THE FUTURE OF ACTIVISM
In the closing months of 2010, a network of hackers, journalists, cryptographers and whistleblowers mashed revolutionary fervor with high technology and dealt the United States a terrific, unexpected blow. Days later, in the face of tremendous pressure from the world’s declining superpower, the international whistle-blowing organization tweeted a defiant self-description: “WikiLeaks is the first global samizdat movement. The truth will surface even in the face of total annihilation.”
From a tactical perspective, the importance of WikiLeaks has less to do with the content of the cables than with what it forecasts for the future of activism. Leveraging the symbolic power of the act of leaking, WikiLeaks divided the world into two camps and thrust the censorial regimes that are normally invisible into the spotlight. As Amazon, PayPal, Visa and MasterCard goose-stepped behind the US government to deny access to the leaked cables, the founding mythology of democracy – freedom of speech, government transparency, the necessity of an informed populace – came under attack. And in response, a global internet community rose up in defense of liberty. The passion so long absent in digital activism was revived as anonymous hackers waged denial-of-service wars against the websites of crony capitalists and sycophantic politicians. WikiLeaks, and the volunteer hacktivist army it inspired, signals that the future of activism will involve the internet in creative, still unimagined ways.
At the dawn of 2011 there is again hope that technology can birth the barricades of the 21st century. Perhaps the most exciting direction for activism is the increasing politicization of flashmobs. First capturing the public imagination in 2003, flashmobs are the sudden appearance of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of individuals who carry out a synchronized action that ranges from the absurd to the disobedient. In recent years, flashmobs have been used to organize spontaneous pillow fights, eerie frozen moments, rush-hour parties and macabre zombie walks. Now, they are becoming an outlet for social discontent. In Philadelphia, for example, unruly youth have exploited cell phones to organize flashmob swarms that appear without warning, looting stores and leaving police mystified. Fun, easy to organize, and resistant to both infiltration and preemption because of their friend-to-friend network topology, flashmobs are positioned to be the next popular tactic with revolutionary potential.
So far, the tactical significance of flashmobs has been limited by their local scale. They typically happen in a single city, on a single day and at a single time. If the magic of Seattle was due to the innovative transposition of anti-logging barricades to an urban environment, the power of the second generation of flashmobs will lie in the upgrade of a local happening into a global phenomenon. Imagine activism globalized: synchronized intercontinental crowds that flare up spontaneously at noon – to throw rancid butter at each of the 737 US overseas military bases, to blackspot each of the 32,000 McDonald’s golden arches or to block the entrance of each of the 8,500 Walmart stores. With flashmobs, activists have the potential to swarm capitalism globally, stinging it incessantly until the bloodied beast falls to its knees. Making it happen may take a new breed of techno-visionaries who build an advertising-free social networking app developed exclusively for pulling off ever more sophisticated jams against consumerism.
A similarly promising direction lies with integrating the principles of gaming into activism. Initial steps in this direction have been made by “alternate reality game” designers, such as Jane McGonigal and Elan Lee, whose work re-enchants everyday life by layering a fictional universe atop reality. Think of the 1997 film The Game. One notable example is SFZero, a San Francisco-based game in which players earn points by interacting with the city in impish ways. Missions include “find roof access,” “add a colorful bulb to a public socket” and “steal something from a wild animal.” For culture jammers, the essential big idea is that activism can come alive if the key components of what makes games immersive – heroic narrative, the quest for experience, increasing levels of difficulty, social engagement, adventure, etc. – are applied to sparking a revolution.
The tactical potential is limited only by our imagination. Companies like Twilio, also in San Francisco, allow anyone to build scriptable, automated phone numbers that can receive and make calls, send text messages and pull information from databases to play personalized messages. Combine this with a rousing storyline, clues left in public spaces and a series of missions that take players up the ladder-of-engagement from inexperienced activist to master culture jammer, and there is no limit to the kinds of “games” revolutionaries can play. One example would be a game where participants use their phones to interact with fictional characters and, in order to unravel an anticorporate storyline or solve an anticonsumerist mystery, earn blackspot points by putting up Buy Nothing Day posters, throwing stink bombs, recruiting comrades and organizing flashmobs. When activism is “gamified,” reaching level 50 could start an insurrection.
Just as no one could have predicted the power of the barricades – or the spectacular success of the urban lockdown – there is no way to know which tactic will lead to victory. Some may dedicate themselves to WikiLeaks-style initiatives, others may develop a P2P flashmob application or a culture jammer game, while still others may discover previously unseen leverage points by which to challenge capitalism. What is clear, however, is that we are entering an exciting time of activist innovation – like 1848, 1999 and 2003.
After surveying the near victory of 1848, Mikhail Bakunin wrote that to achieve a global revolution we must first convince the populace “that an invincible force lives in the people, which nothing and no one can withstand, and that if it has not yet liberated the people it is because it is powerful only when it is concentrated and acts simultaneously, everywhere, jointly, in concert, and until now it has not done so.”
Today, we are closer than ever to unleashing our invincible power.
— Micah White, Phd
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