Category Archives: politics and global justice

Looking at things through a new Prism

Are we all Muslims now? It used to be that some people justified the “special” treatment of Muslims (detaining them without trials, monitoring their activities, or proposing that they carry a special ID) because, you know, we Muslims are all potential terrorists. But if leaked information about Prism is correct, it seems as if the US government is treating every citizen of the world as a potential terrorist. If the sign of a true democracy is that even the rights of the criminal, the foreigner and the dissenter are respected, what does that say about a system that violates everyone’s rights because they could be potential threats to the system?

surveillanceWe should begin by trying to understand why something like Prism exists today. It is not because all other options to make this a safer world have failed. It is simply because certain kinds of information have become extremely inexpensive and profitable to collect. Intelligence agencies have borrowed algorithms and models from the corporate world–sometimes collaborating with them directly, in a perfect marriage of surveillance, fear and profit–and applied them at a global level, collecting and analyzing vast amounts of what they claim is “only” metadata (data about our actions, but supposedly not the actual content of our electronic interactions with others). The reasoning is that if person X turns out to be a troublemaker, records of his or her exchanges with others might prove useful. Fair enough. The problem is the notion that in order to be able to go back and examine those records, authorities need to collect all the records from every single individual, which for the first time in history is relatively cheap and easy to do.

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“Off the Network” finally available

My book, Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital World, is finally available from the University of Minnesota Press.

You can pick up a paper copy from your favorite bookseller. Thanks to both Minnesota Press and SUNY Oswego, the book is also available in an open access format, so you can read or download the whole manuscript right now — for free!

You can share the news by using the link offthenetwork.info (which redirects you to the publisher’s page).

OTNcover

From the back cover:

“This is an extraordinary book. The ‘paranodal’ critique made in Off the Network demands that we look at the social spaces that lie between, and are ignored by, network nodes; at the material basis on top of which supposedly immaterial networks rest; and at the vertical structures of political economic power that control the apparent horizontality of networks. In doing so, Ulises Ali Mejias delivers a devastating intellectual slam against conventional thinking about the Internet from both the left and the right.”
— Nick Dyer-Witheford, coauthor of Games of Empire

Off the Network shows us that centralization of online services is not accidental. Take a look behind the social media noise and read how algorithms condition us. Ulises All Mejias carves out a postaffirmative theory of networks. No more debates about whether you are a dog or not; identity is over. Power returns to the center of Internet debates. Off the Network disrupts the illusion of seamless participation–it sides with the resisters and rejecters and teaches us to unthink the network logic. Its message: don’t take the network paradigm for granted.”
— Geert Lovink, author of Networks Without a Cause

Off the Network is a fresh and authoritative examination of how the hidden logic of the Internet, social media, and the digital network is changing users’ understanding of the world–and why that should worry us. Ulises Ali Mejias also suggests how we might begin to rethink the logic of the network and question its ascendancy. He argues that the digital network, touted as consensual, inclusive, and pleasurable, is also monopolizing and threatening in its capacity to determine, commodify, and commercialize so many aspects of our lives. Mejias shows how the network broadens participation yet also exacerbates disparity –and how it excludes more of society than it includes. The result is an uncompromising, sophisticated, and accessible critique of the digital world that increasingly dominates our lives.

 

Justice for Guatemala?

Efraín Ríos Montt, former president/dictator/army general of Guatemala during the 1980’s, has been found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role during that country’s civil war. This cannot begin to redress the suffering and loss of the Guatemalan people, nor does it do a sufficient job of holding accountable all the individuals who played a part in the genocide (including those in the U.S. government who provided arms and support). But it is a symbolic gesture. Too little, too late — but still something. (UPDATE: Scratch that. His conviction has been annulled. Said Ana Caba, an ethnic Ixil: “The powerful people do what they want and we poor and indigenous are devalued. We don’t get justice. Justice means nothing for us.”)

The trial of Ríos Montt has revived old memories, particularly around a documentary film project I produced as a student at Ithaca College in 1994. The film, titled Fight to Return, Return to Fight, follows a group of Guatemalan refugees in Chiapas, Mexico, as they make their way back to their homeland after a 10 year exile. Recently, I dug up the U-Matic tape and had the film transferred to DVD. It is not particularly good (it is, after all, a student film — although it did win the Best Documentary Award in my class). But I suppose it has some social and historical value.

