Assemblages of Resistance: new media, old technology and the Egyptian Uprising


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Paper presented by Dan Mcquillan and myself at the Network Politics conference, Cambridge, 15 May 2011.

The presentation is text heavy, so I strongly suggest consulting the notes as you view.

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  • Idea of web being dead is problematic – is it a good or bad thing?Bad for today’s conference where it’s used as a negative metaphor to imply growth of dominant, proprietary platforms choking political expressionGood if we can kill an over-simplistic conceptualisation that has led to misinterpretation, unsatisfactory analysis/interpretation and limited the potential scope for effective praxisWe do not intend to support the former trajectory but we do want to challenge the latter and doing so hope to re-assess what is meant by the ‘web’ and by extension ‘networked politics/activism’ and how we can learn from this reconceptualisation for future research and tactics of resistanceWe do this from a position of activist-researchers
  • To understand where this simplistic conceptualisation comes from a historical precedent in the social sciences where complex social and material interactions become categorised into – often homogenous - pre-existing groups or concepts (Latour 2005)These are then understood through the application of general theories built predominently on ‘the relations between parts and wholes, wholes that constitute a seamless totality or that display an organic unity." (DeLanda 2006, 9)Thisleads us to unsatisfactory thinking about the web and networked activism tending to fall out along the lines of cyber-optimist or cyber-scepticreinforces existing practices (cyber-sceptic) or agent-centric empowerment (cyber-optimist)**PLACE SOCIAL SCIENCE MISCONCEPTIONS LEAD ONTO WIDER SIMPLIFICATIONS/POLARISATION WITHIN SOCIETY**Worse still is where these abstractions based on existing conceptualisations of the web are further reducted into platform specific abstractions (often by academics without thorough knowledge of how digital practices function). We see this in Twitter revolution (Morozov 2009 & Palfrey 2009); Facebook Resistance (OII 2011); etcNeither yield particularly useful results or move conceptualisation of networked politics/activism beyond what we already knowWe need to move beyond these approaches
  • Moving forward tentatively…Chadwick (2007; 2011a & 2011b) has taken steps to address this issue within the field of political science. Building on work of Charles Tilly and collective action repertoires he develops digital network reps to demonstrate “organisational hybridity”Distributed trust across a largely horizontal network ----- adoption and co-option of sedimentary and hitherto dormant networksFusing of overtly political and sub-cultural discourses ---- creating publicly appealing and convergent is an example of a “genuinely new organisational type” / “hybrid mobilisation movement’Whilst this definitely moves in the right direction – i.e. the internet creates “rapid institutional adaption and experimentation” = organisatonalhybridityThere are however limitations: Chadwicks work has focused on distinct types of pre-existant political organisation even though early on he acknowledges that recent literature indicates these distinctions are rarely accurate or true to lifeAs a result he concludes that "The outcomes of these processes [digital network repertoires and organisational hybridity] are not genuinely 'new' forms of political mobilization, but are best understood as combinations of pre-existing forms" (2005, 2) [italics not in original]. Thus he attains not necessarily a new conceptualisation of networked political activism but rather a revised conceptualisation made from existing formsWe wan to build on chadwick and1) conceive of hybridity as an open-ended heterogeneity2) create an approach that supports and encourages the ongoing deconstruction and reassembling of established practices 
  • MOVING forward in all directionsHow we do this is by taking the lead from more recent work Chadwick is undertaking which has pointed us towards assemblages and assemblage theoryThis provides us with a conceptual bridge to the work of deleuze and guattari and subsequntly DeLanda who generate the notion of assemblages as emerging from a system of thought/ontology that:‘synthesizes a multiplicity of elements without effacing their heterogeneity or hindering their potential for future rearranging’ (Massumi in Deleuze and Guattari 1987)We see this as our conceptual starting point: to seek out an interpretation of networked political activism based on open-ended and contingent possibilities arising through properties of capacity
  • Our first challenge for developing such an interpretation is one of identifying and interpreting networked politicalactivism if it's premised on a contingent logicwhose capacities are ultimately unknowable beforehand?We can't know what should / will / is likely to happen. Thus inDeLanda'sterms we can’t investigate this phenomena by thought, we need empirical analysis.This situation is one that has pre-occupiedLatour in his work on critical sociology. He asserts the need to trace associations between actors – of course meaning at an individual, collective and material level.This is what we've attempted to do in the case of Egypt 
  • It’s worth saying that the networked activism in Egypt can be traced across a number of differentphases:What interests us most here is the period ‘Post-cut-off’ With hindsight and interpretation it’s more interesting for our purposesWhich is to recognise the deconstruction of the “web” and its reassembly as an assemblage of resistance
  • What we can start to see is networked activism being re-assembledthrough relations of exteriority – that is, innovative activist practices independent from and not constituted as parts of a totalistic wholeAs a result they are characterised not by their properties as part of a whole – e.g. Tweets,Facebook events posts or comments within a blog This exteriority gives rise to emergent capacities that are crucial to recognising the radical potential of platforms as elements of assemblages, rather than seeing them as homogenous ‘choke points’ in networks‘While [a component’s] properties are given and may be denumerable as a closed list, capacities are not given - they may go unexercised if no entity suitable for interaction is around - and form a potentially open list, since there is no way to tell in advance in what way a given entity may affect or be affected by innumerable other entities.’ (DeLanda 2011)
  • Conceptualising networked activism along relations of exteriority enables to move beyond organic or holistic interpretations of pre-existent platforms, technologies or mobilisation groupsAssemblages also enable usto observe how components function at different scales and in different forms Firstly, assemblagecomponents can be purely materialFor e.g.- the use of the Opera browser is arguably purely materialthe financial ISP network is arguably purely materialOr component can be purely expressiveFor e.g.- #jan25 or #egypt operate as expressive entities creating solidarity- DirectIP addresses for Twitter/FacebookAs can tweets, blog posts, etcBUT components can be bothFor e.g.Tor (as software tool providing a material function *and* expression of solidarity by global adoption or wifi routers in Tahriri sq givingweb access AND solidarity between protestors and supporters/residents
  • This material-expressive contingent logic of assemblagessubsequently impacts on identity and effiicacyRather than remaining whole and clearly defined, processes of territorialisation and deterritorialisation are consistently work among aggregated componentsTerritorialisingstabilises assemblage identity either by increasing its internal homogeneity or by sharpening boundariesDetaerritorialisingdestabilises by decreasing homogeneity and making boundaries more blurredE.g. #jan25 hashtag, sharing wifi access in tahrir square and Tor relays increased solidarity giving greater identityAdoption of different technologies increased homogeneity but rapidly changing infrastructural situation meant switches to new tools and an increasingly fluid state of territorialisiation/deterritorialisation
  • Combining these insights gives rise to the realisation that the emergence and interaction of component capacities expressed as combinatory possibilities of material-expressive and territorialising-deterritorialising effects should be seen as a a tactic of resistanceAssemblages built on this complex, contingent logic can’t pre-judged or planned for by thought alone (DeLanda) making attempts to develop containment strategies and efforts to territorialise the movementhardThelearning here is that while Egyptian government thought it could deterritorilise and destabilise the movement and events by removing the technology and infrastructure it discovered that as an assemblage, resistance was resilient The internet and sub-parts/domains, e.g twitter, Facebook, etc conceptualised as the whole platform or holistic/organistic parts thereof so their removal would be enough to destroy the movementIn reality, resistance conceptualised as an assemblage meant removing networks and platforms was not enoughThat is, ‘[a] seamless whole is inconceivable except as a synthesis of [its]very parts, that is, the linkages between its components form logically necessary relations which make the whole what it is. But in an assemblage these relations may be only contingently obligatory. While logically necessary relations may be investigated by thought alone, contingently obligatory ones involve a consideration of empirical questions, (DeLanda 2011, 11)
  • Working with an ontology of assemblages lets us think our way past the potential choke points of platform politics, both theory and practice.We’re steered in this direction by tracing the actual practice of people in an uprising.But if assemblage thinking opens up a vista of possibilities, what is the praxis? How can we activate this ontology?we look to the ideas of Abstract Hacktivism described by von busch and palmas (2006).
  • What is a hacker? the nine definitions of the “jargon file”, the glossary of hacker slang:A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary(7) One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.
  • Assemblages of Resistance: new media, old technology and the Egyptian Uprising

