Especially in the early years of digital media use, the democratizing potential of the internet was emphasized. The new quality of interconnectedness and better possibilities for collaboration and participation were characteristics attributed to the web, being evident among other things in the increasing power of social movements. Howard Rheingold has described the effects of spontaneously collaborating smart mobs, and Manuel Castells has postulated the theory that networks and digital technologies play a decisive role in the emergence of new forms of politics, culture, and society. Others have adopted a more critical stance toward the use of digital media: Joseph Weizenbaum has seen an excessive confidence in computer-based decision procedures as a danger for political action. Jaron Lanier has referred to swarm intelligence as an expression of opinions of the average, and to actions of the masses in the online world as “digital barbarism”; he has interpreted the open source movement as form of exploitation. Lastly, Alexander Galloway, Eugene Thacker and also other researchers have pointed to the concentration of power within digital infrastructures and the dangers stemming from data mining, surveillance, censorship and control efforts by the authorities as well as through the commercialization of the web 2.0, manifesting itself, for example, in the power of quasi monopolists like Google or Facebook.
Starting from these controversial potentials, the conference aims to raise anew the issue of the political aspect of the digital. Based on Urich Bröckling’s and Robert Feustel’s definition, in this context the political can be defined as processes of societal negotiation relating to procedures and norms, and characterized by elements of dissent, conflict, event and disruption.
The conference will focus on the following three topics:
1. Digital practices and activism
First, the connection between digital infrastructures and the genesis, organization and protest practices of movements has to be considered. The use of digital media seems to imply a reduction of necessary resources, regarding the number of members needed for protest as well as its material prerequisites or the necessity of an organizational structure. Do digital forms of organization, thus, give voice to marginalized groups – like, for example, women, whose political participation is – because of traditional roles and the lack of care infrastructures – often only made possible through online media? On the other hand, online activism seems to be accompanied by a lesser degree of identification and higher fluidity – how does this reflect on the relationships between activists and the emergence of a common identity? In light of the success of online based organizations, hacker collectives and whistleblowers on one hand and with respect to skepticism towards the sustainability of pure online activism on the other hand, it has to be asked what potentials and problematics are connected with the usage of flash mobs, online petitions and hacktivism.
Also, the relationship between the properties of digital infrastructures and discourses and practices within movements needs to be addressed. In what way do network techniques shape commitment, and how far do architectures inscribed into new media define the frame of protest? How do potentially inherent media properties respectively accordant ascriptions influence the way such media are used for the organization and implementation of protest? In what way can digital infrastructures be appropriated to enable activists to use them productively, even if contrary to their intended uses, software architectures and algorithms? In addition, the potential effects on group dynamics and the power of interpretation has to be analyzed. Are hierarchies being transcended or are cultural conventions, norms and practices reproduced? How do media use and norms within movements, e.g. horizontality, interact?
2. Discursivization and Constitution of Public Spheres
The automatic sorting, classifying and hierarchizing of information, the “algorithmic culture” (Ted Striphas) creates new cognitive and practical habitualizations. How is the perception of the political (re)configured (e.g. the establishment of norms like transparency, sharing)?
On one hand, users risk being manipulated and exploited by social networks; on the other hand, there is the potential of alternative information portals. How are processes of opinion formation influenced, e.g. by the personalization of web content and the dominance of certain service providers? Which (unplanned) dynamics of the development of power of interpretation are generated by the information flow within social networks, forums and blogs?
Taking into account the creation of available everyday knowledge through algorithms, e.g. by Google, one has to ask whether the formation of political knowledge and will is channeled and in what way do conformation processes occur. Is awareness now only thinkable in the sense of a normed opinion? What is the relationship between tendencies of standardization vs. pluralization, sub- and counter publics?
3. Participation and Inclusion
In this context questions arise concerning the potential consequences of the usage of digital media on the mode of citizens’ political participation. Which roles do free software, the access to knowledge and alternative platforms/media play? In what form is a fluid democracy possible? How are mechanisms of inclusion vs. exclusion inscribed into digital infrastructures, keeping in mind for example the digital divide? To what extent can digital infrastructures be appropriated by social practices? And how is the usage of digital measures of communication and participation interlaced with categories like gender?
Also, against the background of digitalization, the concept of political action has to be considered anew. In this context above all the question of the possibility of political action arises. Does the latter mean a consumption of information and knowledge in digitalized form or the use of digital infrastructures in the sense of a culture technique, as a creative operation accompanied by the comprehension of the underlying structures which therefore can be seen as appropriation and subversive use? Does it come to the emergence of an “elite” of hackers or of persons capable of political action, on one side with passive consumers of the user interfaces of the web 2.0 on the other?
The conference aims to discuss these topics in an international and interdisciplinary exchange and therefore to contribute to a debate within the field which reflects the concepts, assumptions and theories relevant for the political dimension of the digital.