By Lonneke

cosmos

Stefania at the Summer School on Methods for the Study of Political Participation and Mobilization, Florence

On June 4, Stefania gives a lecture on ethical issues in social movement and political participation research at the Summer School on Methods for the Study of Political Participation and Mobilization, in Florence, Italy.

The school is organised by the ECPR Standing Group on Participation and Mobilization and the Dipartimento di Scienze Politico-Sociali at the Scuola Normale Superiore.

 

Technologische soevereiniteit vol2

Constructing Technological Sovereignty

By Lonneke van der Velden, DATACTIVE   

A couple of weeks, ago a part of the DATACTIVE team attended the book launch of the Dutch translation of ‘Technological Sovereignty’ at the Hackerspace TechInc in Amsterdam. The main talk at the book launch was given by one of the authors of the book, Spideralex, a feminist researcher on ICT for the public good. In her talk, Spideralex introduced the notion of technological sovereignty as being inspired by some reflections by Margarita Padilla, a feminist thinker and programmer. Padilla’s claim is that we ‘lost’ technological sovereignty: people are increasingly dependent on (digital) technologies, and even the seemingly active use of these tools is passive, because the people do not control the resources. Control is mainly delegated to big corporations. In response to this, increasingly, perceived loss, Spideralex and others went on a conceptual and practical journey to find, redefine, and reclaim technological sovereignty.

Conceptually, they situated the notion of technological sovereignty in relation to other notions of sovereignty, such as, sovereignty in relation to land or territory, in relation to the body, and in relation to food. Especially the latter form and the existing cooperatives enacting food sovereignty in Catalonia have been inspirational for the authors to rethink the relation between technology, labor, fair production and distribution.

She referred to La Via Campesina, an international peasant’s movement, in which this notion is defined as follows:

‘Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation’ (Via Campesina, cited in “For Free Information and Open Internet” 2014, p.166).

Along similar lines, Spideralex explained that technologies should not only be of tactical use; they should become a domain that is produced and controlled by the people, and dedicated to social change.

Practically, a whole range of examples passed by. Such as a local alternative WIFI community network Guifi and feminist servers (run by feminists and dedicated to host websites supporting feminist issues). Sophie Toupin, a researcher from McGill University joining the talk, discussed a historical example of ‘project Vula’, an encrypted communication system used in the liberation struggle during the Apartheid regime (see Toupin 2016). Spideralex also addressed artisan techniques and reevaluated them as methods being learned within, and owned by, small communities.

Finally she spoke about Calafou, an ‘eco-industrial postcapitalist colony’ in Spain just outside of Barcelona. In the ruins of an old industrial workers colony, the Calafou collective built their own post-capitalist society. They live together as a community, and they organise festivals and events. There is a hacklab, they work on free libraries, trans-hack feminism, and they run a biolab in which they measure and target pollution, especially metals in the environment.

The discussion afterwards was very interesting. People discussed to what extent the notions of sovereignty and autonomy differed, and the localization of the term: in some places people might be more inclined to use sovereignty to describe their own practices than in other places. The situatedness of the understanding of the term also matters, of course, to the extent we can use it as an analytical concept. From a perspective on data activism, it is interesting to see how activists coin and develop conceptual notions to deal with the challenges of our time, in tandem with practical work; hence, to see ‘concept production’ in network cultures (Lovink and Rossiter 2012) in the making.

Information about the book

The book is available in multiple languages: https://sobtec.gitbooks.io/sobtec2/. It was translated into Dutch by Kel, Ivom, Winston, Ptrc, Lara, Kwadro, and is downloadable here . This volume 2 is a follow up to a first volume that was produced in 2014 and is available in French, Spanish, Catalan and Italian (also available in the git repo). Half of the articles were also translated to English in For Free Information and Open Internet: Independent journalists, community media and hacktivists take action.

The event was hosted by TechInc. More information about the event here.

 

 

Lonneke van der Velden is postdoctoral researcher with DATACTIVE and a lecturer at the department of media studies at the University of Amsterdam. Her research deals with internet surveillance and activism. She is part of the editorial board of Krisis, Journal for Contemporary Philosophy, and is on the Board of Directors of Bits of Freedom.   