(for best results, view video in latest version of Firefox or Safari)

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Some production and background information:

The idea for the film emerged after talking to a Guatemalan liberation theology priest I met in Mexico City. He put me in touch with the necessary contacts. In December 1993, I traveled to southern Chiapas and spent a few weeks living in various refugee camps, talking with and interviewing Mayans. Even though life in the camps was hard, I remember how warm and welcoming people were. I accompanied this group back to a communal ranch they had acquired in Chaculá, Guatemala, where they were planning to start their lives anew.

Interestingly, I was in Chiapas in January of 1994, when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation began its uprising in Mexico. While we were close to the action, the refugees and I were probably the last to learn what was going on. I remember the fighter jets flying above us, and later listening to the radio in the middle of the jungle to try to figure out what was happening.

The film was shot in 8mm video and 16mm film (this was before the age of HD), and was edited on 3/4″ video (before the age of digital non-linear editing). One interesting anecdote is that I purchased the cheapest 16mm film camera I could find at the time, a Russian Krasnogorsk (less than $300, I think; the film and processing were donated by Ithaca College). As I was making my way back to Mexico City after filming, the military presence in Chiapas was substantial. So I am traveling in a little truck with various campesinos, and we get stopped at a check point. I am a chilango traveling with a Russian camera, so needless to say I stand out and the suspicious soldiers start asking me questions (there were all sorts of conspiracy theories about comunistas going around). I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but I guess I talked my way out of what could have been a nasty situation.

I hope one day I can go back to Chaculá to see what has become of the people I met. I did find this online report that seems to be talking about the same community.

 

 

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).]

From Free Markets to Free Internets (Disassembled Spaces)

disassembled spaces

(cross post with FLEFF’s Dissassembled Spaces blog)

Most people assume that if you Google something in the US and you do the same in another country, you will get the same results. It’s called the World Wide Web, right? Not so. Countries can and do exert influence on search engine companies to control the results that their citizens can access. Which is why there’s been a lot of talk recently about whether Google will pull out of China. Apparently, the Internet giant whose code of conduct is “Don’t be evil” has finally gotten tired of the Chinese Communist Party stipulating the kind of search results it can or cannot provide. Competing for a share of one of the world’s largest markets is good and well, but after it was revealed that the attacks that compromised the private information of thousands of Google users came from China, the company decided that enough was enough. Although no final decision has been made, the mere mention that Google was considering leaving China was major news.

In the West, the move has been celebrated as a slap in the face of internet censorship. At the same time, there have been concerns that the withdrawal of Google from the Chinese market will make things worse for people there. The assumption is that Google’s services do provide a little bit of freedom inside the great firewall of China (one theory behind the cause of the cyber attacks on Google is that the Chinese government was interested in spying on dissidents’ Gmail accounts). This would seem to suggest, to put it plainly, that Google and the rest of the big Web companies are important tools in the struggle to spread freedom and democracy in China and elsewhere in the world (recall the recent hubbub about Twitter saving Iran, Facebook liberating Moldova, etc.).

To build momentum for this idea, Google’s announcement was followed a couple of days later by a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The topic was Internet Freedom. Because of its importance in facilitating communication and dialogue across various divides, Secretary Clinton argued that the US government is interested in ensuring that the Internet remains Free. “We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas,” she said.

But what does this “single Internet” that the US government is interested in promoting look like? We need to take a closer look and ask questions. Simply sticking the word Free in front of something and saying it’s good for world democracy is not enough. Remember a little something called the Free Market? Just as that particular contraption was an important instrument in creating more global inequality, my fear is that the Free Internet –as envisioned by corporations and promoted by the US– will only allow the rich to get richer.

For one thing, is the US in a position to champion freedoms it itself is not willing to respect? During her speech, Clinton remarked: “As it stands, Americans can consider information presented by foreign governments. We do not block your attempts to communicate with the people in the United States. But citizens in societies that practice censorship lack exposure to outside views.” So what about the role of the US in preventing people in those countries from being exposed to certain views? I guess the Secretary of State had not been briefed on a recent bill approved by Congress that imposes sanctions on Arab satellite channels deemed hostile to the United States. If you want to block people from tuning in to the Hezbollah channel, at least don’t pretend that you are above using censorship to achieve your political ends.

