Author Archives: ulises

Summer 2012

Istanbul

reset

On May 21, I participated in a roundtable discussion as part of a seminar on The Promises of Democracy in Troubled Times, organized by Reset DOC.

Sydney

uws

On June 18, I was invited to give a seminar on my work at the University of Western Sydney. I had the opportunity to meet wonderful colleagues from the Institute for Culture and Society and the Global Media Journal. On June 19, I delivered a keynote lecture as part of UWS’ Interventions and Intersections post-graduate conference.

Upcoming Talks: 4S & Peace Studies Conference

liberation-technologyI’m giving two talks in the next few days.

The first one is titled “Brought to you by Twitter: Revolutions and Social Media Monopsonies,” to be presented on November 4 at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) in Cleveland.

I’m also giving the plenary address at the 23rd Annual Peace Studies Conference: Globalized Restructuring, New Media, and Mobilization. The talk is titled “Liberation Technology, Popular Uprisings, and Neoliberal Ideology.” The talk is on Nov. 12 at Le Moyne College, Syracuse. I believe it will be Skyped for those who cannot attend in person. The registration form is here (pdf).

If you are attending either one of these events, please let me know!

Our chapter in ‘Activist Art in Social Justice Pedagogy’

activist-art

My colleague Dr. Pat Clark, her grad students Peter Cavana, Dan Herson and Sharon Strong, and I, have just published a chapter titled “Interactive Social Media and the Art of Telling Stories: Strategies for Social Justice Through Osw3go.net 2010” in B. Beyerbach and R. D. Davis (eds.) Activist Art in Social Justice Pedagogy (2011, Peter Lang Publishing). The chapter describes our experience designing and running an Alternate Reality Game about racism on campus.

Here’s the publisher’s page for the book.

Unfriend Your Monopoly: Proposals and Projects

unthinkI recently helped to put together a proposal for a project headed by Geert Lovink (Institute of Network Cultures/HvA, Amsterdam) and Korinna Patelis (Cyprus University of Technology, Lemasol) called Unlike Us – Understanding Social Media Monopolies and their Alternatives.

The project is just getting started (no events or outcomes have been planned yet), but the proposal delineates the following objectives:

The aim of this proposal is to establish a research network of artists, designers, scholars, activists and programmers who work on ‘alternatives in social media’. Through workshops, conferences, online dialogues and publications, Unlike Us intends to both analyze the economic and cultural aspects of dominant social media platforms and to propagate the further development and proliferation of alternative, decentralized social media software.

See the full proposal for more details and info on how to join.

Interestingly, Anonymous just announced that they plan to create their own social networking platform, anonplus (after some of their members got kicked out of Google+, apparently).

Anyway, my contributions to the Unlike Us proposal were inspired by an article I just submitted to an open journal, and which should be coming out in the Fall, hopefully. The article is titled “Liberation Technology and the Arab Spring: From Utopia to Atopia and Beyond.” Here’s the abstract:

While the tendency in the West to refer to the Arab Spring movements as “Twitter Revolutions” has passed, a liberal discourse of “liberation technology” (information and communication technologies that empower grassroots movements) continues to influence our ideas about networked participation. Unfortunately, this utopian discourse tends to circumvent any discussion of the capitalist market structure in which these tools operate. In this paper, I suggest that liberation technologies may in fact increase opportunities for political participation, but that they simultaneously create certain kinds of inequalities. I end by proposing a theoretical framework for locating alternative practices of participation and liberation.

The Twitter Revolution Must Die

tear gas canisterHave you ever heard of the Leica Revolution? No?

That’s probably because folks who don’t know anything about “branding” insist on calling it the Mexican Revolution. An estimated two million people died in the long struggle (1910-1920) to overthrow a despotic government and bring about reform. But why shouldn’t we re-name the revolution not after a nation or its people, but after the “social media” that had such a great impact in making the struggle known all over the world: the photographic camera? Even better, let’s name the revolution not after the medium itself, but after the manufacturer of the cameras that were carried by people like Hugo Brehme to document the atrocities of war. Viva Leica, cabrones!

