of any cloud-based approach, including the Google suite of services many advocacy groups have turned to in order to save money. Public opinion was still generally in favor of the war,18 and we were pretty sure the Federal government was having its way with any data it could get its hands on, legally or not. While time has chastised the war’s proponents and shown the wisdom of those fearful of PATRIOT Act-inspired overreach, this future was not obvious in 2004 as we started the campaign. In retrospect, we were debating how to harden our campaign against the prying eyes of its target at the same time the Republic’s security apparatus was implementing large-scale and illegal sweeps of personal data, extralegal extraterritorial renditions, torture, and the murder of American citizens. It is now clear to the most casual of readers that we should have done a better job hardening our backend infrastructure against a government that was hard at work targeting anti-war protestors and gathering as much digital data as possible. The risks inherent in hackable files stored in online servers is demonstrated by an ongoing litany of high-profile leaks.
A final case perhaps rounds out my argument that transmitting data is an important aspect of technopolitics. High-profile leaks of classified government data—Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning being the best known—appear to be digital affairs, but also reveal the extent to which overlooked aspects of technology actually matter. Data’s media, in a manner of speaking, has gone from reams of paper and bulky mainframes to linked networks and streams of data. Isolating digital materials in an offline location doesn’t preclude one from badging a rewritable compact disk with a Lady Gaga cover, sliding it into the non-networked drive, and walking away with the goods. The importance of this physical medium—bits and bytes rather than pages and pages—deserves our attention. A typical compact disc can hold around 700MB of data, which equates to roughly 175,000 pages of typed data. I doubt you have a shelf of encyclopedias at home so I’ll remind you that the Encyclopedia Britannica runs about 32,000 pages. The entire neighborhood would notice if you walked out the door with it. By comparison, Chelsea Manning’s rewritable Lady Gaga disk could hold five encyclopedia sets worth of data. For younger readers, that’s the physical equivalence of 11,072 smartphones—not their memory, but their actual bricky bodies. For older readers, the weight of that many printed pages would be nearly equivalent to that of a 1969 VW Beetle—hard to budge between cubicles, and even harder to fit into the elevator.19
For readers of all ages, the point should be clear: no digital storage artifact means no Manning, no Snowden, no Wikileaks, no way.20 Modality matters. Materiality matters. Collective action efforts generate important data that must be stored and shared somehow. These physical and technological aspects of the story—the how—often take a back seat to the subsequent who/what/when/where/why of the event. The importance of CNN’s role in telling the Tiananmen Square story to both the world but also to Chinese citizens is well known. Less dramatic but equally important is the technology that got the story there.
While we know quite a bit about Manning’s medium of choice, my efforts to determine which satellite CNN used to transmit Tiananmen Square data were futile. It might have been from IntelSat, might have been RCA’s SatCom 1, or the Statsionar-12. Nobody’s really sure. Stories about tools and technologies in which the characters are material bits, bobs, and bots may not make for a ripping read, but they are a critical component of social change efforts worldwide. Technology companies interested in closing the divide between the digital haves and have-nots recognize this fact. Both Facebook and Google are testing high-altitude Internet platforms in the form of UAVs. These gliders and balloons are seen as the ultimate leapfrog technology, skipping entirely the sort of infrastructure that had once been the state’s duty to provide and regulate. Only time will tell whether such a move emancipates web traffic from national servers and firewalls or stifles citizens everywhere under throttled mediations and invasive user agreements.
Analysis—What would a materialist account of data analysis look like? By analysis I simply mean the process of meaning-making required to translate data into information. Analysis takes many forms since social actors translate data into information all the time, often without thinking about it. It may be quantitative, in the form of absolute counts, public opinions, and so forth. It may instead be qualitative, as with secondary desk reviews, interviews, focus groups, imagery analysis, etc. More often it is comparative, as individuals and institutions look at variation: over time, between cases, or between varying interpretations of the data. Analysis may also be generative and conceptual, as when organizations come up with compelling language and work to explain sets of relationships or important background factors. Analysis may be causal, in an effort to explain why something happened or the likely consequences of an anticipated action. Analysis may also be legal, as institutions attempt to determine who is legally responsible for a particular action or chain of events.
