Report on the Conference “(H)activism and participation? On the political dimension of the digital”

From 29th September to 1st October 2016, approximately 50 scientists of the disciplines cultural anthropology, sociology, philosophy and media studies, met in Marburg to participate in the 5th International Working Conference of the Commission for “Digitization in Every Day Life” in the German Society for Cultural Anthropology and Folklore Studies. The varied topics and presentations stimulated access to a range of different discussions.

A German version of the report can be found here here.

After greetings from Antje van Elsbergen (Marburg) on behalf of the Institute for European Ethnology/Cultural Science of the University of Marburg, Marion Näser-Lather (Marburg) shed light in her opening remarks on different aspects of the controversial discoursivation of the role of digital media for protest and political action. She discussed the possibility of resistant practices and of political judgement in the context of the use of commercial media infrastructures, the question of an empowerment of activists through online-communication, its potential effects on movements and the role of the body for political community building.

Christopher Kelty (Los Angeles) discussed in his keynote on “hacking, leaking, breaching: participation as experience, as risk, and as sabotage” “Hacking” as “a form of political participation aiming at systems which hinder or enable political participation”. Pointing to the various meanings of participation, he showed that the euphorical use of the term “hacking” falls short of the mark. According to Kelty, political participation has developed into cooptation. He described developments within hacker movements such as a shift towards cooptation because hacker knowledge has been made (medially) available, and on the other hand claims for a stronger political and ethical framework and for institutionalization which in turn spurned the critique of succumbing to cooptation. In the discussion the question was raised whether hacking can still be seen as a movement “from below” or whether in parallel there existed control and commercialization “from above”.

In the session 1: surveillance and control, Barbara Frischling (Graz) analyzed in her presentation “KÖRPER_WISSEN_MACHT. Digitale Tracking-Technologien im Alltag. Überwachung und Selbstoptimierung oder Empowerment durch „mindfulness“ the statements of users of tracking technologies of the body. The measurements helped self-control and –surveillance and empowerment through a growing, objectified body consciousness. “Tracking” had a political dimension, too, in sense of self-constitution. The objectification of the body on the other hand ran the risk of a shift of self-perception because wellbeing was measured through numbers and not through subjective feeling. Oliver Leistert´s (Lüneburg) contribution “Protest and Machines: Algorithmic Intrusion On Street Action“ addressed the growing influence of digital technologies within protest culture. He showed the ambivalences of the usage of social networks by activists. On one hand, Facebook contributed to collective identity building, on the other, it pointed to the individual and levered out collective decision making processes. Also, bots posed a danger: they infiltrated or disrupted discussions and even started own fake protests. A problem was the trust of users in platforms and algorithms which could be used by hackers for elicit purposes. Carsten Ochs (Kassel) showed in his presentation “Democracy in the Privacy Arena? Negotiating the Constitution of the Digitized World” the connection between discourses on privacy and political strategies. In the course of the NSA scandal, the trust of the users in privacy was shaken. Privacy was now perceived as a problem around which “arenas of negotiation” were constructed in which the constitution of the digital world was discussed. Taking the example of “national routing”, Ochs showed four (post-)democratic dimensions of discourses within the privacy arena: democratic protectionism, democratic constitutionalism, democratic experientalism and postdemocracy.

Marion Hamm (Klagenfurt) described in her plenary talk „Between ‘Hacktivism’ and Participation: Cultural Perspectives on the Politics of Digital Communication“ the history of hacktivism. She addressed hacker ethics, the contradiction between self- and exernal image of hackers and hacking as an activist practice. Hamm contrasted hacktivism as autonomous, unconventional and humorous practice and participation as institutionalized, conventional political action of citizens. She raised the question whether hacktivism was still feasible as activist practice or whether under the actual political circumstances other forms of action were necessary. Adopting a broader definition of the term hacktivism, Hamm described social hacking and reality hacking as cases in which the “hacker attitude” (genius-simple-quick-beautiful) was used outside of coding. At the end, Hamm raised the question whether hacking as a concept could be seen as an analytic category. In the discussion the differences between hacktivism and practices of appropriation were adressed.

Session 2, Citizenship and Participation, was started by Wolfgang Sützl´s (Athens/Ohio) talk on „Teilen und Teilnehmen. Über das Politische im digitalen Medium“. Sützl discusses whether in the context the digital space sharing could be equaled with participation. Parting from Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes und Jaques Derrida, he discussed participation in media as emancipation. However, the possibility for everyone to share, receive and assess content within web 2.0 could not be equaled with participation. Sützl referred to the difference between active political participation within a community and participating in discourses within restrictive commercial digital spaces like Facebook or Youtube (activism without leaving the media space). Clemens Apprich (Lüneburg) argued in his contribution „„Yes, I’m paranoid – but am I paranoid enough?” Digital Media between Participation, Publicity, and Paranoia” that publicity and constant activity in the digital space led to a kind of paranoia of users. The data masses of an increasingly networked society raised the question of political participation anew. While digital media enabled participation, the digital community was fragmented into separate political segments of the public which hindered complete participation, also because of (economical motivated) interests or restrictions on part of the digital platforms themselves. Urmila Goel (Berlin) described in her talk “Lost in the Feed” the development of the portal InderNet.de. Founded in 2000, it was the biggest and most important webpage for people with Indian ancestors in German-speaking Europe. With the triumph of social media, the page moved to Facebook. The close relationships of the users lost relevance because the offer became a community among many. Within the discussion the thesis was uttered that in opposition to the “free” internet 1.0, interaction at a personal level and therefore basis democratic participation was not possible within web 2.0 which was characterized by restrictive mechanisms.