My sarcasm is, of course, a thinly veiled attempt to point out how absurd it is to refer to events in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere as the Twitter Revolution, the Facebook Revolution, and so on. What we call things, the names we use to identify them, has incredible symbolic power, and I, for one, refuse to associate corporate brands with struggles for human dignity. I agree with Jillian York when she says:

“… I am glad that Tunisians were able to utilize social media to bring attention to their plight.  But I will not dishonor the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi–or the 65 others that died on the streets for their cause–by dubbing this anything but a human revolution.”

Granted, as Joss Hands points out, there appears to be more skepticism than support for the idea that tools like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are primarily responsible for igniting the uprisings in question. But that hasn’t stopped the internet intelligentsia from engaging in lengthy arguments about the role that technology is playing in these historic developments. One camp, comprised of people like Clay Shirky, seem to make allowances for what Cory Doctorow calls the “internet’s special power to connect and liberate.” On the other side, authors like Ethan Zuckerman, Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov have proposed that while digital media can play a role in organizing social movements, it cannot be counted on to build lasting alliances, or even protect net activists once authorities start using the same tools to crack down on dissent.

Both sides are, perhaps, engaging in a bit of technological determinism–one by embellishing the agency of technology, the other by diminishing it. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between, and philosophers of technology settled the dispute of whether technology shapes society (technological determinism) or society shapes technology (cultural materialism) a while ago: the fact is that technology and society mutually and continually determine each other.

So why does the image of a revolution enabled by social media continue to grab headlines and spark the interest of Western audiences, and what are the dangers of employing such imagery? My fear is that the hype about a Twitter/Facebook/YouTube revolution performs two functions: first, it depoliticizes our understanding of the conflicts, and second, it whitewashes the role of capitalism in suppressing democracy.

To elaborate, the discourse of a social media revolution is a form of self-focused empathy in which we imagine the other (in this case, a Muslim other) to be nothing more than a projection of our own desires, a depoliticized instant in our own becoming. What a strong affirmation of ourselves it is to believe that people engaged in a desperate struggle for human dignity are using the same Web 2.0 products we are using! That we are able to form this empathy largely on the basis of consumerism demonstrates the extent to which we have bought into the notion that democracy is a by-product of media products for self-expression, and that the corporations that create such media products would never side with governments against their own people.

It is time to abandon this fantasy, and to realize that although the internet’s original architecture encouraged openness, it is becoming increasingly privatized and centralized. While it is true that an internet controlled by a handful of media conglomerates can still be used to promote democracy (as people are doing in Tunisia, Egypt, and all over the world), we need to reconsider the role that social media corporations like Facebook and Twitter will play in these struggles.

The clearest way to understand this role is to simply look at the past and current role that corporations have played in “facilitating” democracy elsewhere. Consider the above image of the tear gas canister fired against Egyptians demanding democracy. The can is labeled Made in U.S.A.

But surely it would be a gross calumny to suggest that ICT are on the same level as tear gas, right? Well, perhaps not. Today, our exports encompass not only weapons of war and riot control used to keep in power corrupt leaders, but tools of internet surveillance like Narusinsight, produced by a subsidiary of Boeing and used by the Egyptian government to track down and “disappear” dissidents.

Even without citing examples of specific Web companies that have aided governments in the surveillance and persecution of their citizens (Jillian York documents some of these examples), my point is simply that the emerging market structure of the internet is threatening its potential to be used by people as a tool for democracy. The more monopolies (a market structure characterized by a single seller) control access and infrastructure, and the more monopsonies (a market structure characterized by a single buyer) control aggregation and distribution of user-generated content, the easier it is going to be for authorities to pull the plug, as just happened in Egypt.