These analyses are facilitated by increasingly powerful computational devices but the materiality of this process remains the same: humans and their digital and analog companions: the computer and the legal pad.21 I have given human examples, because I believe this task largely remains a human endeavor. New technologies are helping to gather new data, and more powerful computers help to crunch that data more efficiently, but the act of saying what it means—of analysis—has generally remained a distinctly human endeavor. This may change under two conditions. The first is in the spread of linear predictive algorithms, which are programmed for action in response to input. At some point in the future a human rights violation may be determined to have occurred because the data suggests this is the only logical outcome. This is a possibility under the condition of human-programmed algorithms. A second possibility lies in the emergence of artificial intelligence, in which a sentient non-human life agent performs the analysis.22 Should this possibility become a reality, there is no way to determine whether subsequent decisions by any superintelligence would favor the kind of human rights norms developed by Westerners in Late Capitalism, prefer an alternate human-devised system of ethics, or would set off to instead develop an altogether new post-human system for guiding action.
More tools gathering more data being passed around at greater speeds calls for more sophisticated tools for analysis. Expanding networks of sensors only accelerate this process. An initial wave of enthusiasm for the promises of “big data” has broken on the shoals of computational and creative limitations. What are the right tools in the search for data, and for information within those data? What should we be looking for? How will we know when we’ve found it? Over the next decade, many of these questions will be answered. This same decade will also see the emergence of new questions, as the number of users, devices, and sensors multiplies exponentially. Jennifer Gabrys envisions a computational planet23 and Gina Neff and Dawn Nafus envision the computational self24—earth and body shot through with sensors, pulsing data onward by the quintillion.
The Institute for Conservation Research at the San Diego Zoo,25 for example, draws on a growing range of sensors, all of which generate a significant amount of raw data. David O'Connor, a researcher at the Institute, explained to me the data implications for a single pilot conservation project. The Institute and its in-country collaborators installed wildlife trap cameras at two conservancies in northern Kenya: the 226 square kilometer Loisaba Conservancy and the 3,940 square kilometer Namunyak Conservancy . The project’s motion sensor-equipped cameras are designed to inventory occupancy and to track the movement of giraffe and leopards, while also capturing photos of all wildlife species, to get a sense of biological richness.
When it's all said and done, the group's 120 cameras generate millions of images each month. For instance, during the pilot study with just 30 cameras at Loisaba, over 350,000 photos were taken. The cameras are placed out in a grid pattern, although there are not enough cameras to put out on all points of the grid at once, so cameras are rotated through the area. The grid covers 100% of Loisaba, but only 25% of the grid is equipped with cameras at any point in time. By comparison, the grid for Namunyak only samples about 6% of the total conservancy area (with 3% equipped with cameras at any point in time).
A straightforward project with a limited scope (two patterned animals) will generate about twelve million images a year. Setting up a similar system to track these two species over the range of reticulated giraffe in Kenya—they roam over the entire area of the Northern Rangelands Trust Community Conservancies (44,000 square kilometers) as well as an additional protected area of just over 10,000 square kilometers—would generate over 43 million images in just one month if camera traps were places on a 5 square kilometer grid pattern (about 10,843 camera traps). Implementing such a program is complicated, requiring new data capture tools (cameras, GIS transmitting satellite collars) and new infrastructure for transmitting this raw data (satellite, WIFI). A program that generates 516 million images per year would require the kind of data analysis tools nonprofit actors like the San Diego Zoo tend not to have. The massive computational horsepower and storage volume needed is simply out of reach of all but the most well-resourced institutions.
The central problem in data analysis of any sort involves separating signal from noise. Many of the images made by the Institute capture moving things that are neither giraffe nor leopard. The sensitive devices are as likely to capture a leaf blowing in the wind as they are local pastoralists taking a whack at the cameras out of a fear that their herds of cattle are being monitored for illegal grazing. There are several methods for isolating what’s important in the resulting data. Analysis can be done by hand, whether through a large staffing expenditure, a long-suffering volunteer, an open crowdsourcing campaign like Zooniverse, or the use of a crowdsourced marketplace, like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Alternately, the process could be automated, though this step is complicated and generates false positives. Once the desired subset of images has been identified, the task gets much easier. The Institute’s project tracks the animal’s moments by cross referencing the camera trap images with a database of known animals. Cross-referencing is automated. Giraffe and leopard coat patterns are unique. It's a perfect task for an algorithm.
