Over the last few months I’ve been following the developments around Haystack, an “anti-censorship tool” for Iranian internet users. As the media was fawning over Haystack as a free speech tool and its co-creator, Austin Heap, as a poster-child for digital activism, I observed conversations unfold on the Stanford’s Liberation Technology email list-serve where members began to raise some serious concerns about Haystack’s major security gaffes and its shady beta release.
Jillian York has written biting analysis of the media coverage of the Haystack Affair. The Economist has a great review of the events.
Projects like Haystack reveal so much more about our own fears of the world. But the bottom line is that Haystack was blown out of proportion from the very beginning for something that it wasn’t. The Haystack Affair, however, is not an isolated incident; it is a continuation of projects coming from Westerners who place their own narratives on people and situations they really don’t fully understand.
The Internet Freedom Bluff
The Haystack Affair, like the recent Google-China Saga is just another technology that has been caught in the digital geo-politics of what I’ve been calling, neo-informationalism. Neo-informationalism is the belief that information should function like currency in free-market capitalism—borderless, free from regulation, and mobile. The logic of this rests on an ethical framework that is tied to what Morgan Ames calls “information determinism,” the belief that free and open access to information can create real social change. I write more about the roots of neo-informationalism from hacker and corporate tech culture in my analysis on the Google China Saga and on my research blog on this topic, but I think what’s important to note here is that we are starting to see that the neo-informationalist agenda is not only built into the way we and corporations promote our technologies, but is reflected in our state policies. This all started with Hilary Clinton’s talk on internet freedom in early January of this year, which marked a clear turning point in US foreign policy. The talk didn’t just reprimand China for not making it possible for Google to do business on Google’s terms in China, it also announced to the world that the US was embarking on a new crusade for freedom - internet freedom.
And here’s the thing - the people being recruited for this new crusade aren’t your typical jingoists who tend to support protectionist policies and centralized controls on information, but techies who believe in free-information in the name of liberty and rights for all human beings. Just as much as neo-liberalism successfully incorporated the Left and Democrats to support open markets in the name of “development” when really it was all about the control of money and power, neo-informationalism incorporates lefty digital activtists to support freedom and open information when in reality it serves to benefit Americans and their allies at the end of the day - not real social change in the places that need it the most. (Hackers be aware!)
Free-markets, like free-information, need to be created. Free-markets are maintained through the heavy subsidization of the US military industrial complex. We are all familiar with this kind of imperialism- the exploit of resources in other countries so that we can maintain our standard of living (e.g. military build up in the Persian Gulf to protect oil fields). But what’s emerging is a new form of domination that I call digital imperialism - the exploit of other countries through digital means so that we can maintain our status quo. The former does it in the name of free-markets, the latter does it in the name of free-information.
Neo-informationalist policies, such as the new “internet freedom” foreign policy to ensure free and flowing information, compliment neoliberal practices in corporate welfare to keep markets free and open to the US and all of our allies who benefit from our work. Neo-informationalism works on two fronts - on a policy/political and on a corporate/market level. Governments are increasingly flexing power through information policies. This is what Sandra Braman calls the new “information state,” replacing the bureaucratic welfare state. In her book (must-read), Change of State: Information, Policy, and Power, she argues that this new information state influences the way states govern down to research, internet/network connections, and policy. Alongside with changes in governance, corporations also draw upon neo-informationalist rhetoric as its modus operandi for extending its reach and maintaining its current policies even when they may not benefit groups of users. I and many others have argued that the corporate efforts of companies such as Google must constantly be checked (just like any other institution) to ensure that their policies are benefiting users, not just the corporation. Tim Wu’s latest book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, speaks to this very concern - that the history of ICTs in the US show that when a corporation is able to monopolize a technologial innovation, its action switch to centralizing the control of the medium. The internet is built on open protocols, but this doesn’t mean that the very institutions that are invested in keeping those technological protocols open are always equally invested in what’s best for their users.
The narrative of internet freedom is a myth - it’s a myth that Americans have constructed about the technology. We hear this perpetuated with rallying cries such as, “If we don’t do X, the internet will no longer be free!” How is this different from, “If we don’t invade X or control Y, then American will no longer be free!” Then to add to this you have the hackers and techies arguing that “information wants to be free,” reflecting the techno-anthropomorphization of information. All of these statements create the larger narrative that OUR internet is free and other internets are unfree.
The internet as freedom myth rests on a binary that the internet is a platform that either promotes freedom or total control. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s book, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics, attacks this Western binary and asks, ” How has the Internet, a medium that thrives on control, been accepted as a medium of freedom? Why is freedom increasingly indistinguishable from paranoid control?” The silver lining in her argument is that she shows how the internet came to be constructed as a tool for empowerment - mainly as racial and sexual empowerment in the US.