I’m reminded of the first so-called Internet Revolution. Almost a hundred years after the original Mexican Revolution, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation launched an uprising in southern Mexico to try to address some of the injustices that the first revolution didn’t fix, and that remain unsolved to this day. But back in 1994, Subcomandante Marcos and the rest of the EZLN didn’t have Facebook profiles, or use Twitter to communicate or organize. Maybe their movement would have been more effective if they had. Or maybe it managed to stay alive because of the decentralized nature of the networks the EZLN and their supporters used.

My point is this: as digital networks grow and become more centralized and privatized, they increase opportunities for participation, but they also increase inequality, and make it easier for authorities to control them.

Thus, the real challenge is going to be figuring out how to continue the struggle after the network has been shut off. In fact, the struggle is going to be against those who own and control the network. If the fight can’t continue without Facebook and Twitter, then it is doomed. But I suspect the people of Iran, Tunisia and Egypt (unlike us) already know this, out of sheer necessity.

[Ulises A. Mejias is assistant professor at the State University of New York, College at Oswego. His book on digital networks and inequality is coming out in Fall 2012 by University of Minnesota Press.]

[UPDATE: This post has been linked to by Forbes.com and The Huffington Post, mentioned by Inside Higher Ed and Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, reproduced in the French online magazine OWNI, the P2P Foundation wiki, and published in The Post-Standard‘s opinion section (central NY’s leading newspaper).]

NCA Session: Media Ecology on the New Media Frontier

Anyone going to NCA?

I will be participating at the 96th Annual Convention of the National Communication Association (Sunday, Nov 14 – Wednesday Nov 17, 2010, San Francisco).

The session is titled Media Ecology on the New Media Frontier and is sponsored by the Media Ecology Association.

It will be held Wednesday Nov 17 – 8:00am – 9:15am at the Parc 55 Hotel, Balboa Room.

Session Participants:

Chair: Robert MacDougall (Curry College)
Respondent: David Linton (Marymount Manhattan College)
Papers:

Mapping Experience: Chorographical Representations of Place in Google Maps
Lauren Elizabeth Clark (North Carolina State University)

Many-to-One: Social Media and the Rise of the Monopsony
Ulises Mejias (SUNY Oswego)

Becoming Bombs: 3D Satellite Imagery and the Weaponization of the Eye
Roger Stahl (University of Georgia)

Exploring the News Ecosystem
Christine Tracy (Eastern Michigan University)

Two Publications

Two papers that just came out:

The Limits of Networks as Models for Organizing the Social. In the journal New Media & Society, (12) 4, 603-617. Subscription required to download, but your school might have a license.

nms

Also, the Spanish version of the e-book for the 4th Inclusiva.net Meeting: P2P Networks and Processes (Madrid, 6-10 July 2009) just came out. It contains my article Peerless: The Ethics of P2P Network Disassembly (pp. 56-66), along with many other excellent pieces. And it’s a free download!

inet

Video of talk at Georgetown Communications Symposium

The video from Georgetown University’s Scholarly Communications Symposium, Social Media: Implicatons for Teaching and Learning, is now available.

geogetown

Even though I had the difficult task of presenting the “dissenting” view, I learned a lot from participating in the session and I really enjoyed meeting the folks at Georgetown. Here’s the blurb about the event from the website:

Social media tools have gained widespread use across our campuses in a very short time. Many academic disciplines are also adopting these online tools as they embrace collaboration and interactivity. The implications of these developments are profound–not only for scholars and students but also for the potential transformation of the teaching and learning process. How do social media networks change the way our students learn and our faculty teach? How is the traditional classroom relationship altered? Are students becoming more active and engaged learners? The speakers were Gerry McCartney, Vice President for Information Technology and CIO and Oesterle Professor of Information Technology, Purdue University; Edward Maloney, Director of Research and Learning Technology at the Center for New Designs in Leaning and Scholarship and Visiting Assistant Professor of English, Georgetown University; and Ulises Mejias, Assistant Professor of New Media in the Communication Studies Department at the State University of New York at Oswego.

You can also download the video directly from iTunes U.