Occupy and ‘liberation technology’

by Sebastian Benthall

I’m moved by an anonymous letter covering and commenting on the UC Davis pepper spraying aftermath.

The video speaks for itself, but I wanted to write about a particular point the letter makes:

Various searches related to UC Davis and pepper spraying were the *top searches on Google* in the US today — think of what that means.

this all happened on a day when virtually no news (except Demi and Ashton’s divorce or the 30 year old Natalie Wood death investigation) gets reported on mainstream outlets. This *all* happened online, and drew a huge national audience in the process, enough so to force a major university into damage control freakout.

Last week I attended a talk at Berkeley’s CITRIS center on Internet and Democracy, with EFF’S Jillian York and Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion. The speakers discussed the role of the internet as ‘liberation technology’ in countries overthrowing dictatorships. Morozov was skeptical about promoting the use of the web for these purposes without extensive regional expertise. He also noted that that many of these regimes import surveillance technology from the West. York agreed. But neither was able to speak much to the use of technology by the Occupy movement, and neither was able to address the actual mechanics of how the web helps (or not). Instead, both agreed that, yes, the Internet is a factor, but people on the ground and organizing in person were also very important.

There must be a more satisfying answer than this. Thankfully, the Occupy provides a great case study in the role of technology in movement building. Conditions in the U.S. are obviously different from those in the Arab Spring. There is relatively little fear of censorship on the web, free speech is well protected (within limits–see below), and Internet access and use is very high. So what we’d expect is for the impact of web technology on movement building to be stronger in the U.S. than in, say, the Middle East or Belarus.

What the anonymous letter writer points out is that the mass action required “to force a major university into damage control freakout” could happen almost overnight and even when the events in question are under-served by the mass media. It’s not clear whether the web activity encourages the movement on the ground or the other way around. Or rather, I don’t think there’s any question that they two activities feed off each other. But the real upshot is that combined, they simply make damage control impossible. You can’t hide the fact that you are beating kids up in the U.S. Full stop.

This is all possible because we have such great freedom of speech in this country. The irony is that what’s getting so much attention is the repression of free speech. In the U.S., it’s OK to complain on the Internet. It’s not yet OK to “encamp” as a symbolic political act. Encampment gets you pepper sprayed in the mouth.

This isn’t a contradiction, so much as a demonstration of why free speech is valuable and how it is won. Our ability to publish videos and articles freely on-line and use social media to express dissent is allowing the activity at the frontier of free speech to gain resonance. My colleague Kartik Date explain today that the effect of the encampments, met by violence, is to force the viewer to make a decision. Do you support the students, or do you support the forces breaking them? The health and safety technicalities of pitching a tent in a park become insignificant if people are hospitalized with broken ribs.

So what is the technology doing? It’s increasing the velocity of information from the events that demand that we make a decision to the people looking on. Exposure to edge cases makes us, as onlookers, realize that world does not divide into the categories that we expect. It forces the boundary of right and wrong to curve and swell.

This is why it would not be enough for the Occupy movement to limit itself to innocuous speech like blog posts or op-eds. If it did, it wouldn’t really ‘speak’ to the national audience at all, because its statements would be lost in the steady drone of information we filter out. Yes, there are radicals who think corporations are at fault. Yes, there are radicals who think the government is at fault. So what? This news changes nothing for me.

But when I hear the stories about how students are being hospitalized and demonstrating their peaceful commitment in response, I can’t remain neutral. I am now a supporter. And all because of content shared very rapidly through the web. Multiply this effect, and its clear how liberation technology can work to expand a movement.