 

References

“For Free Information and Open Internet: Independent journalists, community media and hacktivists take action” (2014). Ritmo, The Passerelle Collection, no. 11. https://www.coredem.info/IMG/pdf/pass11_an-2.pdf

Lovink, Geert and Ned Rossiter (2011). “In Praise of Concept Production: Formats, Schools and Non-Representational Media Studies. https://nedrossiter.org/?p=242

Spideralex (Ed). Technologische Soevereiniteit, Vol. 2, 2019. https://sobtec.gitbooks.io/sobtec2/nl/

Toupin, Sophie (2016). “Gesturing Towards ‘Anti-Colonial Hacking’ and Its Infrastructure’, The Journal of Peer Production (9).

Open Source Intelligence

Lonneke presented preliminary work on Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) at the Amsterdam Platform for Privacy Research meeting. It is part of an ongoing study into how OSINT takes place “in the public” by citizen journalists and activists, what kind of methods are being used, and what kind of epistemologies play a role.

Photo by Kaique Rocha from Pexels

Lonneke on Open Sourcing Open Source Intelligence

In late September, I gave a talk in which she considered the connections between Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) and data activism at the ‘DIGITAL CULTURES: Knowledge / Culture / Technology’ conference at Leuphana University Lüneburg. The presentation asked how OSINT might be understood through the prism of ‘data activist epistemologies’ (Milan and Van der Velden 2016).

The starting point for this interrogation is that Open Source Intelligence, despite its name, appears to have little in common with ‘open source’ cultures as we know them, for example through open source technologies. Open Source Intelligence simply means intelligence, for states or businesses, that is gathered from ‘open’ or publicly available sources. The initial question in the paper is, thus, one of terminology: What is really ‘open source’ about OSINT? And how might a critical interrogation of ‘open source’ change the way we think about OSINT? Hence the title of the talk: ‘Open Sourcing Open Source Intelligence’.

As a type of data activism, open source can be described as having its associated ‘epistemic culture’. This is a concept which refers to the diversity in modes of knowledge-making. ‘Epistemic culture’ originally comes from studies into scientific practices, and it directs attention to the ‘specific strategies that generate, validate, and communicate scientific accomplishments’ (Knorr-Cetina and Reichmann 2015, 873). It guides one’s focus toward the complex ‘relationships between experts, organisational formats, and epistemic objects’ (ibid. 873-4).

What we encounter in open source cultures is that knowledge is not legitimated institutionally, but technologically: the (open source) software function as a token of trust. The knowledge is legitimated because the software and the verification model can be reviewed, the methods are shared publicly, many of the findings are publicly shared, public learning is crucial and, ideally, expertise thus becomes distributed.

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), by contrast, is a practice that seems to belong to – and to be legitimated by – formal and relatively closed institutions such as intelligence agencies. Yet the label can usefully be reclaimed to describe activist projects – such as the Syrian Archive – which seek to put open source tools and principles in the service of a different kind of knowledge-making, one that is genuinely public-oriented and collective. The question thus becomes: What can we learn from the interface between OSINT and open source? What kind of knowledge is being made, how? And how might activist forms of OSINT inform our understanding of data activism broadly speaking?

Stay tuned for the forthcoming paper, which is being co-authored with Jeff Deutch from the Syrian Archive. It will no doubt be enriched by a good discussion with the conference audience.

The abstract for the talk is available through the full conference programme (pp. 215-6).

 

Lonneke van der Velden is postdoctoral researcher with DATACTIVE and a lecturer at the department of media studies at the University of Amsterdam. Her research deals with internet surveillance and activism. She is part of the editorial board of Krisis, Journal for Contemporary Philosophy, and is on the Board of Directors of Bits of Freedom.   

 

References:

Knorr Cetina, Karin, and Werner Reichmann (2015) Epistemic cultures, in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, ed. James D. Wright. Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 873-880.

Milan, Stefania, and Lonneke Van der Velden (2016) The Alternative Epistemologies of Data Activism. Digital Culture & Society 2(2) pp. 57-74.

Photo by Ngai Man Yan from Pexels

Organization After Social Media: orgnets and alternative socio-technical infrastructures

by Lonneke van der Velden

Last month, I was invited to be a respondent (together with Harriet Bergman) for the launch of Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter’s latest book, Organization After Social Media. The book is a collection of essays which re-interrogate the concerns and contributions of social movements and counter-cultural collectives in light of a significant contemporary problem: the existence of tech-monopolies such as Google and Facebook.

If social media cannot deliver on their promise to help collectives organize, how then should movements proceed? How to make such movements sustainable? The authors invite us to reflect on these issues through central concept of ‘organized networks’, or ‘orgnets’.

