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Science, Technology and Society
The liberating promise of big data and social media to create more responsive democracies and workplaces is overshadowed by a nightmare of election meddling, privacy invasion, fake news and an exploitative gig economy.
Yet, while regressive forces spread disinformation and hate, 'guerrilla democrats' continue to foster hope and connection through digital technologies.
This book offers an in-depth analysis of platform-based radical movements, from the online coalitions of voters and activists to the Deliveroo and Uber strikes. Combining cutting edge theories with empirical research, it makes an invaluable contribution to the emerging literature on the relationship between technology and society.
As part of a campaign at Picturehouse Cinemas in the UK, workers experimented with a new form of digital activism. As Kelly Rogers, one of the organizers, explained, “We are going to start pushing cyber-pickets … where supportive members of the public who can’t come down to a picket line spend their day block booking seats and keeping them in the online basket, so they can’t be sold on tills or online.” She argued that this “makes the strike much more effective when they keep cinemas open on strike days – and Hackney had managed to keep their cinema pretty much empty this way!” (quoted in Caramazza, 2019). In response, the Picturehouse sacked Rogers. She fought this later and was found to have been unfairly dismissed.
In a particularly amusing blog post from an employment law solicitor, Toby Porchon (2019), who provides legal advice to businesses, he warns of the risks of ‘cyber picketing’. He argues that it ‘ha[s] the potential to be vastly more detrimental than simply calling for a boycott. Or even standing in front of their premises so members of the public [can] make their own decisions about which business they choose to support.’ He observes that ‘this practice would have prevented unaware customers from being able to make bookings without ever knowing why.’ Equally, in the case of Picturehouse, it meant the cinema could have been open and operating with full staff but without customers ‘coming through the door’. To this end, he notes that ‘the cyber picket could have happened at any time without anyone really knowing when.
The memory of the Vietnam struggle for liberation continues to loom large even into the new millennium. For many, it was the war that gave birth to the US counterculture, the catalyst for a radical energy spurred on by their conviction that their own freedom should not be won by the blood of a repressed people halfway across the world. For others, it remains a testament to the possibility of a heavily outgunned and out-resourced force defeating a colonial oppressor. At the time though, driving this deadly military conflict was the fear, above all else, of contagious revolutions. It was the threat of one country after another falling like dominoes to Communism. In his now famous introduction of the ‘domino theory’, which helped give birth to this war a decade later, then US president Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed the danger of the ‘falling domino principle’, whereby, similar to dominoes in a row but with countries, ‘you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly’.
Indeed, in retrospect, scholars have critically described this perspective as ‘the notion of a contagious epidemic process in the incidence of political violence’ (O’Sullivan, 1996, p 106). Even after its genocidal consequences in the 20th century, it retains its relevance into the present – now rebooted to explain, for instance, the Arab Spring (see Fregonese, 2011). While the symbol of dominoes falling may be at this point bordering on the laughable, the spectre of viral social change is as potent as ever.
Che Guevera, opening his famous book Guerrilla Warfare, proclaimed that the Cuban revolution ‘showed plainly the capacity of the people to free themselves by means of guerrilla warfare from a government that oppresses them’. These words were written over half a century ago. Since then, the world and politics have changed dramatically. The Soviet Union has fallen, neoliberalism reigns supreme, and Cuba and China have almost completely abandoned ‘really existing socialism’ for the promises of capitalist progress. And yet the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. The 21st century has been marked by disastrous US imperialist adventures, a global financial crisis, a pandemic wherein the poor and precarious have suffered disproportionately to the wealthy, and the resurgence of socialist ideas the world over. New movements are arising, challenging the ideology of the free market and the rule of corporations. And just as importantly, new populist reactions have emerged embracing the rebirth of ethno-nationalism and political authoritarianism.
It is precisely in this contemporary context of revolution and reaction, radical change and an evolving status quo that guerrilla politics becomes once more so socially inspiring and strategically significant. Yet the terrain and composition of these insurrectionary movements have necessarily changed with the times. Now it is not professional armies that are the primary combatants but predictive algorithms which shape our behaviour and guide our exploitation. It is not only armed insurrections that will bring about revolutionary conditions but international mobile movements aided by digital platforms.
This book has focused on the fundamental and increasing mobility of power and virality of order. In particular, it has sought to highlight the infectious character of hegemonic discourses and their wider epidemic threat. By contrast, it revealed the possibilities for building up ‘glocal’ resistances to these dominant infectious discourses and ultimately even contagious alternatives that can spread into revolutionary pandemics. Crucial, in this respect, is the challenging and evolution of social innovation for disruptive forms of political creation – ones which materialize and solidify new possibilities for a more egalitarian, free and commons-based existence locally and globally.
In many of the examples discussed throughout this book, workers have been able to use digital technologies to facilitate mobile organizing, often using them in interaction with offline methods, or combining them in new and important ways. Most workers have some kind of shared workplace – whether a physical building, some kind of space that they frequently pass through or transient points where they come into physical contact. Yet in some forms of digital work this is no longer the case. For example, with microwork, digital platforms are used to break work down into small (or micro) tasks that can then be completed very quickly by a large group of distributed workers. Perhaps the most famous of these platforms is Amazon Mechanical Turk (or AMT). The platform breaks work down into HITs – so-called Human Intelligence Tasks – often things like image labelling, transcription and so on, that can be completed in very short amounts of time.
