Can digital media be used to organize revolutions and uprisings? Ana Deumert considers digital social inequalities in social media use, and explores their implications for developing a radical politics of the commons.
Revolutions and digital technologies
“If it is inaccessible to the poor it’s neither radical nor revolutionary”. This statement has made its rounds on the internet since 2015: it has been tweeted and retweeted, it has inspired blogs and was discussed on Reddit.
It is a phrase that resonates globally. On an anonymous blog called Kenyan Feminist, it appears in a post that is titled We too shall rise, but how?. The author of the blog writes: “The revolution will not happen without women, without rural and poor people. Leaving the majority behind is a sure way of maintaining status quo. The revolution will not happen without speaking to the bread and butter issues that the regular Kenyan faces; the hopelessness that comes with living on survival mode and being downtrodden while struggling to survive.”
‘Is it accessible to the poor?’ is an important question to be asked of digital technologies, which – their capitalist origins and entanglements notwithstanding – have been positioned as precisely this: radical and revolutionary, as capable of bringing about social and political change.
Thus, in his reflections on the Arab spring of 2011, Hamid Dabashi emphasizes the importance of social media for opening up alternative public spheres. He writes: “Globalized media must now compete with Egyptian bloggers, Syrian Tweeters, Tunesians on Facebook, Yemenis on YouTube, Bahrainis writing opinion pieces for Al Jazeera.” Examples of digitally mediated protests include #Occupy, #BlackLivesMatter and #RhodesMustFall – radical social movements that have drawn skillfully and deliberately on a wide range of social media.
There is no doubt that digital media have changed the political economy of communication in lasting ways. In the political sphere they have created new ways of 'doing protest', new ways of 'doing politics', and new ways of ‘thinking/talking about politics’.
Revolutions and multiplicities of dissent
But are digital media inclusive? Are they accessible to the poor? Can they be at the heart of political change that is driven by the working classes ? Or are they inevitably linked to bourgeois public spheres, as suggested for Egypt by Rabab El-Mahdi (2011)? She wrote: “In the case of Egypt, the … uprising is constructed as a youth, non-violent revolution in which social media (especially Facebook and Twitter) are champions. The underlying message here is that these “middle-class” educated youth (read: modern) are not “terrorists,” they hold the same values as “us” (the democratic West), and finally use the same tools (Facebook and Twitter) that “we” invented and use in our daily-lives.”
Thus, according to El-Mahdi, the complex “class composition of dissent” was homogenized, and cosmopolitan and educated, often middle-class, youth emerged as the driver of the protest; while working-class protesters, the unemployed and those who live “under the poverty line in rural areas and slum-areas” were largely rendered invisible in global media coverage, or – alternatively – their protest actions were rendered incomprehensible and/or inappropriate (unfocused, violent, unorganized and so forth).
The general pattern is straightforward: wealthier countries, and wealthier individuals, have more access to digital communication than poorer countries and individuals with less income.
El-Mahdi’s critical perspective draws attention to a persistent theme in reports about the internet outside of Euro-America: digital media are believed to usher modernity into the furthest corners of the globe, and in doing so they create new markets, new opportunities for companies to make profit, and new subjectivities.
The geopolitics of hardware
In Dust and Exhaustion: The Labour of Media Materialism, Jussi Parikka (2013) writes about the “geopolitics of hardware”. Parikka makes an important point regarding the materiality of digital media: consumer discourses – as well as commodity aesthetics – commonly emphasize “the lightness and mobility of digital technology”; yet, their “hardness’, that is, the physical-material conditions under which they are produced, consumed and generate profit, is often hidden and unacknowledged.
And indeed, this “hardness” needs to be ideologically and discursively hidden so that development economists, governments, scholars, non-governmental organizations and for-profit companies can continue to articulate media discourses of utopian universalism. That is, imagine as positive and desirable a world where – eventually – everyone will be connected to Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter; where everyone will be part of the so-called information society; where, ultimately, we will all be alike as ‘netizens’ (thus fullfilling the fundamental episteme of Enlightenment philosophy, “the compulsion of the universal”, as argued by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment, 2002 ).
Every year the International Telecommunications Union, a specialized agency of the United Nations, publishes its report Measuring the Information Society. The reports (available since 2009) provide a wealth of statistical data on global internet connectivity.
