The irruption of WikiLeaks, Anonymous, Edward Snowden, Cambridge Analytica and other tech-savvy actors onto the global political stage raises urgent questions about the worldwide impact of ‘nerd politics’. In this blog post, John Postill explores four domains of nerd politics that have experienced a dramatic expansion since 2010: digital rights, data activism, social protest and formal politics.
John Postill is the author of The Rise of Nerd Politics, an anthropological investigation into how nerds are sparking and managing new processes of political change in the digital age. The book is available from Pluto Press.
In May 2012, the Canadian sci-fi writer and digital rights activist Cory Doctorow wrote a piece in the Guardian titled ‘The problem with nerd politics’. This came in the wake of successful campaigns against copyright legislation that technology ‘nerds’ saw as curtailing digital freedoms, as well as fresh electoral gains by the nerdy Pirate Party in Germany. Doctorow entreated his fellow nerds not to seek tech solutions to political problems, but rather to ‘operate within the realm of traditional power and politics’ and defend the rights of ‘our technically unsophisticated friends and neighbours’.
It is unclear what effect, if any, this call to arms had across the world of nerd politics. What we can say with certainty is that this social universe has continued its dramatic expansion in the intervening years since Doctorow’s article.
Nerd politics matters to us all because activist nerds are at the very heart of some of the key political, economic and cultural battles of our times. These include struggles over the meaning and practice of liberal democracy, over freedom of expression, intellectual property and the creative industries, and over the right to privacy in an age of ‘datafication’.
The rise of nerd politics is, in fact, a global trend hiding in plain sight, a trend crying out for an explanation. Since the late 2000s, the international media have covered many instances of it, including Anonymous’s war on Scientology, Iran’s Green movement, WikiLeaks’ Cablegate leaks, the Arab Spring, Spain’s indignados, the Occupy movement, Snowden’s revelations about the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) mass surveillance, and Russian and British meddling with the 2016 Trump campaign, most recently in connection to the UK firm Cambridge Analytica.
But so far we have lacked a common narrative to bind together these seemingly disparate events. Uniting all of them, I suggest, is the pivotal role played by a new class of political actors I call ‘techno-political nerds’ – or simply ‘techpol nerds’. By this I refer to people who operate at the intersection of technology and politics, and who care deeply about the fate of democracy in the digital age.
Who are you calling a nerd?
But who exactly are these techpol nerds, and what do they want? Far from the Western stereotype of geeks and nerds as young, white, socially awkward males, these political actors come in many different shapes, sizes and colours. While some are indeed computer experts – Julian Assange and Edward Snowden spring to mind – many wouldn’t be able to write a line of code or hack a computer to save their lives. Their interest in technology is mediated by other forms of expertise, such as law, art, media, politics or even anthropology. Nor are they all uniformly libertarians, as they are often made out to be, especially in the United States (as Coleman 2017 has noted). In fact, ideologically these diverse women and men range from anarchists and libertarians on the anti-state side of the fence to liberals and radicals on the pro-state side.
Uniting them across their differences is their shared support for democracy and abhorrence of authoritarianism. In addition, most are ‘rooted cosmopolitans’ (Tarrow 2005: 29) more actively involved in the politics of their own countries of birth or residence than in those of third countries. Their modus operandi is often a blend of teamwork and crowdwork (e.g. through crowdfunding and crowdsourcing), including strategic ‘part-nerdships’ with other political actors. Rather than being ‘techno-utopians’ (pace Morozov 2013), these nerds are actually pragmatic utopians who are painfully aware of the everyday limitations and frustrations of technology. Most steer clear of quixotic schemes and prefer to attain ‘concrete changes’ (Kubitschko 2015) through collaborative actions in which technology is invariably only part of the answer.
Four corners of a world
Nerd politics has been in the making since the 1980s, but it is currently experiencing a remarkable growth spurt triggered by a series of ‘critical events’ (Sewell 2005), such as Cablegate, the Arab Spring, the indignados and Snowden’s NSA revelations. This acceleration is linked to the post-2008 global crisis of liberal democracy, fuelled by the political passions of nerds, and enabled by the worldwide proliferation of digital media.
In The Rise of Nerd Politics, I argue that techpol nerds operate in a highly dynamic ‘social world’ (Strauss 1978) that intersects multiple other social worlds, including politics, culture and business. This is a world subdivided into four main subworlds (or spaces): data activism, digital rights, social protest and formal politics. To gain a first appreciation of these four corners of the nerd politics world, let us consider a group of activists from Barcelona named Xnet. This collective is unusual for its high degree of nerd politics nomadism, but it is precisely this characteristic that will help us gain a quick overview of this complex social world.
I first met the unofficial leader of Xnet, the artist and activist Simona Levi, along with her team, in the summer of 2010, during anthropological fieldwork in Barcelona. The group was then a few years old and had been active exclusively within the digital rights space – a space of political action in which nerds fight for online freedom of expression and other digital freedoms, where they abide by the maxim that ‘digital rights are human rights’. At the time, Xnet were fighting an ‘anti-piracy’ bill that they saw as criminalising the everyday online practices of millions of Spaniards. The bill was known as ley Sinde (Sinde’s Law) after its main champion, the then minister of culture, Ángeles González Sinde.
In November 2010, nerd suspicions that the US government, and not its Spanish counterpart, had drafted the new bill at the behest of US culture industry lobbies were confirmed by US diplomatic cables releases by WikiLeaks. In December 2010, as the bill was set to be passed by the Spanish Parliament, Xnet and fellow nerds from across Spain successfully mobilised against it. Their most effective action was arguably a voluntary blackout by Spain’s prime streaming and downloading websites, which accounted for more than 70 per cent of the country’s internet traffic. Visitors were greeted with the lines: ‘If ley Sinde is passed this page will disappear. The internet will be one more TV in the service of power’. At a stroke, millions of Spaniards were denied their favourite weekend entertainment.