But now this myth of internet freedom has become internalized within our media sphere and among digital activists. And at times the real concerns of serious issues like net neutrality get mixed into the internet freedom rhetoric that has now been adopted by the State Department. The danger of seeing the internet as a binary is that we lose the ability to see how the internet is manifested in various ways depending on institutional contexts, how the internet AMPLIFIES existing conditions.
It’s also a dangerous way of seeing the world because we begin to believe that real social change can happen if the internet was just “free” and if all information just flowed freely. The internet creating more democracy is a myth (Matthew Scott Hindman’s book, The Myth of Digital Democracy, makes this point). Now we have this tech deterministic argument wrapped up in our state policy. And it’s quite powerful when you combine it with the current neoliberal efforts to over-ride “inefficient” governments and regulators to create more “efficient” markets.
Neo-informationalism and neo-liberalism work symbiotically to create what Wendy Brown calls the governed citizen who seeks solutions in products as opposed to the political process. Neo-informationalism is a re-visioning of a non-redistributive laissez-faire ideology of modernization theory transplanted into Western technologies that assumes surely people cannot be self-sufficient without unlimited access to the tools that connect them to the world wide web. Underlying this ideology is the notion that information openness and market openness are inseparable and non-mutually exclusive. Information openness can only be achieved through free-market conditions. This is a model of social change that puts faith in objects, not in governance processes. And now even our State Deparment is pushing this agenda as it fits quite nicely with the efforts to bring democracy to the world - esp where we need it the most- our oil fields.
Now I have no qualms with countries advocating for democracy, but like sami ben gharbia, I am very critical of the hypocrisy in this new crusade. In sami’s latest (and awesomely researched) blog post, The Internet Freedom Fallacy and Arab Digital Activism, he writes that
“the U.S cannot be regarded as credible in their new crusade for Internet freedom as long as they maintain the same foreign policy which is, as many Arab affairs specialists and activists describe it, a hypocritical and counter-democratic one.”
As Western countries such as the US become more invested in promoting freedom through information practices, we will see more projects that attempt to fulfil the political promise of spreading and maintaining democracy abroad (see Evgeny Morozov’s article on this topic). We’re returning to some good old post-Cold War policy making. This time around, however, state governments no longer need to spread information and knowledge by erecting universities abroad when they can now offer internet circumvention technologies that will give the world access to all information. It’s digital imperialism as its best - the marriage of computer programmers who believe in free-information and state governments who believe in freedom. And therein that marriage came the short lived baby named Haystack. But rest assured, there will be more babies that come out of this new public-private partnership of digital activists and government actors. And when these babies come, will the media and people remember the Haystack Affair or will we repeat the same old mess?
Avoiding Cargo Cult Digital Activists
These messy digital affairs are often fueled by digital activists who unknowingly get caught up in these neo-informationalist landscapes. This graph by sami ben gharbia illustrates the new context of digital activism. There are whole host of new players who want to promote this new crusade of US cyber diplomacy through the internet by working closely with digital activists and grassroots organizations. Sami warns that if digital activists do not exercise more discretion in who they become involved with, they can end up supporting the very policies that they are fighting.
It may sounds alluring at first to collaborate with the government when it appears that there is a shared goal to promote free and open access to information. It’s especially alluring to groups who already believe and practice this. I am embedded in a community of hackers, techies, and organizers who believe in free-information as a practice. While I share similar values, what I see happening is that many digital activists are quick to jump on any international case promoted by the media where information does not appear to flow “freely.” Then they launch some project and naively step into a larger geo-strategic power struggle that has nothing to do with free-information for all and everything to do with freedom for some.
Austin Heap, fell into this power struggle. Even worse, he prematurely courted the media’s attention (and the media courted him) before having a solid product. Putting my anthropologist hat on, i would say that Austin Heap was just doing cargo cult science. Physicist Richard Feynman used this term to criticize scientists who conduct and promote their own scientific projects just to secure research funds and media attention. (more on the history of real Cargo cults). The point is that you can’t take cargo cult science seriously; giving it more attention (like the media did) only encourages more spectacle.
In this new era of cyber democracy in the name of “Internet Freedom,” we’re going to see more cargo cult technologies from digital activists. Some technologies will suck and some will work, but the problem is that the tools that make false promises to users can actually cut off dialogue instead of cultivating it.
And that is the MOST CRITICAL danger of tools like Haystack - they are distracting mirages for the digital activists on the ground doing the grueling work of keeping conversations open, encrypting banal and politicized convos, working with local communities and governments to improve their information services, and building participatory sites. As we walk through the dessert of global affairs, let’s not be distracted by the mirages and keep our eyes on the real goal, which is to cultivate relationships where we can learn from each other and support communities so that they sustain themselves economically, politically, and socially.
My issue with projects like Haystack is that the creators attached a political ideology to its software. By politicizing the “tool,” it becomes less useful because its only targets high-value users, which then exposes them to greater danger. Sometimes, the most depoliticized tools are the most beneficial in highly politicized situations. Youtube is a great example of a real life working anti-censorship tool. It’s the most popular website for video uploading and viewing and the third most trafficked site in the world. It’s subversive because it’s popular and because it has no stated agenda for target users. Tor is another example of a widely used anonymous software that doesn’t set an ideological narrative for its users.