New tools and better infrastructure create both opportunities as well as challenges for intergovernmental, nonprofit, community-based, and social movement organizations. Individuals as well as organizations have an opportunity to better understand complexities within their areas of interest. The challenges are equally clear. New opportunities often require new resources, and resources aren't free, as every movement scholar from Robert Michels onward can attest.26 Michels famously coined the phrase iron law of oligarchy to describe what happens when people organize for efficacy.27 At the end of the day, organization creates divisions of labor that require expertise and the entire affair produces inequality, or in Darcy Leach’s pithy summation28:
If bureaucracy happens, power rises.
That was as true for Michels’ Italian anarcho-syndicalists comrades organizing in 1911 as it is today: it takes money to make these things happen. Starting from scratch is costly. Scaling up is expensive. Sustainability may be a disappearing point on the horizon. Big resources make a big difference, and as a result organizations can do more of the stuff they set out to do. Critics like Michels, and more recently Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, rightly note that resources may have a moderating effect that dooms radical efforts of any stripe.29 Resources are sites of struggle.
It should be no surprise that there is a back-and-forth struggle over the means of cultural production. Sometimes the people have the upper hand in the struggle for hearts and minds, as with the adoption and diffusion of solidaristic hashtags (#iranelection, #blacklivesmatter, #umbrellarevolution, #metoo), and at other times the regime has the upper hand, as Egypt throws the OFF switch for the Internet or when Russia and Facebook flip the ON switch for fake news. While debate rages over whether hashtag activism is real activism, the important thing to note is that regimes consider Internet-facilitated channels of communication—IRC, Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, WeChat, Signal, Twitter, Instagram—to have sufficient organizing, framing, informational, and mobilization potential to merit hacking, hijacking, or shutting down. These programs combine many of the factors under consideration in the pages that follow: input (camera-equipped smartphones were pivotal to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement), throughput (via ISPs, telecoms, apps, and social media platforms), analysis (in the form of comments and hashtags), and the output found in the next section.
Change agents and incumbents rely on a range of tools and technology that are broader than we usually realize. Materiality matters and techniques for facilitating or inhibiting social change are all round us. Although digital accomplishments are important, the analog matters as well, as a historic case nicely demonstrates.
Movement artifacts: Anti-slavery petitions
Anti-slavery efforts to petition the British Parliament began in the late 18th century and stretched on until the 1830s. The first round of petitions emerged at the height of the transatlantic slave trade. Britain's economy relied heavily on trade-related commerce, yet abolitionist fervor rocked the country. A narrative of national confession spread as religious leaders framed slavery as a national sin, with immediate abolition being the only righteous sacrament.30 A group of radical Quakers formed the Anti-Slavery Society, and their strategy was twofold. They would turn public opinion against the practice and use that inertia to pressure Parliament to end the slave trade. These strategic objectives came together in a singular movement tactic: the mass petition.
Between 1787 and 1833 hundreds of petitions were compiled in England, Scotland, and the United States. These were politically symbolic actions and objects. For example, the “Great Women’s Petition” of 1833 gathered signatures on individual pieces of parchment. These parchments were then stitched together in real-time to comprise massive single rolls: one role of 179,000 signatures to the House of Lords, 187,000 to Commons, and 214,000 from the ‘Ladies of Edinburgh’.31 In the late eighteenth century 519 petitions were brought before Parliament, nearing a total of 400,000 signatures.32 A celebrated historian of the era, Seymour Drescher, noted that at 187,000 signatures, the petition destined for the House of Commons was a “huge coil” that required four MPs to carry and that would have unrolled to a length of nearly half a mile.33
While these numbers themselves are impressive—one in five adult males signed British petitions in 1814 and 183334 and perhaps as many as half signed the 1792 petition in Manchester—35what I want to highlight is the petition roll as a physical representation of the will of the people. It was the act of carrying it into Parliament—where it landed with a metaphorical and literal thud—that resonated. The petition was but one of many key movement tactics pioneered and popularized in the era. A partial list includes the novel adoption of banners, economic sanctions and boycotts, lawsuits, legislative challenges, pamphlets, safe houses and sanctuary, slogans, petitions, and physical violence.36 Such adoption did not occur in isolation, but relied instead on a critical shift in the broader political economy, as the “concentration of capital and the related proletarianization of the British workforce altered the interest of workers and employers”37 alongside the availability of raw materials for protest. These tactics are both physical and symbolic, and for their efficacy rely almost entirely on a constellation of associations, assemblies, publics, public opinion, and the press. With the exception of safe houses, each is meant to be seen, heard, and, in some cases, felt—both physically and economically. The iconic abolitionist image “Am I Not a Man and a Brother” was reproduced on material objects, including hairpins, purses, jewelry, and snuff boxes. These were simultaneously consumer purchases as well as political signals.
