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Reconstructing the Internet: How Social Justice Activists Contest Technical Design in Cyberspace

1Since the eruption of the global justice movement at 1999’s Battle of Seattle, much has been made about the impact of the Internet on progressive activism. Of particular interest have been the ways in which activists have used the Internet as a communication medium, as a forum for information dissemination and as a tool for organizing (Deibert, Kahn & Kellner; Meikle; Smith). Applications like Websites, email and Internet Relay Chat have largely facilitated the new movement as a global phenomenon (Bennett; van Aelst & Walgrave). Cyberactivism – political activism on the Internet – is a new mode of contentious action, and new practices such as virtual sit-ins, online petitions and email campaigns have enhanced the repertoire of contention (McCaughey & Ayers). But what effects have activists had on the Internet? How have they shaped the Internet to fit both their technical needs and movement goals?

Geeks and Global Justice

2The global justice movement (GJM) has broadened to include a new brand of activism, one that moves beyond simply using technology toward particular ends to include the modification and transformation of technology itself. Tech activism combines the free software ethos derived from geek culture with concerns for social justice on a planetary scale. Tech activists are the computer programmers who write, develop and deploy software for the online projects of activist groups. They also develop and maintain activist Websites and provide technical support, largely on a volunteer basis. The novelty of tech activism moves beyond the political alliance of social justice activists and computer geeks, however. Rather, it lies in the way tech activists incorporate the democratic goals of the GJM into the very technology used to pursue those goals. That is to say, tech activists recode software intended for use by activists in a way that anticipates the progressive social change they pursue. In this way, tech activists produce both an alternative version of the technology that is accessible, participatory, and non-hierarchical, and an alternate vision of society based on those same ideals.

3Detailed histories of the Internet reveal it to be a social construction contingent upon social factors (Abbate; Ceruzzi). Conceptualizing it this way, we can better understand how the goals and values of the global justice movement are inflected in the Internet’s ongoing “invention” (Abbate). The tension between capitalist logic and democratic impulses that characterizes the Internet suggests that it is an unfinished and flexible technology (Feenberg & Bakardjieva). Thus it is not surprising that as corporate interests continue to settle the virtual frontier, the Internet emerges as the locus of a new struggle. Like the Internet itself, this struggle is multilayered. It is at once a contest between private and public interests manifested at the “content” layer of the Internet, composed of applications such as the World Wide Web, and also at the Internet’s underlying infrastructure, the “logical” layer comprising the data transport and transmission protocols (Lessig). Commercial interests are poised to dominate the Web, pushing democratic and public uses to the margins of cyberspace; further, corporate influence threatens to further close and commodify access to the Internet (Meikle).

Politicizing Technology

4But if the Internet is a social construction that turns upon human agency in its ongoing development, opportunities for contestation and change exist. The chance to challenge power imbalances entrenched in contemporary industrial society, where technical action is an exercise of power, arises in the technical sphere. Technology, therefore, is recast as a political project. It is not a reified “thing” but rather and ambivalent process, one pregnant with both liberating and oppressive possibilities (Feenberg, “Critical Theory”). The current strain of tech activism embodied in the global justice movement exploits this ambivalence, returning to the radicalism of the Free Software Movement. The FSM in turn has roots in 1960s digital counterculture, with its foundational belief that information should be free (Stallman). While today the wider tech community has drifted from these radical origins, the enduring legacy of the FSM is twofold. It is at once the redefinition of technology as a political project subject to democratic intervention, and the promotion of an alternative social model based on decentralization, volunteerism, cooperation and self-empowerment. The disarticulation of software from the logic of capitalism thus appears as an example of democratic rationalization: the creation and use of technology that undermines the existing social hierarchy (Feenberg, “Questioning”).

5Tech activists in the global justice movement have reclaimed computer technology development as a political frontier for contentious action. It was at 1999’s Battle of Seattle that activists first realized the potential and power of the Internet for their burgeoning movement. Since then, tech activists have been central to the global justice movement, facilitating the novel combination of interactive digital technology and social justice activism. From hosting hacklabs and sending reclaimed computers to developing countries, to setting up transient media centres amidst political actions and natural disasters, tech activists have clearly embraced the politics of technology. One prominent example of tech activism in the GJM is the Independent Media Centre (IMC), a Web-based network of radical media making collectives that went live for the Seattle protest. Tech activists are responsible for the technical implementation and continued maintenance of IMC, which was founded to give voice to activists protesting the ill effects of global capitalism. Today it is widely recognized as the media arm of the GJM.