Besides, does anyone really believe that ever-expanding corporate conglomerates are the best champions of democracy? Global capitalism’s track record seems to suggest otherwise. Just ask the people of the world what companies like Union Carbide, Dow, Shell, United Fruit, DuPont, Monsanto and so on and so on have done for their democracies. Given that history, companies that believe in Not Being Evil represent a complete and welcomed change, but I’m still not convinced that we should completely surrender our online public spaces and cultural products to corporations, specially when those spaces and products are important platforms for challenging authority. Secretary Clinton herself said that “…the internet can help humanity push back against those who promote violence and crime and extremism. In Iran and Moldova and other countries, online organizing has been a critical tool for advancing democracy and enabling citizens to protest suspicious election results.” But as Evgeny Morozov argues, the losses in online privacy that come from using “free” corporate-controlled social media tools may not be worth the gains in online mobilization.

Just don’t tell that to the State Department. At a 2009 Alliance of Youth Movements summit in Mexico City, where the supposed goal was to figure out ways to reduce drug-related violence, the co-sponsors (along with the US State Department) included Facebook, MySpace (owned by Rupert Murdoch), Google, YouTube, Pepsi and MTV. One doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to feel a bit troubled by what seemed like the perfect marriage of US foreign policy and for-profit interests, cloaked in the language of liberal democracy and its purported promotion of human rights and freedom. In an age when social network analysis is becoming an increasingly important tool for securing the homeland, what better way to keep an eye on the ‘volatile’ youth of the developing world than to have them voluntarily fill out detailed profiles of themselves and their friends? And if they can do that while drinking AMP Energy and watching Jersey Shore, so much the better, it seems.

Resources:

Authority, Meet Technology: Slate/New America Foundation discussion about China, Google, and Internet freedom.
http://www.slate.com/id/2241755/workarea/3/

Arab ministers slam US congress satellite decision
http://blogs.rnw.nl/medianetwork/arab-ministers-slam-us-congress-satellite-decision

Clinton urges Internet freedom, condemns cyber attacks
http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE60K1V220100121?type=technologyNews

Hillary Rodham Clinton, Remarks on Internet Freedom
http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2010/01/135519.htm

Evgeny Morozov, Testimony to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
http://www.csce.gov/index.cfm?Fuseaction=Files.Download&FileStore_id=1526

Privacy May Be a Victim in Cyberdefense Plan
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/13/us/politics/13cyber.html?_r=1

Post-Racial America? A Debate

I recently participated in a formal debating exercise as part of my school’s ALANA Conference. We were randomly assigned a position to argue, and I was part of the team debating that we have not seen the end of racism just because we have a black president. Since I believe that to be the case, it was easy to debate that position. Below are my notes from the debate. Interestingly, a big part of the debate ended up being about what constitutes ‘institutional’ racism. We know that racism prevails, even at an institutional level. But does the fact that these institutions officially renounce racism and have mechanisms for the redress of grievances mean that racism is no longer institutional? Does it make a difference?

Resolved: We have seen the end of racism in the United States
with the election of the first President of Color

Ulises Mejias: “No, we have not.”

Rebuttal (4 mins):

Racism is a system of group privilege. In the US, this means that white people have constructed a system where they enjoy certain advantages just by virtue of being white, and where they deny these advantages to non-white people.

The election of a black president has not magically dismantled this system of oppression, which has been developed over the course of centuries. In contrast to my opponents’ genuine but misplaced optimism, I would like to offer some plain facts that suggest racism is not on its way out:

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Article by my wife

There’s a new piece in the online ‘Comment is Free’ section of the UK newspaper The Guardian by my wife that I think is (obviously) quite brilliant.

Only Muslims can change their society

The sub-heading is: “The US invasion of Afghanistan had nothing to do with its women – change in Islamic nations must come from within.”

Participatory Culture and the Internet of the Masses

Andrea Batista Schlesinger is executive director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy (a non-partisan, non-profit think tank founded during the Civil Rights Movement that generates ideas that fuel the progressive movement). She is currently working on the forthcoming book The Death of Why, to be released in Spring of 2009. After looking at my blog and reading what I had said in a 2006 panel (the MacArthur Online Discussions on Civic Engagement, PDF transcript here) she contacted me to ask some questions about the role of the Internet in promoting civic participation. Our email exchange, reproduced with her permission, follows:

Andrea Batista Schlesinger: You write that “We should be less concerned about designing technologies that will afford young people ‘satisfying participation opportunities’ and more concerned about ensuring that new generations can challenge and question the opportunities that are ‘offered’ to them. The goal –for young people as well as old– should be the self-critical individual.” Do you think that the Internet — either as a medium, or as an environment — inspires/encourages such self-critique? Do you think that digital natives are more or less likely to be interested in and have the capacity for inquiry and/or self-reflection? Continue reading