The materiality of this advocacy artifact gave it a public and political life. Likewise, abolitionists’ signatures made a political difference. But that was magnified by its material form, a physical representation of the will of the people that rested heavy on the shoulders of the body politic. The movement’s political outcome was certainly important, but the movement’s repertoire was both substantive and symbolic.38
Movement artifacts: Intimate partner violence
The importance of a materialist read of advocacy efforts can easily be seen in digital forms of engagement as well. While we tend to think of mobile-phone-mediated engagement in terms of social media, Project Concern International, a nonprofit working on issues of health and development worldwide, joined up with the public relations firm Ogilvy to craft a social engagement campaign on domestic violence in South Africa. Nationwide, three women are killed by their partners daily, and the country has some of the world’s highest rates of intimate partner violence—six times the global average, with as many as half of those deaths caused by “intimate male partners.”39 The group’s response to the problem was unique; they created an awareness campaign that included the installation of two five-story billboards along major traffic routes in Cape Town and Durban. On one of the billboards, for example, was a woman’s face—unmistakable in scale but otherwise unremarkable—with the tagline “What is keeping violence against women alive today?” These images were simultaneously reprinted in local newspapers. After two days, the billboard’s surface was altered to show the same woman, but with visible signs of abuse (Image 6.1).
This process was repeated every few days as the signs of abuse grew more severe and as a new tagline declared “if you believe she deserves this, it’ll just get worse.” As the week passed, and as signs of abuse increased, the text changed: “Change the beliefs that keep violence against women alive. SMS ‘stop’ to 38797, and it will get better.” At this point, and as text messages came in from passersby, the image sequence was reversed, the woman’s face began to clear, and the text shifted to a new message: “Change beliefs … and it will get better.” Rallies held beneath the structures in both Durban and Cape Town, as well as the campaign’s own data, suggested more than 20,000 people had directly participated in the event, both in-person and via text messaging. While the presence of people and digital engagement matters, it is the physicality of the output that deserves notice.
The campaign deserves mentioning not because it featured a billboard—a staple of public awareness campaigns. Neither do its merits lie in the shocking content. This is, after all, the longstanding commitment to witness that motivates groups like SHARK to visually document violence against animals and Alice Seely Harris to document slavery’s cruelty in the Congo. What sets this campaign apart is the intersection between text messaging—a newer but broadly distributed and affordable technology on the user end—alongside a billboard, an expensive but traditionally analog media platform. This intervention struck a delicate balance between organizational and popular social resources. It did so in such a way that an object—a billboard—was transformed through the digital intervention of physically proximate bystanders.
This is hybridity at its best.40
Many other examples will come to mind for readers familiar with change-oriented advocacy efforts. My goal is to direct attention to the importance of materiality. I could just as easily have pointed to art installations, annual reports, academic investigations, or protestors’ barricades. Across these cases I am arguing that new data-gathering tools lead to new ways of seeing, which in turn lead to new ways of showing. This observation is not limited to drones, geospatial affordances, or even digital technologies. Analog and decidedly old-school processes (parchment petitions) and mashups between communication and advertising tools (mobile phones and billboards) point to the flexibility of this approach to movement technology used by change-oriented social actors like non-governmental organizations and social movement groups.
Advocacy efforts rely on public demonstrations of worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment.41 It is crucial that a group’s light not be hidden under a bushel, in a manner of speaking. Getting the light out from under the bushel and onto the street is often a physical activity with material components. Numbers, especially, are critical in this process. Protest size matters because that’s how worthiness, unity, and commitments are made public.42 Of course other metrics matter as well. Dollars spent and votes cast are critical measures of public support for important issues, but they appear on balance sheets and disappear into halls of power. A focus on output is sufficiently broad as to capture spontaneous crowds, confusing budgets, and forgotten votes as well as stuff with ephemeral lasting materiality. The petition that landed with a thump in the House of Commons matters.43 Its physicality mattered, communicating the importance of words written elsewhere. None of this is to imply a linear relationship between the intention of the material’s creators and their ultimate utility. Terence McDonnell has documented the ways in which cultural entropy reclaims the material objects of high-priority efforts at social change.44 Advocacy groups may document the success of such an installation in the moments immediately following its deployment, but there is another story to be told in the longer life that material goes on to have in other spaces and in other hands, and for new reasons altogether.
