E-mobility versus Immobility at Electrosmog

On: March 20, 2010
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About Morgan Currie
I’m an American with eight years of experience in video production, but today I'm a student in Amsterdam, thinking a lot about mediums, the Media, technology, and humans & machines communicating in their specific, special ways. I'm finding methods to give these thoughts a space of their own.


De Balie’s Electrosmog festival this week argues that in the age of hypermobility, staying put can be a tactic of sustainability in itself. The festival self-consciously explores the ways we might reduce our carbon footprint by substituting technology for physical presence. Implementing a ‘no fly’ rule, the festival links panelists and performers around the world via live internet stream or, for anyone in Amsterdam, on LCD screens at De Balie’s theater room.

But the carbon traces of the hypermobile are a mess made by only a few – most people on this planet can’t afford to travel even if they wanted to. For many the Internet substitutes as the portal to the rest of the world. Yesterday’s panel “E-mobility versus Immobility” acknowledged this and discussed the challenges specific to online terrains, where the problems aren’t gas-guzzling engines, but surveillance and censorship. Online activists especially are too often unaware of the digital footprints they leave behind them, and in some countries this can have serious consequences.

To publicize this threat, Global Voices has created Threatened Voices, “a collaborative mapping project to build a database of bloggers who have been threatened, arrested, or killed.”  Their advocacy director Sami Gharbia presented the online map over video chat. As a crowd sourcing platform, anyone can submit a report to add a dot on the map, or can link to grassroots campaigns aiding specific cyber activists. The map ties to a time-line visualization of arrests, typically spiking around election cycles. This data “helps us understand where and why bloggers have been repressed,” said Gharbia, “and helps them prepare a strategy to predict this.” But could this visibility only make them more vulnerable, asked Eric Kluitenberg, the festival’s director? Gharbia explained that Global Voices first contacts the family to ask if they can make case public. Also many bloggers are happy to have their stories told and possibly picked up by mainstream media, putting more foreign pressure on their countries.

Laurent Giocobino from Sesawe, next presented a book called Circumvention Tools, a freely downloadable floss manual on how to bypass censorship. The book addresses users’ naivety about online filtering and surveillance; its counter tactics include hiding IP addresses or installing web proxies. The manual, downloaded 9000 times already, comes in Chinese, Burmese, Spanish, Arabic, and Russian translations.

Tactical Tech, a tech NGO helping human rights advocates, also wrote an anti-censorship manual called “Security in a Box.” It teaches you to build “a secure digital presence,” said Ali Ravi who presented the booklet, and also fosters an online community of users who constantly update its information. And like FLOSS’s Circumvention Tools, it’s generally useful for anyone who wants to track their online data or route around surveillance.

The rest of the presentation unfolded as a debate about the overall effectiveness of these interventions. Reinder Rustema, an activist himself who took part in Amsterdam’s publicly funded Digital City project in the 90s, responded with skepticism. Rustema criticized the Internet as a politically weak tool and shifted the emphasis from protecting individual freedoms and online privacy to the more ambitious project of regime change. He mentioned the ebullient 90s, when activists thought the Net could overthrow governments, only to realize that mass mobilization wasn’t possible through web-only campaigns.  His concern is that bloggers and e-activists stay in the margins, while “the thing is to reach mass public…We need to a hijack TV station. Overthrowing regimes is difficult and requires a lot of people, even millions to get anywhere.” At the end of the day, only states can “flip the switch” and demand telecomms to do things their way, so if activists really want to protect privacy, they need install new laws through the court system.

Gharbia countered that government censorship of social websites or deep packet inspection is itself an indication that states fear the internet. Also, the web is changing citizen behavior – look at the youth in the Middle East, China, and Iran who are accustomed to expressing themselves with computers.  “If you take away their freedom to publish what they want, or use video sharing websites, they would protest. There is a theory about this, that people who not politically active will be when they face censorship.”

According to Ravi, what matters isn’t regime overhaul at all, but the empowerment of individuals. “In post election in Iran, people have said they would have died if someone outside had not heard about it. The purpose of Twitter and Facebook isn’t to mobilize masses, and that’s not possible, but for the empowerment of four or five people who know the outside world knows…Governments want to marginalize activists by saying their voice doesn’t exist. It’s an existential empowerment, as opposed to a blanketing media power.”

And sometimes the Internet publicizes information that could never wind up on the radio or TV, pointed out Giocobino, such as a women’s rights campaign in Iran petitioning for relaxed clothing laws. Menso Heus, also on the panel and a consultant on internet innovation and hacking, said the notion that the internet could bring down a regime was certainly naive, but so is thinking the mass media could do the same. Instead, internet resistance should be viewed as a small signal letting people know they’re not alone. “In the second World War, for instance, the voice of underground was always repressed, but it was still important. During the Iran election, the mainstream news in the West would have dropped coverage much sooner if it weren’t for the persistence of online media hype.”

To conclude, Kluitenberg evoked Lyotard’s call to “open all the databases,” something the 01.org art project put into practice with their Life Sharing project by converting their private computers into servers, exposing their life’s minutiae, social security numbers and all, to the web. Can total openness be another kind of resistance? “What’s important,” insisted Ali, at the close of the session, “is that the choice between anonymity and transparency isn’t removed.”  Ideally we’d have it all.

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