Pollyanna Ruiz is a Fellow in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics. Pollyanna’s research includes activists’ use of non-traditional communication forms such as direct intervention, visual metaphors and social networking. This week, Pollyanna explores the impact of digital technologies on the relationship between past, present and future activists.
Since the start of the financial crisis in 2008 it is clear that those challenging the neo-liberal hegemony and re-asserting a politics of redistribution, have been gaining traction in many countries. These re-invigorated movements frequently take the form of a networked enterprise in which various clusters of distinct but loosely connected activists mobilise around a particular event or situation before dissipating back into wider culture and society. Within this terrain, the shift from an industrial to an informational economy and the centrality of mediation has impacted upon the construction of collective identities and political action. Consequently grassroots protest groups tend to emerge and then re-emerge in a series of ever shifting socio-political coalitions and networks across both space and time. This emphasis on rupture, coalition and continuity raises a number of issues surrounding activists’ ability to connect past memories, present problems and uncertain futures.
The relationship between the past, the present and the future lies at the very heart of both individual and collective perspectives of societal change. In many ways political campaigning is a future orientated activity. It addresses the anxieties and beliefs of the day and relates them to an imagined future in which they will have been addressed and assuaged. At the same time the fear of a future in which these anxieties and beliefs have not been addressed or assuaged influences the ways in which activists occupy the present. This is particularly true of self-reflexive risk societies in which the individual is acutely aware of their (in)ability to influence the worlds in which they live. Campaigning is more tenuously connected with the past. Indeed the fractured nature of political movements means that lessons from the past have frequently been mislaid along with the ephemera typically produced by grass roots movements. Despite these temporal inter connections contemporary protest movements tend to focus on achieving particular and manageable ends in the here and now. This emphasis on action can create a ‘culture of immediacy’ that prioritizes spectacle and confrontation at the expense of more traditional qualities such as ‘reflection, history [and] theory’ (McKay, 1998, p.13).
The advent of digital technologies, however, has created a route through which today’s protesters can easily draw upon the knowledge produced by yesterday’s activists. Downing argues that ‘having a non-sectarian open archive that can be accessed easily, retaining arguments over time in the language of the time about how to organise contestation and media activism, represents a vital step forward’ (2003, p.252). According to this view, open archives constitute a space in which activists can exchange knowledge about tactics, values and beliefs in order to better engage with more mainstream, non-activist publics. In other words, it removes protest discourses from the secure realm of ‘dusty back numbers’, ‘forgotten publications’ and ‘oral interviews with aged political veterans’ (Downing, 2003, p.252) and places them within a transparent, centrally organised system which fixes and frames still evolving ways of thinking. As such the digital archive can be seen to span the ruptures, continuities and discontinuities of contemporary protest creating a mechanism through which the past is accumulated in the present with the capacity to shape the experiences of the future.
However the practice of searching archives has the potential to be problematic, in that it grants outsiders an entry point into social spaces that were previously difficult to access. The fear of surveillance means that despite the many logistical advantages afforded by digital archives, activists frequently perceive online spaces to be essentially unknowable and therefore untrustable places where individuals communicate under the silently disciplining gaze of dominant groups. Consequently while digital archives could be seen as a mechanism through which knowledge can be exchanged between different generations of activists across time, this potential becomes more problematic when its dynamics are unfolded across space.
These contradictory dynamics have important implications for academics and activists alike and lead on to ask a series of inter related questions. Firstly, it obliges us to think more carefully about the way in which pre-digital activists learned from the past and prepared for the future. Secondly, it requires us to think about how activists’ use of digital technologies has impacted upon their engagement with the past and the future. Lastly it prompts us to reflect upon whether the current hyper-saturated media and communications environment might provide new opportunities to archive protest artefacts and movement discourses whilst also and at the same time compromising the ability of activists to create and then maintain subaltern publics away from the ‘supervision of dominant groups’ (Fraser, 1990, p. 66).