As a result, a mass audience instantly morphed into an outraged public. The following day, there were cyberattacks against the e-mail addresses and websites of the main political parties and Parliament, as well as physical protests outside the parliament building in Madrid. Finding themselves under pressure, some political parties backed out and the bill was initially defeated.
Alas, Spain’s digital rights nerds had little time to bask in their glory. Just six weeks later, their elected representatives ignored the popular revolt and signed the bill into law. Xnet responded to this perceived betrayal by migrating to the social protest space. They did this supporting and joining the fledgling protest platform ¡Democracia Real Ya! (Real Democracy Now!), which called for mass marches across Spain on 15 May 2011 to demand ‘real democracy’. To this end, they transformed their own workspace, a venue known as Conservas, into the unofficial DRY headquarters in Barcelona. This switch from digital politics to politics writ large amounted to a Turnerian ‘schism’ (Turner 1974: 42) between Spain’s nerds and its now discredited political class. The marches were well attended and led directly to the unplanned occupation of dozens of squares across the country, which in turn led to the 15M (indignados) movement. The social protest space, at least as it has evolved since the Arab Spring, is based on the occupation of public space and seeks to rediscover the true meaning of democracy through popular assemblies. It follows that while the digital rights space tacitly subscribes to the ideal of a liberal representative democracy, the social protest space openly embraces assemblary democracy.
Exactly a year later, in May 2012, in front of a large crowd gathered in Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya to mark the first anniversary of the 15M movement, Simona Levi announced a new crowdfunded campaign named 15MpaRato. Their five-year goal was to bring to justice Rodrigo Rato and other senior bankers responsible for the collapse of Bankia, one of Spain’s leading financial institutions. Bankia was bailed out at enormous cost to EU taxpayers in the wake of the post-2008 property market collapse. Xnet urged prospective whistle-blowers to leak data on Bankia to a secure website they had set up for this purpose.
In other words, Xnet were now moving into the data activism space. The maxim animating this space is that ordinary people should empower themselves by using digital data to hold the powerful accountable for their actions – what Keane would call a ‘monitory democracy’ ideal (Keane 2009: 676 et passim).
In early 2013, Xnet migrated once again to another corner of the nerd politics world. This time they relocated to the formal politics space, where they registered a new political party called Partido X to campaign in the 2014 elections for the European Parliament. Inspired by hacker principles and practices, Partido X displayed both similarities with and differences from existing Pirate parties across Europe. Levi argued at the time that the 15M movement was entering a new phase in its evolution; now that the ruling elites felt ‘surrounded’ by civil society, the indignados were finally in a position to ‘take the institutions’.
In doing so, Partido X was breaking the 15M taboo of not engaging in representative politics, paving the way for other grassroots formations such as Podemos and Barcelona en Comú. To manage this dissonance, they rejected the telegenic ‘personality politics’ of mainstream campaigns in favour of candidates chosen for their integrity and expertise, and called themselves a ‘citizen network’ (red ciudadana).
When Partido X failed to secure any seats in the European Parliament, the group went through a period of soul-searching that eventually led them back to the data activism space in 2016. There they wrote and directed the ‘data theatre’ play Hazte banquero (‘Become a banker’), based on their 15MpaRato leaks, which earned them critical and popular acclaim. Through this play, the Xnet activists wanted to tell two stories simultaneously: the story of the ‘culture of impunity’ enjoyed by Spain’s ruling elites, and the story of how it is only ‘organised citizens’ who can put a stop to it. Its co-author, the activist Sergio Salgado, described the play to me as ‘pure data’ (datos puros). He also told me that audiences felt ‘empowered’ on leaving the show, and that they congratulated the activists more for the play than for the leaks that made it possible.
Finally, in late 2017, Xnet re-entered the social protest space when the group became involved in Catalonia’s independence referendum. This entailed, among other things, denouncing moves by the Spanish state to censor the internet and taking to task a major unionist newspaper from Madrid, El País, for unfairly accusing the regional government of violating the data privacy of its own citizens.
It remains to be seen where the group will operate in the coming years, but to judge by their trajectory to date it is unlikely that they will restrict themselves to their original corner of the nerd politics world: the digital rights space.
Xnet holds a special place in my eight-year struggle to understand the rise of nerd politics, for it was precisely their unusually nomadic trajectory that revealed to me the invisible external and internal boundaries of the nerd politics world. These boundaries may be both porous and imperceptible to the human eye, but they are as empirically real as a herd of elephants or a parliamentary building. Xnet provided me with a map of Spain’s techno-political terrain that I then applied to case studies from Indonesia, Brazil, Iceland, Tunisia, Taiwan and the United States – as well as globally.
The map was a breakthrough: the same four-cornered, dynamic geometry found in Spain helped to explain the limits and possibilities of nerd politics elsewhere.
The Rise of Nerd Politics: Digital Activism and Political Change by John Postill is available from Pluto Press.
John Postill is Senior Lecturer in Communication at RMIT University, Melbourne. He has a PhD in Anthropology from University College London and is the author of Media and Nation Building (2008), the co-author of Digital Ethnography (2015) and the co-editor of Theorising Media and Practice (2010).
Coleman, G. 2017. From internet farming to weapons of the geek. Current Anthropology 58(S15), 91–102.
Keane, J. 2009. The Life and Death of Democracy. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Kubitschko, S. 2015. Hackers’ media practices: demonstrating and articulating expertise as interlocking arrangements. Convergence 21(3), 388–402.
Morozov, E. 2013. To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. New York: Public Affairs.
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Strauss, A.L. 1978. A social world perspective. In N.K. Denzin (ed.), Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 1, 119–128. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
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