In the workshop “Science meets activists” the activist Fiona Krakenbürger spoke about the project open knowledge lab which included different applications for the empowerment of citizens (open data, transparency, participation). The open knowledge lab also cooperates with (political) institutions (e.g., frag-den-staat: the development of citizen participation). In the discussion the question was raised what openness meant in the context of open data and whether it was always desirable. Eva Provedel, member of the Italian women´s movement Se Non Ora Quando, described the usage of digital media by the movement, and referred to the indispensability of direct face-to-face-interaction for protest practices and also for internal processes of communication and decision, to create a strictly defined space for decisions and to guarantee that only people active in the movement were participating in decisions. She also pointed to experiences with the social media platforms Google Groups and Ning. However within time, Facebook prevailed because of its distribution and the related user competence.

Session 3, Discourses and Practices of (H)acktivism, began with Joss Hands´ (Newcastle) contribution “Doing Things with Things: Gadgets and the Thingification of Activism” which addressed the relationship between digital communication technologies, gadgets and their users in the context of activists. Referring to Martin Heidegger, Hands argued that there had to be freedom from a technological imperative meaning maximization of efficiency in order for activism to work. Parting from Heidegger, Hands pointed out that acting with things can lead to community building. Marija Martinovic (Graz) presented in her lecture on “Video Activism as a Performative Political Practice of the Women’s Movement in Postsocialist Serbia” video activism as example for hacktivist practices. Video activism could be read as a form of promotion of offline activities. Instead of direct agitation, esthetic measures and narratives were used to transport everyday life experiences into the political sphere and to create new subjectivities. Ove Sutter (Bonn) described in his talk “Emotionalizing Space: Connections between Online and Offline Activism of Volunteers for Refugees” the aid campaign of volunteers for refugees stranded on a German railway station. The volunteers had redesign the train station hall; the resulting emotionalization of space was created first by on-site offline-practices, and second, by online-practices on Facebook and other social media networks; it led to the emergence of emotionalizing moments and symbols in the political debates of the activists. 

In session 4, Web communities, Gertraud Koch (Hamburg) analyzed in her contribution „Augmented Realities of Protest“ the intertwining of online- and offline-spaces of protest, based on the example of the Gefahrengebiete protests at Hamburg. Referring to Lev Manowich, Koch described the usage of urban space for protest action as augmented reality, meaning the enrichment of surfaces through symbols and information. Social media became a resource for the creation and dissemination of collective imaginations of protest, and functioned as interfaces for activist participation, thereby facilitating protest dynamics. Roman Knipping-Sorokin´s (Hamburg) talk on „Radikalisierung Jugendlicher über das Internet?“ described the ways of radicalization of youths via internet pages, forums, and merchandize providers of the extreme right. In this context he discussed the phenomenon of filterbubbles in interactive forums. In the discussion, the question of ethical and methodological approaches was raised. The possibility to include information of intelligence information was discussed. Susanne Maurer (Marburg) analyzed in her contribution „(Politische) Bildung im Netz? Schwierigkeiten und besondere Potentiale der Entwicklung kritischen Urteils-vermögens im World Wide Web“ the possibilites of political education within the internet from a philosophical and education-theoretical perspective. She raised the question how under the conditions of the digital world single, collective and connected political subjects could be imagined and how they can develop political power of judgement. In this context she referred critically to an “overflowing of subjectivity” which could be found also in feminist blogs, for example when problems like structural discrimination were reduced to personal narrations.

In the final discussion, the discussants Gertraud Koch (Hamburg), Klaus Schönberger (Klagenfurt) and Bernd Jürgen Warneken (Tübingen) let the conference pass in review together with the other participants. The focusing on users, their daily life experiences and their potentially subversive practices was pointed out as a strength of cultural anthropological approaches on the conference topic. Parting from such a perspective, dynamics and changes of media usage could be analyzed. On the other hand the added value of an exchange with sociological and media studies perspectives was emphasized, among other things because cultural science could be inspired methodologically by those disciplines regarding the analysis of media like Facebook or twitter. In addition, parting from the necessity of the inclusion of mediality into the analysis of political participation and resistance, it was discussed controversially whether the use of new media was promoting political activism through the facilitation of networking and communication, or whether it hindered activism because the new media implied restrictions and undemocratic structural obstacles.

The conference has turned out to be very productive. The anthropological-cultural scientist discussion on the meaning of the digital for activism and political decision-making has been enriched by interdisciplinary perspectives; new textual and methodological perspectives were established.

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