Movement artifacts: Raising costs
Movements to end slavery or intimate partner violence are driven by people with a clear theory of change: transform both attitudes and behavior. Changing both hearts and minds is best, but we’re often willing to settle for changed behavior. That’s why political and social change efforts focus on “awareness raising” and on raising the cost of compliance beyond what the incumbent is willing or able to bear.45
Lots is known about awareness-raising and political communication, but social movements also work hard to make the status quo too expensive for the folks they’re targeting. Cost-raising relies on oft-overlooked tools.
Here I am thinking of material objects that make the status quo unsustainable for those it has traditionally benefited. This is in contrast to reputational costs, which often take the form of bad publicity that hurts market valuation or electability. Brayden King, Sarah Soule, and their colleagues have done wonderful work in which they have documented corporate sensitivity to public opinion, itself a proxy for the support publicly traded firms enjoy in the stock market.46 A high-profile story about corporate malfeasance, whether in the form of corruption or abuse, can lead to devastating losses and mass sell-offs. These efforts materially hurt publicly-traded targets of advocacy efforts, but they are not the focus of my attention here. I am more interested in the tools and technologies that are used to raise the cost of the status quo.
The most dramatic form of cost-raising involves the violent use of weapons. Protestors and insurgents willing to use physical violence run the risk of alienating the general public, to be sure, but they also significantly raise costs for those they target. These costs are reputational, as the public wonders if authorities can continue to provide for public safety. These costs are also material, in that they require the deployment of additional security measures, including police paid overtime and the hiring of specialists called up from highly trained and more expensive contingents. These security forces must also be equipped with specialized and costly offensive and defensive gear. For their part, violent protestors bring to bear a range of tools. These may be offensive, as with baseball bats, rocks, paving stones, Molotov cocktails, foodstuffs, shoes, tear gas canisters (returned to the police), urine, glass bottles, firecrackers, smoke bombs, eggs, garbage, metal barricades, burning bottles, flags and t-shirts, contaminated water, chairs, chains, paint, and the like.
Nonviolent street protests and marches extract many of these same costs, especially when states and powerful corporations draw on riot police, whether or not protestors have used violence. Nonviolent sit-ins and die-ins draw on the symbolic material of the human body to block access to public and private space. Prostrate and interlinked bodies are difficult to move and they disrupt normal flows of traffic on roads or the passages in and out of buildings. Student protestors who have linked arms around a university building, for example, impede the institutions’ ability to perform normally. Disruptive events create an incredible sense of solidarity and are high visibility opportunities for the movement as well as threats to a university’s leadership and public image. Visibility, and these costs, are earned through a particular tool: the body of the protestor.
Barricades are another disruptive and cost-raising tool.47 Like the prostrate or arm-linked corpus of protestors, barricades immobilize the flow of traffic, challenging business as usual and forcing attention from authorities and the public. These costs were too high for Napoleon, who famously enjoined Georges-Eugène Haussmann to widen the avenues of Paris. This would reduce the crowding that led to “misery, pestilence and sickness,” claimed Victor Considerant, the social reformer.48 Of course it also reduced the likelihood that urban insurgents could blockade their narrow streets as they had done in the past.49 Barricades are comprised of the material at hand, whether a prised paving stone or park benches, dumpsters, earth, repurposed police barricades, sandbags, vehicles (police, taxi, private, bicycles, busses, streetcars), tires, trees, furniture, and anything else within reach, including general detritus. Mark Traugott’s painstaking work on the Parisian barricades demonstrates the interplay between the broad barricade repertoire and its individual and evolving instantiations. In keeping with the general argument that particular repertoires are the product of their times, we can see that Parisian barricades in 1877 included objects that were not available thirty years prior, namely streetcars, tires, and urinals.50 The strategy remained stable over a significant period of three decades, but its tactical substrate, if you will, changed with the times.
