Part IV – How an engineer can be an activist, and and activist can be technical?

Här kommer del fyra i serien ”How can engineers and activists work together?”

Part I – Introduction

Part II – Panspectric Surveillance and War

Part III – Citizen journalism, pirate parties and activists

Part IV – How an engineer can be an activist, and and activist can be technical?

In digital rights there is a special dilemma in the relationship between legislation and technological systems. As technological innovations carry with them new social relations, make new communicational flows possible, and sometimes disrupt legislation (Klang 2007) forcefully, I would argue that we need more than a “legalist approach” in understanding our contemporary situation.

The legalist approach to technological regulation may be summarised as an idealist position, where we grant the rights and obligations to certain actors. For example file-sharing of copyrighted material is illegal in most countries, and we usually try to prevent the police, the homeland security agencies and several other governmental bodies to take away or override civil liberties. The legalist  approach is thus a vision of rules that need to be obeyed, or enforced, if disobeyed. However, this approach is very limited in scope, and may work in a faulty manner as we try to open up the conflicts and constellations inherent to surveillance.

The other position we may call a performative approach, or along the reasoning of Rasmus Fleischer, a materialist way of understanding what technologies do in our everyday lives. Instead of asking what you are allowed to do with technologies, the performative perspective asks for what human-technologial assemblages are able to do. You are not allowed to share copyrighted material, but a computer and an internet connection makes you able to do it, and this is why a substantive amount of the national internet traffic in Sweden, as well as in Germany, consists of precisely these kind of files.

With surveillance, we are running the risk that the surveyor may actually be doing what the harmless “pirate” is doing to copyrighted music or video. If there are systems enabling mass surveillance, we may similarly replace the violation of copyright into the violation of human rights.  As mentioned earlier, we give the FRA the technological abilities to record all traffic data on the Internet, but not necessarily the legal means to use them freely.

No matter what you views are on file-sharing, we may still conclude that the Internet is changing the way we consume, share and even produce music. The disruption comes from technology, rather than a legalist process constructed in alignment with certain rights and duties. The materialist approach instructs us to regard such phenomenon from abstract parameters of technological analysis; The increase in bandwidth, storage capacity and the decentralised yet interconnected structure of the Internet enables simultaneously the massive flows of information and the tremendous, and necessary, generation of traffic-data. This data is however the core of panspectric surveillance.

Digital activism must necessarily be technical in character. It must affirm an abstract materialist vision, which follows the flows of technologically enabled potentialities throughout society, and thus pushes the traditional front line of the legalist approach even further forwards, to where it hinges on the same level as the innovation, implementation and development of technological systems.

In the debate on the FRA-law, there was a complex ontopotitical struggle to define and demarcate between those who argued that the FRA was reasonable due to the legal restrictions imposed upon the authority as such, and those who feared that the deployment of physical cables copying all traffic data from the Internet Service Providers.

Engineers posses a certain kind of expertise, not merely in their particular field, but in a more general way as it comes to understanding technological systems and their potentialities. French sociologist Michel Callon proposed in a 1986 (insert reference) article that engineers were actually better sociologists than sociologists themselves, since the constructions and inventions of technological systems required a social analysis equal to the technical. Without knowing how to analyse social relations, you can not change them and configure them according to you inventions.

However, there is a common view among certain engineers that their tasks do not stretch beyond finding mere technical solutions to particular problems. They distinguish between a technical problem and a social or legal one, and I must thus argue that such a conception is counter-productive.

Let me summarise the consequences in a few general sentences:
Activism and public debate must take place at the deployment of technological systems before they become mundane or their social disruption is forgotten in history.
Engineers, lawyers, activists and users can contribute to an open and critical debate if they co-operate, and may resolve issues on integrity on a practical level (e.g. encryption software, routing of messages et. Cetera) when forming heterogenous constellations.
A performative approach may ensure civil liberties in a more rigourous fashion than a legalist understanding.

To be continued…

Coming posts:

Part V – The Internet(s) – a democratic space or a panspectric surveillance minefield? Is peace and war really separable?


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