#Occupy: The Tech at the Heart of the Movement

By Alexis C. Madrigal

This essay inaugurates a series of stories on the ways that protesters have shaped technologies to fit their needs -- and how technologies opened up new space for their messages

occupywallstreet1036.jpg

With the police raids in the past few days of camps from Oakland to New York, the Occupy movement is at a key juncture. We want to step back and look at the role of technology in the protests' establishment, spread, and future. This essay inaugurates a series of stories on the ways that protesters have shaped technologies to fit their needs -- and how technologies opened up new space for their messages.

Let's start with what seems self-evident, but what I'm sure is more complex than it appears: Occupy is different from the protests that preceded it. To be honest, I'm not sure anyone can explain why. The list of factors contributing to its outstanding run is long: economic circumstances, a distance from the enforced patriotism that followed 9/11, disappointment on the left with Obama's presidency, the failure to adequately regulate banks, the neverending foreclosure crisis, the Adbusters provenance, severe cuts to social programs at the state and local level, the language of occupation, and the prolonged nature of the engagement.

But among those factors, technology plays a central role. I don't mean this is in any narrowly celebratory way: "Technology caused Occupy Wall Street!" But I will say that a set of mobile technologies that didn't exist ten years ago offered protesters new human capabilities that they used to record and disseminate information, as well as organize -- or maybe more properly, design -- the protests. These new behaviors, like blanket cell-phone photo coverage paired with social media amplification, were unprecedented in the United States, though activists put them to use in the Arab Spring protests.

To take a small example of the changes in action, let's return to the moment when the protests went viral. A New York police office was caught on video pepper spraying several women in the face. Our James Fallows captured the spirit of the moment and why it brought such support for the protesters: "[T]he casualness of the officer who saunters over, sprays right in the women's eyes, and then slinks away without a backward glance, as if he'd just put down an animal, does not match my sense of 'appropriate' behavior by officers of the law in a free society."

It's possible -- though perhaps unlikely -- that a TV news crew would have caught such a moment. It's possible that in the pre-Internet world such a moment would have circulated quickly on copied videotapes or on cable access shows. But it is not possible that such an event could have been captured in the way that it was and transmitted within 24 hours to thousands of people through dedicated protest information channels, some of whom amplified the signal to their contacts outside the movement, and so on. Millions had seen the clip within a day or two. And though the news media piled on, it would not have taken members of the press to spread the video. Its emotional power pushed easily through the information networks of the Internet that daily spread cat videos and essays about the Thai floods.

The message of the clip's dissemination is clear. Protesters have chanted, "The whole world is watching" for decades. That's never been strictly accurate, and it's not now either. But what is true is that nearly every action is being recorded -- and with the right set of circumstances, that action can be virally distributed to millions. The moral stopping power of citizen observation has been extended.

After the Occupy protests began to gain mindshare, Americans saw something they'd never seen before. The immediacy of protest images taken by protesters felt new. The speed of their distribution certainly was new. The angle and production values of the protesters' videos were different from the produced segments news organizations put out. Social media pushed the media off to the side, turning them (us) into surfers on a wave that they could see but not control.

All this to say: It wasn't just the protests that were novel for Americans, but the way that the protests could be experienced was also new. In addition to reading about them in the paper or on a blog or seeing them on TV, they saw tweets from people on the ground, photos posted to Facebook, and livestreamed video. All this happened in real-time, so new support could be rallied *during* events, not long after them. The support could arise from formalized general social networks, not solely through custom-built protest networks. Occupy intruded into the lives of the digitally connected in ways that were not possible before. Peering out from the cell phones of protesters everywhere, being on the receiving end of government power had never felt so possible, so real. It felt as if *you* were there as the line of riot cops approached, and somehow that felt different from the view from the television news camera. (Twitter, Facebook, and nearly every other social network did not even exist during 1999's WTO protests or the World Bank protests in DC the next year.)

I'd also argue that Internet technology, specifically, has created new habits of mind and expectations of large-scale projects. Whereas before, hierarchy would have been assumed in a national happening like Occupy, protesters could look to other models of organizing work. They could look to open source projects or, more simply, the insta-networks that spring up around metastatic information. Networked organization is a useful reality as well as a sort of psychological support structure. We're running networks around them! Loose bands of young people can defeat the gray suited corporations! They can't fight what they don't understand!

So, stay tuned. We'll be exploring both the technical and conceptual realities of technology as employed by the Occupy movement and those watching it.

Image: Bryan Derballa/Wired.com

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/11/-occupy-the-tech-at-the-heart-of-the-movement/248435/