Strikes, whether peaceful or violent, raise costs for incumbents because they withhold a critical material input from the production process: bodily labor. As with sit-ins and die-ins, the corporal body is the material object that makes a difference. Where sit-ins rely on the presence of bodies at the wrong place and the wrong time—laying in front of a university president’s office during business hours, for example—strikes rely on the absence of bodies at the moment they are needed most: as units of force in the mode of production. Strikes may be combined with barricades to keep owners and managers out of production facilities, and may be combined with weapons, as is the case when strikers clash with police or private security forces tasked with strike breaking. Sabotage and machine-breaking are specialized forms of protest violence directed against physical means and modes of production, and may be combined with strikes, or conducted separately.
On a similar note I am often reminded of James Scott’s anecdote in The Art of Not Being Governed that when enemy armies come to plunder the harvests of peasants, they are “powerless against the lowly potato.”51 Since they grow underground, tubers can be hidden much more easily than crops like wheat and rice. Such escape agriculture, Scott argued, has facilitated the mobility of the powerless in places as diverse as North Carolina and Southeast Asia.
Hacking also raises costs for incumbents, as it undermines confidence in their ability to keep crucial data safe, while also raising provocative new questions about the information found in the data itself. High profile data dumps from WikiLeaks triggered a wave of actions from the American government intended to reduce the revelations’ impact on its military and commercial interests. Here the tools of the trade are both digital as well as analog. Some combination of sophisticated programing skills, direct access to classified files, access to illicit troves of passwords and security keys, and a certain degree of intelligence about human behavior form the ingredient list for most high-profile leads. But every one of them require a script or algorithm running on a computer, or a USB drive smuggled into a secure site, or a rewritable compact disk disguised to look like a Lady Gaga CD—every hack requires material tools of some sort.
Movement artifacts: Visible, accessible, affordable, useful & appropriate
In this volume I have argued a number of things: Drones, kites, balloons, and satellites (i.e., geospatial affordances) represent an important new tool for crucial civil society actors like social movements, non-profits, and intergovernmental organizations; geospatial affordances create new public spheres; and the use of new technologies may be emergent and disruptive. In particular I have highlighted the ways drones, balloons, kites, and satellites can be used for the public good. What I have not done is offer an opinion on what shapes adoption of particular technologies, nor have I predicted the direction of future developments. In this section I introduce a number of brief hypotheses that may guide our thinking about whether and when change-oriented actors—and here again I am focusing my attention on social movements—adopt a particular technology.
Tools, like tactics, are a product of their time, and they emerge and diffuse based on their real and perceived applicability. How exactly things get used, Peter Nagy and Gina Neff argue, is the result of the interplay between the perceptions, attitudes, and expectations of users, the materiality and functioning of the technologies themselves, and the perceptions and intentions of an artifact’s designer.52 Interpretive flexibility—the idea that things can get read in a number of ways—means there is no guarantee a particular tool will get used in a particular way by a particular actor, at a particular point in time just because it’s there.53 Some things are simply “more difficult to position in mind, purchase and use, require more support from social contacts, and are only meaningful in selective contexts”54 and as a result no two people are guaranteed to see a technology’s utility in exactly the same way.55
I believe five key factors shape adoption. Basic visibility is a necessary but insufficient condition. In order to enter an individual or institutional repertoire, and perhaps to even be considered or experimented with, a tool or technological solution must also be considered appropriate, accessible, affordable, and useful.56
Visible—At the most basic level a tool must be visible. It must be seen and considered for use. This argument is clearest in scholarship on affordances, since it is the “relationship between the properties of an object and the capabilities of the agent” that determine use, and since the “presence of an affordance is jointly determined by the qualities of the object and the abilities of the agent.”57 Presence is established through the senses—we cannot use a thing if we cannot perceive it. My use of the word visible is meant to signal perceptibility or conceptual ascertainably, rather than “seen by the eye.” No surprises here: if an actordoesn’t recognize a thing as having use, the thing cannot be of use to the actor.
Accessible—Social movements adopt tactics and technologies that are within their real or perceived “toolkit” or are available in their broader milieu. Appropriate institutional approaches are often based on and embedded within broader organizational, social, and cultural norms58 and there is no reason this logic does not extend to technologies. It is reasonable to hypothesize that organizations will choose to adopt technology only if it is legible to decision-makers and can be incorporated into their existing tactical repertoire in a way that resonates with key stakeholders.
