When I was in graduate school, my colleagues and friends introduced me to Charles Tilly’s Workshop on Contentious Politics. The workshop met weekly and featured a diverse pool of speakers from the sociology and cognate departments at Columbia and nearby universities. In structuring the workshop, Tilly created an environment of thoughtful deliberation. And while the topics presented at the workshop sounded interesting, they seemed very distant from my research interests at the time. Papers on state building, religious violence, political repression, and of course, revolutions were frequently discussed. These topics were far afield from the economic and organizational sociology I read for my research. Mildly daunted, I began attending the workshop anyway and soon became a regular. Continue reading
Tag Archives: technology
When scholars think of repression, they often think of the state as the repressor. This misses a tremendous amount of repression undertaken by private actors. Of course, this has always been true—from Pinkertons to the KKK—private actors have been critical repressive actors. But, the rise of digital technologies brings the role of private repression into even greater relief.
Case in point: a leaked game plan by International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), a music industry group, to police online music globally. A blog post from TorrentFreak summarizes the report.
Now, I realize that where the digital rights movement sees free culture, IFPI sees piracy. But, it is also the case that many of the platforms targeted by IFPI and other entertainment industry groups are also used for non-infringing uses that are important to the digital rights movement and in no way illegal. So, this global game plan gives a unique view into private repression.
Meanwhile, another case reveals the power of digital technologies to aid in the repression of dissent—this time by an unusual government repressor—the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Digital technologies played a key role in the FDA’s surveillance of watchdog scientists who felt that political concerns were being put ahead of good science and public health. The NYT report on the surveillance is shocking. According to the Times, over 80,000 digital documents were put together based on screen captures, key logs, and flash drives connected to work computers. The story, and the rather tepid reaction to it, will certainly make other potential whistleblowers think twice before they try to blow the whistle.
I’ll be honest with you, I’ve got a copy of LeBon’s The Crowd that I keep meaning to read. Of course I’ve internalized what we all now think he was saying—protestors are crazy!—because social movement scholars have spent the last thirty years insisting that protestors are rational actors behaving in politically salient ways. But I’ve got this nagging curiosity that I keep meaning to do something about: Maybe LeBon was writing about a fundamentally different time. Maybe protests and protestors were different. That’s not what this post is about, because I’ve not pulled LeBon back down from the shelf.
Anyway, it was with this general line of curiosity that an article from the Times of India struck me broadside: Protestors against a proposed nuclear power station were made to undergo psychological counseling. What’s this now? Seriously? The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy has been protesting for some time, but as best I can tell from a quick perusal of the web, this is the first time there’s been an attempt to brainwash them. Maybe it’s not brainwashing, maybe it’s less sinister. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has demanded an explanation from the Indian government. No other details seems to be publically available at this point. Also noteworthy: this psychological intervention follows on the heels of a government investigation of the possibility that PMANE’s work is supported by “foreign funds.” The investigation led to the detainment and deportation of a German national.
There’s no need to belabor the analysis here. India is truly a social movement society. I’ve never been to India when there wasn’t a bandt or strike or sit in or walkout or protest that effected trains, taxis, rickshaws, airplanes, government workers, women carrying water, men breaking stones, and a thousand other activities and sectors. So a protest against a new reactor is nothing new. But at a time when western security forces are developing more and more refined responses to large-scale protests, it seems that the Indian government is moving LeBon-ward. Diagnosing the protestor as patient and administering the cure.
Which brings us back to The Crowd. I wonder if LeBon got some things right about the world he lived in. Maybe, like the Fantastic Mr. Fox tells Rat, “certainly she lived, we all did. But it was a different time; let’s not use a double standard.” But then when I see the Indian government treating protest like a disorder I settle back into the conventional wisdom: LeBon was crazy. I guess I really should read his book.
While the OWS (and affiliated Occupies) have taken up a great deal of our space here during the first month of the blog it has been good to see that many of my colleagues have been making connections between Occupy and other movements. My own interest was piqued by this piece in Wired’s Threat Level blog on a State Department funded initiative at the New America Foundation aimed at supporting democratic protestors but which is using the Occupy movement as a test bed for their technology.
The idea is to create a portable wireless communications and internet network that activists could use to coordinate activity and disseminate news and accounts in a way that gets around media filters and state censorship regimes; think of some of the censorship that occurred during the Arab Spring and the problems that protestors in places like China and Iran still have to find a way around. The problem faced by this initiative, as well as many attempts to bring complex and delicate technologies into places that may not have the infrastructure, or even an hostile infrastructure, is the number of problems that arise in real-world situations that are difficult to predict or model in a lab.
By using Occupy the researchers are able to gain some real world experience for how their technologies may be used (so far not so well) but it also raises issues of who should have control of this technology and whether a planned sort of technology like this is better at addressing this sort of problem than DIY hacks and local work-a rounds.