What does protest mean and how has it changed with the advent of technology? And what happens to technology when it is used as means of protest? Protest movements have a long tradition of appropriating technologies and reinventing their use in ways not intended by their designers. Andrew Feenberg (2002) argues that artifacts also provide new possibilities for protest actors who can use the potential of technology to challenge the norm. Gutenberg’s printing technology enabled the explosion of the Renaissance, as a secular protest movement against Church control. Martin Luther nailed his Theses to the door of a German church in 1517, inaugurating the Protestant Reformation, at the same time as he had multiple copies printed to distribute elsewhere. Protest seems to always arise when authoritative power is established and when revolutionary movements are appropriated by the establishment. The printing press also supported the early Anabaptist movement to challenge Luther’s reform and to demand a more radical church and freedom of religion. Many historians draw a red thread between these early protest sects and contemporary revolutionary movements. However technology is not always mobilized in protest against asymmetical power structures; it can do other work; take the Luddite protests in the 19th century, for example.
Historically, the intersection between protest and technology has become the place where new forms of social mobilization has emerged. Thus, to understand and define the conduct of protest one must also further investigate the complex role of technology in “materializing relations of justice” (Papadopoulos 2011) and facilitating “subversive mobilities” (Cohen et. al. 2017). This goes necessarily beyond a traditional view on protest and protest methods. The digitalization of protest, or the spreading of protest images and propaganda through digital technologies, has created new standards and praxis. The intertwining of social movements and social media, for example, has, to some extent, enabled the sidelining of corporate media. Now unmediated radical ideas, mobilizations, demonstration images, and so on, can be spread more swiftly, producing, at the same time, new protest and solidarity practices. A vivid example of this was how, during 2015, Syrian migrants used smartphones for various survival strategies, showing how digital protest generates spaces beyond state surveillance that enable movement and that can imply emancipatory mobilities.
This is not to say that technology is a silver-bullet solution for protest movements. The revolution will certainly not be social-mediazed. Several activists point out that sensitive information can also be used by those authorities whom digital media is used to obstruct. Some are critical of an over-reliance on virtual platforms, instead noting fragmentation risks, the spreading of general political formulations without consideration of local contingencies, and technology-mediated vulnerability. They raise serious concerns about the potential of turning corporate mainstream media into tools of direct action. In this context, the use of commercial social media by protest movements runs the risk of being exposed to a continuous reappropriation, where the overproduction of value by capitalist institutions comes at the expense of protest. We cannot deny, however, that commercial social media and other alternative web-based platforms have become platforms where protest movements have applied and tested new practices, propaganda and organizational schemes – not without ambiguous consequences. The #Icantbreathe insurrection in the US after the murder of George Floyd by police officers is the latest example of this hybrid form of protest where the digital spreading of the murder video materialized fierceful clashes between protesters and law enforcement. Thus, it becomes imperative to further investigate the complex and intertwined hybrid role of technology and protest. After all, and paraphrasing Bakunin, the passion for protest is a creative passion, too! Protest movements have been exceptionally creative in reclaiming technology.
Author: Vasilis Galis
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Feenberg, A. (2002). Transforming technology: a critical theory revisited. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.
Papadopoulos, D. (2011). Alter-ontologies: Towards a constituent politics in technoscience. Social Studies of Science, 41(2), 177–201.
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