Affordable—Change-oriented actors adopt tactics and technologies that they can afford. Social movements often mobilize around areas of injustice in which resources or recognition are not fairly distributed. Though there are important exceptions to this broad statement, the reality is that change-oriented actors often face resource constraints. As a result, the presence or absence of key economic, institutional, and personnel inputs can spell the difference between mobilization and inaction, and between success and failure.59 Perhaps better-funded organizations are more likely to consider or use new technologies. This is important to emphasize. The democratized surveillance described in this volume is predicated on access to key resources and resources are unevenly distributed between sectors. Businesses, governments, and large institutions have a wider range of resources than marginal institutions and non-profit actors. Resources are also unevenly distributed across regions, with urban areas often having more resources of certain types than rural areas, and with organizations in the global north having more of certain kinds of resources than do southern organizations. The concept of affordability is therefore relative to the particular context change-oriented actors operate within.60
Useful—Social movements adopt tactics and technologies that they believe will help their cause. Over the last century and a half, cameras have been a critical tool in the advocate’s toolkit.61 More recently, satellite technology provides an excellent opportunity to capture forensic evidence from a new perspective.62 On the street ersatz t-shirts protect against tear gas and online hashtags are increasingly able to draw attention to issues and, in the case of #blacklivesmatter, #umbrellarevolution, #metoo, and #timesup, frame an entire movement. These things are used because they are considered practical and useful to the task at hand, whatever that task may be. In order to pass into a repertoire, this use must be relatively widespread and constant. After all, if people did not “engage in this continuing activity of material and social production, the human world would literally fall apart.”63
Appropriate—Social movements adopt tactics and technologies that they feel will support core movement goals. However, movements are also fundamentally exposed to and situated-within meaning-laden cultural contexts, meaning movement actors concerned about public opinion will refrain from tactics that alienate the general public.64 It is the logic of appropriateness that links directly to the notion of disruption used throughout this volume. A technology is disruptive when it is politically or socially unacceptable. Since the public generally has a negative opinion of violence, for example, it is reasonable to hypothesize that advocacy groups will refrain from its use whenever possible.
The notion of appropriateness, like that of disruption, is highly variable and context-specific. Assessments of appropriateness are made based on the technologies’ fit in light of other commitments, histories, and logics.65 In other words, the diffusion of innovative tools and ideas is fundamentally a social process.66 This logic can be seen in major human rights groups’ ambivalence toward the use of the kinds of UAVs discussed in this volume. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Open Society Foundation have invested heavily in a normative critique of the United States’ drone-based “targeted killing” campaigns. I believe the inertia of this campaign acts as a drag on their acceptance of smaller-platform devices with a wider range of functions. Movement struggles create their own histories, as “participants remember what happened before and plan accordingly.” History casts long shadows, especially since previous challenges lead to new arrangements that themselves become the status quo.67
A second form of this logic can be seen in the contest between ACLU’s condemnation of police surveillance by drone and the possibility that they might be useful in documenting police violence. Movements may tinker with new tools and tactics, but they do so in small ways, “at the edge of well-established actions.”68 A third example of the logic of appropriateness lies in organizational assessments of privacy issues prior to the introduction of drone technology. Institutions mobilized on issues of data protection and privacy are less likely to view small-scale drone technology favorably.
Each of these measures of appropriateness is empirically measurable but none are required. The fear of missing out (FOMO), institutional isomorphism (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery), and homophile (birds of a feather flock together) guarantee that some technologies and techniques may be adopted without extensive reflection.69 Furthermore, each of the five factors suggested above are falsifiable, and thus amenable to future empirical analysis. It may be, however, that some factors are mutually exclusive. What happens if a technology is useful but not appropriate, as in the cases listed previously? And what if important actors consider it to be affordable but not accessible as a tool in the repertoire—this is what incumbent corporations like Palm, Kodak, and Nokia decided about new digital upstarts in the 1990s. It may be too early to tell whether drone technology will enter institutional repertoires, and good reason to anticipate it will not, but it is not too soon to ask what explains social movement attitudes and behavior toward new technology. It seems reasonable to expect that variation in perceived appropriateness, accessibility, affordability, and usefulness explain acceptance (attitudes) and adoption (behavior) of particular technologies. Each of these factors emerges from a broader technological moment that mediates decision-making about new ways of seeing and sensing.