Guerrilla warfare is often thought of as something which emerged only in the modern era of revolutionary struggle. Yet, in truth, it has a long history stretching back to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (1963). Indeed it was prominently used in the US Revolutionary War in the late 18th century, where an outnumbered army was able to use a range of harassing attacks against invading British forces to successful effect (see Dederer, 1983). These same tactics would be adopted famously by Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese Communists, where Mao succinctly described the strategy: ‘The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue’ (1965, p 124). Significantly, guerrilla tactics were viewed as more than simply a military technique. Rather, they were a way of being that emphasized values of adaptability, covert actions and resilience in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. According to US Brigadier General Samuel B. Griffith, what makes guerrilla warfare and its practitioners so dangerous is that ‘guerrillas are masters of the arts of simulation and dissimulation. ... Their tactical concepts, dynamic and flexible, are not cut to any particular pattern.” (Mao Tse-tung & Griffith, 1964, p 26).
What lessons then, if any, would such a guerrilla ethos hold for present-day activism and social movements? At first glance, they may appear reserved for only armed insurrections or a rather duplicitous – indeed anti-democratic – mode of political operation due to their emphasis on simulation and dissimulation. Digging deeper, though, the contemporary relevance of guerilla tactics starts to emerge more fully.
Uber drivers in the UK have used WhatsApp extensively in their organizing of drivers – like for Deliveroo, TGI Fridays, Wetherspoons and McDonald’s workers, this built upon pre-existing networks and online groups. In the UK, this mobile organizing has developed further, as witnessed in their recent strikes on 9 October 2018. They called a 24-hour strike from 1 pm, demanding increased fares of £2 per mile, for Uber’s commission to be reduced to 15 percent, an end to unfair deactivations (or sacking of drivers) and bullying, and worker rights protections. ‘After years of watching take-home pay plummet and with management bullying of workers on the rise, workers have been left with no choice but to take strike action’, the branch chair of United Private Hire Drivers (UPHD) (the branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) that organizes Uber drivers), James Farrar (quoted in IWGB, 2018), argued, continuing: ‘We ask the public to please support drivers by not crossing the digital picket line by not using the app during strike time.’
As Farrar notes, the drivers redrew the notion of the picket line for their dispersed and digitally mediated workplace. Rather than maintaining a picket outside meeting points, taxi ranks or offices, they argued that the app should be the picket line. This was supplemented with protests outside Uber offices to provide a physical point to focus on as well. On a global level, Uber drivers have coordinated through WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter to take joint action in the run up to Uber’s IPO (initial public offering).
Are smartphones tools of oppression or resources for mobile resistance? This question is perhaps especially relevant for a rising new class of precarious workers who rely on ‘smart’ platforms for their employment and livelihood. Workers at Deliveroo, for instance, need to have access to smartphones in order to sign up to the platform. This means that all the workers have access to the means for mobile organizing. At first, some platforms, like Deliveroo, encouraged workers to join or start WhatsApp groups to keep in contact about shift patterns and changes to the platform. Where these were set up, it is very easy for workers to branch a new conversation out, excluding managers. In other cases, workers start WhatsApp groups to share knowledge about their work, routes, accidents, traffic and so on.
As Woodcock (2017) has found at Deliveroo, the ‘action was organised primarily on WhatsApp, building on pre-existing networks, some of which were formed at the meeting points assigned in each area by Deliveroo. What followed was a lively campaign which was widely circulated on social media’. Furthermore, “on WhatsApp groups used by delivery riders in the UK, workers post jokes and memes to pass some of the idle time while waiting for work, but also share tips on how to increase earnings’. Likewise, when waitstaff at the restaurant chain TGI Fridays were told that the company was reducing the amount of money they took home from credit card tips, workers began to organize against the change through the very digital networks initiated and originally encouraged by the company. Such communication soon branched into mass and localized WhatsApp groups.
In an era that was meant to signal the supposed ‘end of history’, it is perhaps worthwhile to think back to a different ‘age of revolutions’. The late 18th century was marked by profound political conflict and mass movements to radically transform society. Here the fight for universal liberal rights and the values inspired by the philosophical Enlightenment mixed with the blood of violence and armed rebellion. From the relatively comfortable vantage point of history, the events and their radical implications appear obvious and easy to discern. Yet, at the time, these revolutionary currents were as much rumours as they were facts. They were murmurs of possibilities, viral discourses of fact and fiction, hope and fear, spread within communities and across otherwise separate populations.
This retelling of history reveals surprising truths about the complex realities of these epochal social changes. The American Revolution is now retrospectively celebrated as an exemplar of the struggle for independence and liberty. Yet at the time its radical sentiments were both a source of excitement and worry for those involved. The initial seeds of rebellion, for instance against the Stamp Act in 1765, more than a decade before the Declaration of Independence, were a source of inspiration and worry for the White colonists. While they opened up, even if only briefly, the possibilities of liberty, they were just as concerned that these desires would spread to Black slaves, inspiring their own revolt (see Nash, 2005). When the actual revolution arrived, rumours continued to swirl in directions that profoundly challenge dominant narratives of today.
Chapter One introduces the connections between anarchism and cybernetics against the backdrop of what will be referred to throughout the book as the 2011 uprisings (Occupy, the Arab Spring, 15M/Indignados, the UK riots). The chapter highlights the apparent role of leaderless self-organisation in these uprisings and the perceived use of social media as an organising tool therein. It is argued that the examples of the 2011 uprisings show that there is a need for an in-depth understanding of how self-organisation and social media-backed organisation can and do operate.