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AUP’s Jessica Feldman on Technology, Activism and the Social Good

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On Thursday, February 3, 2022, the Office of AUP’s President Celeste M. Schenck hosted the fifth event in its Presidential Lecture Series: a lecture by AUP’s own Jessica Feldman, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Culture and the Director of AUP’s Civic Media Lab. The lecture series, titled “Technology and the Human Future,” invites speakers to participate in live online events, so they might engage with both theory and practice in responding to the question of how technology will continue affecting our lives beyond the Covid-19 pandemic. Feldman presented on the topic of “Technology, Activism and the Social Good.”

After an introduction from President Schenck, who asked how we can best harness technology for a more democratic human future, Professor Feldman began her presentation with three questions: How do the things humans create allow us to envision a better future? What type of digital communication tools are needed to help people in activism build such a future? And what do people in activism want from the technology they build?

Feldman discussed her research into social movements and activist groups fighting for or experimenting with new forms of democracy, such as protesters in Sudan following the Sudanese coup. She explained that journalism, documentation and information dissemination are critical for these movements wherever they occur in the world. Smartphones have also been key in creating citizen journalists’ networks, allowing for coverage of events which might normally be neglected by mainstream media. However, governments can limit the spread of information, which happened in Sudan when the government shut down internet access for a month following the coup. There are multiple ways to compromise information flow, including blocking infrastructure, surveillance and the removal of apps from the app store. Such practices are common during protests, including those in Egypt, Iran and Kazakhstan.

Internet infrastructure tends to be centralized, meaning that networks are under the control of a few companies and are therefore easy to shut down. Another issue is homophily, the notion that contact occurs at a higher rate between people who are already similar than among those who are dissimilar; business models are structured around profiling in order to sell data to advertisers, and as such they gather data and suggest news, products and friends by grouping users based on their values, purchasing patterns, and social demographics. Feldman argued that, while this may be good for advertising, it is not so good for democracy. An additional problem stems from the fact that accounts are designed to be administered by individuals, so users can be individually targeted by host companies, which causes a bottleneck of power in protest groups, because one person needs to administer any accounts, even if they are aiming to act collectively.

Next, Feldman explored some of the ways in which activist groups have overcome such blocks, touching on examples from the 15M movement in Spain, from Occupy Wall Street, from the Gezi Park Occupation in Turkey and from protests in Egypt during the Arab Spring. Feldman noted that certain practices were commonly sought after across all the protest movements she studied: 1) decentralization and localized infrastructure, such as using a mesh of local networks; 2) distributed and localized data sovereignty, such as local servers and security measures; and 3) inclusive deliberation and decision-making.

These values have also been integrated into democracies and businesses, via the creation of applications such as Loomio, Consul, COLBAC and Guifi, which in a way have begun to digitize democracy. However, Feldman noted that some governments have also integrated these concepts into their democracies in a non-digital way, such as the French citizens’ convention for the climate, within which participants were chosen at random from the population to consult on climate legislation.

Before taking questions, Feldman asked the audience to consider three further questions: What can and can’t be digitized? To what extent can these practices be scaled up? And can democratic practices be connected globally? You can watch the entire lecture in the video below.

Significant contributions to this news piece were made by Jackson Vann, a graduate student studying for AUP’s MSc in Human Rights and Data Science.