This chapter has set out to illustrate what a materialist approach to movement activity might look like, in this way reinforcing the book’s broader argument that social change efforts rely on a wide range of affordances. This book has taken a peek at things in use before and beyond the new digital technologies that capture the headlines. It also takes seriously the infrastructure of new digital technology. As I write these words important questions about social media and democracy demand attention. Pioneering work on political bots and computational propaganda by my colleague Phil Howard at the Oxford Internet Institute raises fundamental questions about the very nature of political communication.70 I am also writing at a time when the democratic process in both the countries I work in—the United States and the United Kingdom—has begun to resemble a science fiction drama. “The Waldo Moment,” an episode of BBC’s Black Mirror, has its viewers imagine the shift into a post-human political space, in which politics is reduced to a digital parody of television rather than the hard work of governance. The nature and direction of political communication is subject to fresh analysis and the notion of hybridity is more important than ever.71 Technologies that were generally ignored and overlooked have, since the 2016 election of Donald Trump in the United States, been subject to fresh and intense scrutiny.
The result of this flux is that some of the points I make here appear less radical than they did when I first put pen to paper. Into this dynamic space I have suggested that we take seriously a technology in its infancy. What the future holds is anyone’s guess. Thus, what began as a brief set of articles on the experience Tautis and I had using drones and balloons has expanded into a broader range of puzzles that I have done my best to catalog and clarify. In particular I have argued:
Technology and tools are simply things in use
Tools and technology may be analog or digital, old or new, visible or invisible
Tools before and beyond the digital are important
Affordances are socially acceptable clusters of tools in use
Geospatial affordances are tools for doing things in the air
Technologies have and make politics
Materiality of technological artifacts have social and political implications
Technologies create new space
Technologies create new political realities in those new spaces
Agency lies with human living beings
Agency of human living beings is shaped by the world as we find it
Nonhuman living beings may develop agency of some sort
Disruptive technologies violate norms
Emergent technologies do things that most actors could not previously do
Military drones like the Predator have an alternative genealogy worth considering
New technologies create novel forms of social action
New technologies elicit social reaction, against technology
Thinking about technology as stuff in use reveals a wide range of overlooked uses
Tools get used to gather, store, and spread information
Tools get used to raise costs, build institutions, and destroy the old guard
This process has also raised significant questions, some of which I touch on and others I’ve avoided altogether. It seems impolitic to lay these questions at others’ feet, but a good many of them are beyond my area of expertise, and represent areas where solid work is being done by others.72 I end this volume with questions others may take up in future research:
Why do individuals or institutions adopt particular technologies?
Is adoption indeed predicated on a tool’s visibility, accessibility, affordability, usefulness, and appropriateness?
What is next for the adoption of geospatial affordances by civil society actors?
What form will future UAS technology take?
What factors might comprise an ethics of public drone use?
What role will artificial intelligence play in the tools we use to encourage or discourage change?
What kind of politics do geospatial affordances imply or require?
These puzzles lay across an eclectic range of disciplines and sub-disciplines. In the final analysis I must admit a certain trepidation that in drawing so broadly—across social movement scholarship, civil society theory, communication and media studies, and science and technology studies—I will have stretched any particular argument too thin, and my contribution might slip through the resulting fissures and cracks. Of course the alternative, which I greatly hope for, is that some combination of attributes will resonate with readers focused on different projects in different spaces and in so doing spark new ideas.
If I am lucky, some of them will be emergent and disruptive.
The bigger challenge, perhaps, is leveled by Langdon Winner, who suggests that as we make things work we must also ask what kind of world are we making? This is a question often asked once it is too late rather than when it is needed most.
Implicit in Winner’s observation is the notion that the invention and adoption of new technology has existential implications, and should not be left to the market alone. The post-hoc regulation of technology guarantees that publics and their governments enter into a world that has already been made and the ability to choose the battlefield, as Sun Tsu recommends, has already been lost to another. In this way the regulators, users, and subjects of a new technology are faced with a more limited set of options than they might like.
This is not technological determinism, but instead a basic observation about strategies of maneuver. It is imperative, then, that in the early moments of a technology’s life we attend to its technique and technics, but that we also attend to its psychological, economic, political, and social implications.73 It is fundamental that we ask whether new technologies will expand human freedom and control, or inhibit it, and do our best to discipline technology in a way that enhances open societies.74
I hope that is what I have done here.