Throughout the years the global pattern of digital access shows two stable yet contradictory tendencies: online access is growing globally, but remains unequally distributed. (Additional data for some countries is provided by After Access).
Digital social inequalities
The inequality of access to digital media is referred to as the ‘digital divide’ or, more accurately, as ‘digital social inqualities’. The latter term emphasizes the interlinking of social inequities and digital access, including both hardware and data.
The general pattern is straightforward: wealthier countries, and wealthier individuals, have more access to digital communication than poorer countries and individuals with less income. Access is further structured according to variables such as gender, age, education, disability, language, geography (rural versus urban), as well as race and ethnicity. In most cases, access is not a question of yes-or-no, but of more-or-less: people might have some access and exposure (for example via basic feature phones), but not have the affordances of other users (who might own smartphones and are able to engage in a wide range of digital practices).
Working-class media has the potential to build inter-class alliances by working towards a situation where digital communication emerges as a commons
Consider Egypt, supposedly the home of a revolution – or perhaps rather uprising – that was tweeted. Yet, according to 2017 ITU statistics, less than 40% of individuals had access to the internet in 2016. The figure was just over 25% in 2011. Or South Africa, one of the best connected countries in Africa where, despite significant infrastructure investments, about half of the population does not have access to the internet. They do have, however, access to mobile telephony, that is, voice calls and SMS. Or Mozambique, South Africa’s neighbour, where less than twenty percent of individuals had access to the internet in 2016. The list goes on.
Digital communication: a club good
Although all communication, whether face-to-face or mediated, has the potential of being a public good, of being accessible to all, this is not the case.
Public goods are traditionally defined by two criteria: non-rival consumption and non-excludability. Non-rival consumption means that the use of the good by one person, does not diminish its use for others. Thus, by speaking or writing online, I do not reduce the amount of language available to others.
Digital communication might be non-rival, but it is exclusive: participation depends on having access to the relevant technologies. And access costs money. Goods that are non-rival but excludable are called ‘club goods’ by economists – only those that are willing, or able, to bear the cost of access to ‘the club’ can enjoy the good.
Catering for proletarian media needs can become a profitable industry, ensuring a supply of cheap hardware and data services to consumers.
It is important to remember that public goods are not a natural category of goods, but that the criterion of non-excludability is ideologically produced. Thus, we can chose to see – and support – digital communication as a public good, and as a commons. Or we can choose to see it as a commodity that can be markted and sold.
Towards working-class media
This brings me to my final point, namely, Christian Fuchs’ reflections on ‘working-class media’ in Digital Labour and Karl Marx (2014).
In developing his thinking, Fuchs draws on the Marxist distinction between the proletariat and the working class. The former is a not-yet-politically-organized and not-yet-conscious group of exploited labour; the latter is conscious of its own position within a system of exploitation, working towards the abolition of class society and towards its own own liberation.
From this perspective, proletarian media simply refers to the use of (digital) media under conditions of scarcity, where people make the most of limited resources (as described by Jack Qiu, 2009, in Working-Class Network Society). Catering for proletarian media needs can become a profitable industry, ensuring a supply of cheap hardware and data services to consumers. Thus, proletarian media are still organized by capital and various forms of labour exploitation (including the free labour of online content production, the precarious employment of many knowledge workers, the hardware assemblers in factories, and slave labour in the Cobalt mines).
Working-class media are different. Studying working-class media is not merely – or even necessarily – about how those with limited financial resources use digital media. Rather, working-class media refers to a political project that aims to end exploitation, and that uses digital media to bring about fundamentally different ownership structures; that is, to end a status quo where media technologies and applications are nothing but commodities on capitalist markets. Working-class media challenges the system on which digital capitalism is build, and in doing so imagines a different world.
This distinction has important consequences: while studying proletarian media is a descriptive, empiricist project that reifies social categories (How do people with limited resources use club goods such as digital media?), the idea of working-class media has the potential to build inter-class alliances by working towards a situation where digital communication emerges as a public good and a commons. Fuchs notes: “Working-class digital media are media of struggle controlled by workers in processes of self-management… Working-class media strive towards media of the commons just like working-class struggles strive towards a society of the commons.” (My emphases)
The revolution won’t be tweeted: it cannot be communicated within the structures of capitalist production and commodification. The revolution will take a different shape. What would a people’s internet – accessible to all and self-governed – look like?