Movements@Manchester

Dr Cristina Flesher Fominaya speaking at Digital Activism, MadLab

Dr Cristina Flesher Fominaya speaking at Digital Activism, MadLab

What is ‘digital activism’? Towards the end of a full day conference discussing the social impact of new technologies, one attendee asked the panel of contributing speakers a question concerning the social role of technical expertise. In the face of rapid technological change, should everyone be expected to increase their technical proficiency in line with new developments? Or should there be a representative system in which experts hold advisory roles within communities? This question highlighted the great fault line in contemporary technical politics, with a DIY-libertarian response on the one hand, and a technology-focused communitarianism on the other, in which social networks take collective action to maintain their rights within changing conditions. Each speaker at the Digital Activism conference advocated a position somewhere between these two diverging approaches. On one thing there was clear consensus: the role of new technologies in social life is not an issue that should be left solely to governments and corporations. Digital technology must be opened to public discussion and debate, activists must make the technological political.

A more communitarian approach to digital activism was prominent in the morning’s talks by keynote speakers, Dr Cristina Flesher Fominaya and Dave Carter. Here, emphasis was placed on collective action as a means to increase the social benefits of new developments in technology. Speaking on her research into the use of digital technology by a range of social movements, Dr Fominaya asserted that our digital tools must be culturally compatible: functionality is not the only measure of success. The social aspects of the digital divide demonstrate this, such as the reproduction of gender and age inequalities in online spaces. While some social movement groups are able to take full advantage of new platforms (1), Fominaya stated that others have witnessed increasing levels of marginalisation when engaging with new technologies (2). It is therefore necessary to improve the inclusivity of social spaces which have emerged around technology use and innovation.

One such space in Manchester is MadLab, where the conference was held, and home to a not-for-profit grassroots digital innovation organisation. Following Dr Fominaya’s talk was Dave Carter, Chair of the Advisory Board at MadLab. Carter addressed the issue of social inequalities with positivity, highlighting the successes of community groups that have used spaces such as MadLab to share knowledge and promote inclusivity. Carter is also an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban Policy Studies at the University of Manchester and spoke on his thirty years of experience in working with trade unions and NGOs aiming to empower communities with new technologies. Carter outlined the growth of independent communication networks among a small group of NGOs in the 1980s, and traced this development through to contemporary European-wide networking activities between various groups mobilising to improve sustainability and levels of digital inclusion in urban life. This legacy lies behind much of today’s discussions around ‘smart cities’, Carter claims, and this demonstrates the ways in which citizens can actively take part in shaping their changing environments through collective action.

Proposing an alternative form of digital activism, Max Flores spoke in the afternoon on the benefits of using the crypto-currency Bitcoin as an alternative form of money. Bitcoin emerged in 2008 as a decentralised digital currency, a platform for exchanging value on the internet which requires no intermediating financial institutions. Instead, individual users take responsibility for their own finances and data security through the use of personal encryption keys. Rather than promoting collective action as a means to influence technological and social change, Flores advocated the diffusion of new digital technologies such as Bitcoin that empower individuals (3). While this libertarian approach contrasted with earlier calls for fostering community activism, all three faced the problem of communicating technical issues to non-technical audiences. This issue was addressed by the other three speakers.

One particular way of framing political issues that focus on the impact of new technologies is to speak of ‘digital rights’. Emerging with the Pirate Party movement and campaign groups such as Open Rights Group (ORG), a discourse of digital rights has been promoted as a means of communicating the threats posed by new technological developments to human rights such as the rights to privacy and free speech. Loz Kaye, former leader of the Pirate Party UK, articulated this new discourse, speaking of the need for a new way to conceptualise rights and citizenship in the digital age. Drawing on ten years of experience in campaigning for ORG, Tom Chiverton echoed this claim, describing the difficulties of mobilising people around issues that are often shrouded in esoteric language. Undoubtedly the most innovative response to communicating technical issues was put forward by Mick Chesterman and Alison Ramsey, currently working at EdLab, a project promoting digital skills among students and communities at Manchester Metropolitan University. Drawing on dramaturgical ‘role-playing’ games, Chesterman and Ramsey presented a dystopian world in which segregated classes of workers and consumers. Both must work creatively with computer coding skills to overcome their oppressed positions. These activities demonstrated an effective and creative way of empowering groups with digital skills, pertinent to broader debates around gamification. Furthermore, they successfully bridged the communitarian/libertarian divide!

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