Doing more harm than good when stories are forced
What I’ve learned throughout my years of organizing is that activists too often have a pre-set narrative for the outcome in which they are trying to change. In my early days of activism in youth media in NYC, I was too invested in creating one outcome for the youth that we were trying to “save” from the projects. It didn’t help that we could only find funders who would give grants for promises of “measurable change” for “disaffected and media illiterate youth” from the ghetto. Change is possible, but genuine and sustainable change has to be negotiated and determined by the community. This to me is what I love about participatory tools that bring people together whether it is an inviting warm fire or hip-hop music or an internet meme.
Over the last few years of researching technology and migrants in China, I’ve seen scores of anti-censorship projects (from art to technology to straight up protests) aimed at freeing Chinese people from their “censored lives.” These projects, propped up in the name of freedom, can often hurt the very people they are trying to save or the people who are working to improve the situation without the spotlight of international media attention (this is the topic of Linda Polman’s book on the harm of many humanitarian aid efforts). I’ve seen this happen way too many times. Some of the most exciting social reforms in China are happening in places without any international NGOs or media attention or activists waiting to tell their deportation survival story.
I think the underlying work of activism is the goal of revealing concentrated or unfair forms of power. Yet, often times in these macro discussion of geo-political and international diplomacy making, we forget that power is not possessed but exercised. If this is the case, then activism is less about redistributing power but more about igniting people and communities to believe that they have the power to represent their own stories, lives, needs, and hopes. Some of the most exciting prospects for change are tools, projects, and institutions that facilitate people to code their own space, to program their own lives, and to represent their own stories. As geographer John Allen argues (pg 163), “there is no everywhere to power.” While we may all be immersed in “arrangements of power,” power is not evenly distributed. Can this be the exploit then for digital activists?
Truths and Stories
Philosopher Martin Heidegger tells a story of how a farmer uses traditional technology and a Westerner uses modern technology with a piece of land. While the farmers see the land as something to cultivate, the Westerner with her/his modern technologies sees the land as a resource where only one thing is possible - maximum yield for profit. The farmer sees her/himself as the steward of the land while the Westerner sees her/himself as the beneficiary of the land. Non-modern technologies cultivate objects for the most sustainable path while modern technologies in the West exploit resources for the ‘maximum yield at minimal expense.’
Heidegger was concerned about the Western approach to technology because it sets the world up as a set of calculable and coherent forces. This way of seeing and doing penetrates our subconscious as we approach countries, communities and then individuals. When armed with technologies that helps us make rational and calculated decisions, it reifies what we see as the truth - ours! Heidegger argued that the modern Western spirit is not whole because there is no such thing as just one “truth.” For the spirit to be whole, Heidegger suggests that we need to be open to a greater variety of truths.
To me, the beauty of the internet is that in the tradition of other communication tools, it offers other ways to experience different realities and truths. Tools like Haystack reify our truth - that others live in repression and Americans live in freedom. If you create a tool that is only for people to fight against repressive governments, then you’re forcing one use scenario for your users. Projects that go in with a pre-set story or mission is a myopic way of interacting with the world because it can prevent the possibility of other stories from emerging that were never imagined in the first place. And this worries me because having a pre-set story of “liberatory technology” stunts the imagination for other innovative possibilities for social change with technological objects and with people.
Cut off what?
Short of killing the actual leaders in repressive countries (which the US has done and continues to support), social change can take a long time. It’s not sexy and it doesn’t grab media headlines. The people at NGOs and companies creating awesome possibilities and dialogues around the world in this space aren’t in the New York Times for every community they work with or every bridge they build. The states that are experimenting with alternatives to neo-liberlalism and trying to create a sustainable present don’t even get press attention (great article on how South America has become neoliberalims’s weakest link).
If the goal for activists, in Zizek’s words, is to not dirt[y] the balls of those in power but to cut [their testicles] off, then we should cultivate trust abroad, not destroy it. My concern is that digital activists have not learned from our own history. Haven’t we learned from countless projects, such as how we totally screwed up Afghanistan, that we tend to create chaos when we naively simplify our actions as a matter of freedom and democracy? So how about we work on “Internet freedom” on our own soil first? There’s a lot of work to be done and stories to be told. Here’s some projects and people who are doing awesome work on good old American soil: Jennifer Pahlka at Code For America, Anil Dash’s work at Expert Labs, Gina Trappani’s app Think Up, and Noel Hidalgo’s work at the NY State Senate.
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And while I have your attention, could I engage you in some satire on this very topic of giving “help” to others? For some laughs, watch this video from the Armando Iannucci Show. Its the best thing I’ve seen in a while.
thanks to Calixte Tayoro for forcing me to write my thoughts up on this topic :)