    1. 1. Assemblages of Resistance:New media, old technology & the Egyptian uprising
    2. 2. Our aim is to kill over-simplistic conceptualisations of the social web that lead to unsatisfactory analyses and limit scope for praxisWe then suggest what this re-conceptualisation tells us about the direction of future research as well as tactics for resistance
    3. 3. Current theories are built predominantly on „relations between parts andwholes, wholes that constitute a seamless totality or that display an organic unity" (DeLanda 2006, 9) represented by platform or technology focused
    4. 4. Chadwick‟s work on „digital network repertoires‟ and „organisationalhybridity‟ (2005 & 2007) opens new possibilities for conceptualising the social web‟s role in political mobilisation
    5. 5. Organisational hybridity limits a full reconceptualisation of the social web due to it recombination of ”pre-existing forms" (2005, 2)Chadwick‟s recent work opens up further possibilities by drawing on the concept of assemblages (DeLanda 2006; Deleuze & Guattari 1987)
    6. 6. Assemblage theory is taken as our conceptual starting point as it enables us to interpret networked activism as „a multiplicity ofelements without effacing their heterogeneity or hindering their potential for future rearranging‟ (Deleuze&Guattari 1987)
    7. 7. Networked activism emerging from assemblages built on contingentlogic can‟t be interpreted by thought alone. We need to empiricallycapture and study the associative „traces‟ left behind (Latour 2005)
    8. 8. Following internet cut-off a “pragmatic deconstruction of the social web” (McQuillan 2011) takes place a re- assembling of activist practices becomes visible
    9. 9. Post cut-off timeline Noor Group Passwords Opera browser Stock Exchange removed on used as proxy ISP exploited Tahrir Sq wfi Telecomix set-up Dial-up services Tor comes into ham radio & fax- initiated use to-web services Speak2tweet & BBS service goes Internet crackles @Jan25voices live back into life launch McQuillan 2011
    10. 10. Components function at differentscales and in different forms along a material <-> expressive axis…
    11. 11. … and territorialising<->deterritorialising
    12. 12. The emergence of capacities expressed through open-endedcombinatory possibilities of material-expressive and territorialising-deterritorialising effects can’t be accounted for a priori.Thus containment strategies become impossible and the contingentlogic of assemblages becomes a tactic of resistance.
    13. 13.  BY-NC-SA 2.0) by 3arabawy on Flickr (CC
    14. 14. “We do not know of what the body is capable”