I liked many aspects of the book, but will highlight here two things I found interesting from the perspective of DATACTIVE’s own concerns. The first has to do with a re-evaluation of encryption, and the second with where we search for historical and theoretical lessons to help us organize ‘after social media’.

Re-evaluating encryption?

One thing I read in the book is a re-evaluation of encryption. Encryption is presented, not as an individual intervention, but as an intervention with a potential to allow for the emergence of collective forms. “The trick,” the authors tell us, “is to achieve a form of collective invisibility without having to reconstitute authority” (p. 5).

I think this collective potential of encryption is interesting. Research into activism in the UK after the Snowden revelations (Dencik, Hintz & Cable 2016) showed that digital rights groups tended to operate in a rather specialized space demarcated from issues championed by other groups and organizations. Digital rights organizations speak about privacy and freedom of speech, but hardly touch upon other social issues. And vice versa: organizations that work on, for instance, social justice issues, tend to regard digital rights as a working package for those specific NGOs that are dedicated to privacy. Encryption does not feature as a strategy that is part of their activist work. This has only partly to do with a lack of knowledge. What’s more, activists told the researchers that they want to do things in public, and using encryption is associated with having something to hide. This is a reductive summary of some of the findings by Dencik and others, but the study provides food for thought about how encryption is often precipitated.

What Lovink and Rossiter’s book nicely does is show that this is not the only possible way to conceive of encryption, opening up a different interpretation. Not one that stages privacy or security, which is a discourse about protection, but one that forefronts organized unpredictability, which is a more productive discourse about what encryption has to offer in terms of collective organization. This idea might be more interesting for activist groups; that is, if they are not interested in hiding, they might well want to remain unsuspected and surprising.

Against the background of the analysis that social media and algorithms make people readable and predictable, infrastructures that help organize unpredictability become important. In fact, from the discussion that followed with the authors during the book launch, it turned out that many of the concerns in the book relate to organizing unpredictability: merging the inventive (as exemplified by tactical media) with a wish for sustainability. How to build digital infrastructures that allow for the disruptive qualities that tactical media had in the past?

Some questions remain. Technologies of encryption are not infrastructures that can emerge out of the blue: they in turn need organized networks and communal work to remain up to date. Together with the audience at the book launch, we had an interesting back and forth about whether a notion of ‘community’, and community struggles, was needed.

Realizing organized networks

Another thing we talked about that evening was the tension between organized networks as a concept and as actually-existing practices. As the authors write: “Organized networks are out there. They exist. But they should still be read as a proposal. This is why we emphasize the design element. Please come on board to collectively define what orgnets could be all about.” (p. 16)

Hence, the authors invite anyone who has been part of an organized network, or thinks that he or she had been part of one, or wished that their network had been more organized, to ‘fill in’ their core concept. That means that much is left open in the book to the inventive powers of orgnet-organizers.

Technological infrastructures are an exception: the book is quite prescriptive in this regard, arguing for example that servers should not be centralized, and that we should prevent the emergence of tech-giants and develop alternative protocols and new spaces for action.

I could not help but wonder about the other kinds of prescription that are not so present in the book. Might we also offer prescriptive accounts in respect to things social movements experience over and over again, such as burnouts, internal strife, sexual harassment, and all things that hinder the sustainability of networks? And shouldn’t we reach out for documentation from, say, social movement studies or feminist histories, in addition to media theory? I am thinking about these in echo of Kersti’s and others’ discussion around community and critical community studies.

All in all, given that the focus of Lovink and Rossiter’s book is on forms of organization ‘after social media’, the choice of focusing on (alternative) socio-technical infrastructures is as understandable as it is valuable in itself. Indeed, it is an issue our research group cares about a lot; we hope to contribute to some of the causes laid out in the book.

The book can be ordered here and is also freely available online in pdf.

 

Lonneke van der Velden is a lecturer at the department of media studies at the University of Amsterdam. Her research deals with conceptualizations of internet surveillance and internet activism. She is also on the Board of Directors of Bits of Freedom.   

 

Dencik, Lina, Arne Hintz, and Jonathan Cable. 2016. “Towards Data Justice? The Ambiguity of Anti-Surveillance Resistance in Political Activism.” Big Data & Society 3 (2): 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951716679678.

Rossiter, Ned, and Geert Lovink. Organization after Social Media. Minor Compositions, 2018.