Indymedia and Free Software

6The choice of free software for the global site, indymedia.org, was deliberate, and suggests a philosophical inheritance from the free software movement. It also shows with clarity the project’s political objectives. At present, all the software on the global network, which includes more than 130 “nodes”, is by charter free software. Throughout Indymedia’s six-year history, free software has enabled the IMC tech collective to develop applications “that encourage cooperation, solidarity, an equal field of participation” among volunteers (Henshaw-Plath. “Proposal”). Critically, free software met technical requirements while promoting social objectives: “It’s clear that the technology we use and process by which it’s constructed and articulated [are] deeply political. We are creating the technical systems that prefigure the change we want to see in society” (Henshaw-Plath, “IMC-Tech”). Clearly, tech activists understand coding as technical process with social implications. They make an explicit attempt to imbue software with ideals that mirror their social justice objectives, never losing sight of the social purpose of the software, nor of the user-technology relation. In the case of the continual hacking of Active, the original open publishing software, “the geeks of IMC-Tech were keenly aware that each technological design or set of features creates a particular publishing structure and, as a result, empowers users…in an equally particular way” (Hill 2). This is an example of user agency at the level of technical design; by including a wider array of values and needs in their software, tech activists are helping to democratize Internet technology. Tech activists thus display insight into the power asymmetries inherent in capitalist socio-technical systems, like the Internet, as well as the knowledge that such asymmetries are both socially constructed and reflective of inequality in the broader social context.

Wild Wild Wikis: The Latest Frontier

7Activists in the global justice movement, supported by geeks who share their social conscience, created Indymedia to communicate their social objectives, including economic and environmental justice, participatory democracy and racial and gender equality. But internal communication among Indymedia activists was also important. Initially, the IMC Tech Collective communicated by email lists and Internet Relay Chat (IRC). They subsequently adopted wiki technology in an effort to create a sustainable system for documenting its project. As one member of the Docs Tech Working Group observed: “Getting a functioning and used wiki is really vital for the network…Email lists just aren’t cutting it for the level of organizing and information exchange and growth we need to help facilitate” (Windmueller). The purpose of the Global Indymedia Documentation Project is to gather collective knowledge about IMC’s history, its current projects and its short and long-term goals. Such documentation is vital to the success of Indymedia; not only does it provide a public record, it creates a fluidity that facilitates participation at varying levels. “The Indymedia Documentation Project looks like a normal Web site… except that it encourages contribution and editing of pages, questions, answers, comments and updates” (Indymedia).

8Wiki software has been popular in the business community as a “conversational knowledge management solution” that fosters an efficient and collaborative work process (Gonzalez-Reinhart, 5). A wiki is a series of linked, dynamic Web pages that can be created, edited and deleted by a logged-on user, with no coding skills necessary. All changes are documented, so the wiki’s history is preserved and accessible for viewing. Because of its accessible, collective and participatory design, Kahn and Kellner call the wiki “the next wave in the emerging democratic Internet” (196). By 2002, IMC techs adopted and hacked up TWiki, a free software wiki clone aimed at the corporate intranet world, assembling a number of separately running wikis in one Website, docs.indymedia.org. While mailing lists facilitate information exchange, and IRC enables real time discussion, neither application provides a collaborative space for Indymedia volunteers to work asynchronously on common projects. The wiki, however, facilitates information flow, which allows distributed teams to work together seamlessly and productively, and eliminates the one-Webmaster syndrome of outdated content. Further, the wiki has proven useful as a forum for discussing technical issues regarding the smooth running of the network, while its ability to store policy documents, research papers, proposals and meeting logs create an invaluable store of cumulative knowledge.

9A successful wiki has political implications beyond the virtual sphere, offering alternative ways of social organization offline. “The recognition of this might lead some people to take the organization of work in a wiki as a model that could succeed in the real world as well (Ebersbach & Glaser)” The “wiki way” (Cunningham) of self-organization and collaboration to produce high quality work without capitalist incentives reveals other ways to value technology, ways not currently embraced by the dominant social order as it is underwritten by corporate capitalism. As social software, wikis create prospects for democratic communication and collaboration online, making it an important new application for activist work.

Conclusion

10The Internet remains an unfinished and contested technology. Because it is socially constructed, users can intervene in its development and shape its future direction(s). Tech activists in the global justice movement bridge the divide between geek and activist communities, developing and maintaining the digital infrastructure that supports progressive activism on a planetary scale. Through their free software work, tech activists develop Internet technology that reflects their technical needs and social objectives, deliberately opposing the commercial encroachment of cyberspace. In the case of Indymedia, tech activists redeployed wiki software to facilitate movement goals – by creating a public and democratic space for online collaboration, and by challenging inherent power inequities reflected in the broader society. By addressing such imbalances at the level of technical design, they have created an alternative version of Internet technology as well as an alternate vision of society.