The Implicit Critique of Technology in the Occupy Protests

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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.

Other examples of this implosion are easy to find. Solar panels and this bike-powered electricity generator are preferable ways to generate electricity at occupation camps. David Banks discusses the intersecting roles of Wi-Fi and tents in this essay.

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Smartphones, laptops, webpages, online social networks and other high-tech tools remain a very important part of the story of Occupy and technology. But the full picture must take into account the central role of both high and low technologies, the on and offline and, most importantly, the point where all of these intersect. This is augmented revolution.

So, why does Occupy embrace low-tech?

It's not simply necessity. That does little to explain why those on Tumblr are hand-writing signs. It does not explain why I was told "we don't need electricity!" by many folks at Zuccotti Park. The People's Microphone is used even when electronic microphones are nearby (as I saw when observing an Occupy Toronto General Assembly). More than a clever workaround to a lack of electricity, the people's microphone becomes a powerful form of solidarity, it is a spectacle that gets the attention of the Occupy Tourists and it comes to stand for the resistance of the movement itself.

The contemporary logic in modern capitalism is a fixation on the high-tech: more, better, faster, smaller, cooler. In the name of consumer capitalism and corporate profits Apple has mistreated workers in China, dangerous e-waste from the West piles up in the developing world, Google gobbles up and often misuses our private data and Facebook continues its insidious march into our private lives, potentially burrowing into our consciousness.

Occupy does not completely abandon any of these occasionally problematic technologies. But embracing low-tech does serve as an implicit, and sometimes explicit, critique of the logic of high-tech consumer global capitalism. My own sense is that the mood at various occupations is that humans are the most important technology and that we have collectively created a culture that places humans as subservient to new technologies rather than the other way around.

Many worry that we are becoming a society addicted to gadgets, disconnected from our surroundings on phones and trading real contact in favor of Facebook "friends." Instead, Occupy serves as a reminder that people are not giving up the offline and the physical for the online and the digital. New technologies are being woven into our lives, sometimes awkwardly and painfully, in ways that suit our needs. The generation devouring mp3's has also brought a new life to vinyl as a format. Those with their faces buried in the Facebook screen are also interacting more face-to-face. Questions about whether the Web promotes revolution or repression often miss the point: high/low-tech and on/offline all augment each other, utilized side-by-side rather than through displacement.

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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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