The Implicit Critique of Technology in the Occupy Protests

The prevalence of smartphones, social media, videostreams and the like may be the dominant technological narrative told about Occupy Wall Street, but to focus only on high-tech is to tell a very incomplete story. The reality is that Occupy has also embraced non-electronic low-tech; not just out of necessity but politically and symbolically. 

Examples are most obvious at the various occupation encampments. The low-tech vibe, partly born out of a structural necessity, has come to be symbolic of the movement itself. If Occupy is a thought experiment in questioning society and envisioning new possibilities, then the story of technology and Occupy is also about questioning the role modern technology has in our lives.

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  • The obvious example of non-electric technologies used at most protests are the ubiquitous hand-painted signs.
  • The Occupy Wall Street Journal print newspaper and other newspapers for other occupations demonstrate the continuing power of print media. That many occupations have libraries filled with print books makes the same point. So powerful are print books that the mostly-destroyed 5,000 volume People's Library became an important rallying point after the November 15th raid on Zuccotti Park.
  • The human-microphone, where the crowd repeats what one person is saying, is a low-tech solution to bullhorns being banned from Zuccotti Park.
  • The drum circles are an analogue technology that gets attention, attempts to build community (though, some argue that it does the opposite) and can keep you warm in the cold (a point that hits home when at an occupation).
  • Vintage cameras. Most discussions about photography and Occupy talk about high-tech smartphone cameras and livestreaming and miss the small but noticeable presence of vintage cameras at the occupations (I took photos of some at Zuccotti Park).
  • While much has been made of how Occupy utilizes the Internet to organize, much is done offline as well. The original message to choose Zuccotti Park as the home for OWS was spread by word-of-mouth. "We decided that low-tech communication methods would be best," an organizer told The New Yorker. "If we'd used a mass text message, or Twitter, it would have been easy for the police to track down who was doing this."  

More conceptually, space and time are important technologies because the name "occupy" specifically refers to occupying physical space for an extended period of time. A march takes up space, but an omnipresent occupation with tents also takes up time. With the recent wave of police effort clearing occupations of their infrastructure, this balance of space and time becomes increasingly important and something I hope to expand on in a later post.

I am not arguing that these non-electronic examples are the whole story of technology and Occupy, but instead that this is an important and often neglected angle. For example, TIME's Matt Peckham describes "the high-tech behind Occupy Wall Street's low-tech message." While Peckham does not articulate what that low-tech message might be, we can use his high-tech example, Tumblr, to discuss what might be the most interesting example of low-tech: the way in which Occupy has atemporally imploded high and low-tech together. 

Most of us are aware of the "We are the 99%" Tumblr stream featuring people delivering Occupy-related messages. High-tech, right? But what I find most interesting is that these online photos are of hand-written messages on physical paper. Any one of these photos make the paradigmatic example of technology and Occupy: the meshing of the power of electronics to give oneself voice with an appreciation of the potency of personal low-tech.

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Nathan Jurgenson is a social theorist of media. He's working on a dissertation in sociology at the University of Maryland on self-documentation and social media.

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