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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the commitment to non-violence, and what that means when squared with the idea that oppression is violent. I think it’s very easy to point to the successes of non-violent movements, and I think that it’s also really wonderful that non-violent resistance to oppression has worked in the past. However, I also have mixed feelings about how resistance to oppression has changed tactically since the advent of social media.

On the one hand, social media enables non-violent protesters to circumvent institutional media, thereby allowing them to depict, say, police brutality at a protest from their own point of view. However, these points of view often only get picked up by people who support them in the first place. They are merely preaching to the choir.

Which is to say nothing of the fact that non-violent protest seems to be losing traction in many ways. People are jaded with the format of most protests — although this does offer exciting opportunities for people working on social media projects to use their technologies to respond to this need — and very little is sensational about people with signs marching on anything these days. On the other hand, many experiments with using social media to intervene in situations has been largely very ephemeral, which is a big complaint about social media-related justice work in general. And the internet in general.

So what are we to do? I think it’s a many-faceted problem, but I also don’t know about ruling out a certain degree of militancy in responding to certain situations. I don’t think armed conflict or violent aggression is, in fact, the solution to every problem, nor am I advocating meaningless violence. However, in cases where all legal and civil resistances have failed, sometimes you have to raise your fist. Stonewall was a riot, not a candlelight vigil.


Yesterday Tim and I etched circuit boards for our final media robotics project. One of the things I couldn’t help thinking about are the environmental implications of the kind of work that I am interested in doing; the ways in which doing them is, in some ways, a function of my privilege; and how to lessen the negative impact of my practice on the environment and society.

I don’t think there is a good way to go about building electronics, at least not in the way the world functions now. Materials for microprocessors are strip-mined, often from somewhere in the Global South, by companies that don’t give back to the communities they are shitting on. The chips themselves are often manufactured in factories of questionable ethics in countries where workers aren’t protected from unsafe working conditions, terrible pay, and other abuses. The substances needed to etch circuit boards in your own home are actually illegal to dump down your drain because they’re so dangerous to the environment.

Of course, there are better ways than others to go about the project of using technology for artistic or activist practice. The fact that we didn’t use single-use ferric chloride to etch our circuit boards is a step in the right direction [see relevant Instructable here]. But that doesn’t absolve the practice of the issues that plague the high tech industry. It’s easy and cheap to etch your own circuit boards, actually. The only problem is dealing with the final product — specifically your etchant. The stuff that we made is cheap and essentially infinitely reusable, if kept in an opaque container away from heat.

The problem, of course, is that it’s even easier to just buy parts. It probably wouldn’t have been too much more expensive to move this circuit board etching offshore. The boards we would get back would be more “professional” looking, but certainly less interesting as a part of this particular project, considering we made them ourselves. It’s not so expensive to buy a lot of things. And they aren’t necessarily ethically manufactured.

I can’t help but think about how the practice of building electronics in general can be made more ethical. It’s hard to square a commitment to interventionist products with a process that is, at best, patching up holes where they exist. It frustrates me to think about too much, I guess. But I’m always interested in how to make the things I do less ethically questionable.

It only took me an hour to get through the entire voting process.  Down at my polling place, there was a carnival atmosphere: at least a dozen of my friends were there around when I was there, and we had sparklers and candy and there were high-fives for everyone.  We hung out with the Democratic voter assistance volunteers (one of whom was in all of my philosophy classes last year) and drank coffee and talked about the election.  Spirits are high.  People are counting on this.

But in Ypsilanti Township, people are waiting three or four hours to vote.  In Miami-Dade, people are waiting upwards of five.  It is excruciatingly clear that we are privileged.  Not only did I only have to spend an hour at my polling place, I had the option to hang out and meet other voters.  Economically underpivileged people, especially people who work bit jobs for hourly wages, don’t have that kind of luxury.  Especially when you consider that wait times are considerably longer in underprivileged areas, you can’t help but think — this isn’t an explicit poll tax, but it might as well be.  If I were working 60 hours a week and living paycheck-to-paycheck, I couldn’t spend three hours waiting to cast my ballot.  If I were making just enough money to make rent and were living on food stamps, I would honestly probably choose making my money over voting.  And even if I had the chance to plan ahead and sock a little extra away for November (some people still can’t do that), my employer might not be so cool with me taking off.  I’m enormously privileged as a college student living in an upper middle-class community that 1) I can take time out of my day to vote and 2) there are plenty of volunteers in my area to staff my polling place.

I am not-so-secretly ashamed of myself for not volunteering in Ypsi Township.

I’m also really excited that people are using the internet to give voting social capital.  While the white oval “I Voted” sticker that is on my messenger bag is pretty cool, it’s nowhere near as exciting to get involved on Facebook.  Logging in this morning, I was presented with a running count of every Facebook member who has voted.  I changed my status to the automated message from the Causes application (I was recruited by a friend, and have recruited two so far).  The sheer numbers — nearly a million people used the Causes application to change their statuses simultaneoulsy at midnight, over 2 million have reported voting already — is something that makes it thrilling, not to mention unifying.

This is cool and everything, but how can we better use social networking tools to galvanize young people?  I kind of wonder how many people would have gotten their hands dirty with this on Facebook if it weren’t such an important election to us?  I hope we immediately start working on ways to motivate people in the future.  Social capital is remarkably valuable, and also remarkably easy to come by on the internet.  So long as you have a critical mass of users who are participating, others start paying attention.

And using online social capital to get out the vote is one thing, but it still doesn’t answer a fundamental question: how do we reenfranchise the disenfranchised?  What about the voters in Ypsi Township, in Detroit, in Miami-Dade County?

I haven’t blogged in a while because I’ve been lost behind the Golden Shield — that is, the Great Firewall — and haven’t had time to investigate setting up anonymizing tools so I can get around it. I’ve installed and am running Tor to anonymize my surfing. So far, so good — I’m pretty happy with it. It’s fairly easy to use, I recommend at least checking it out.

As you might expect, WordPress is blocked in China. Things have been interesting here, and though I don’t have the energy to relate them all at the moment, if you click over to my Ego blog, there are a few entries there that I managed to crank out. The interface ain’t no WordPress, but it worked while I was away. I’ll be returning to Hong Kong soon and things will be back to normal. The nice thing about Tor though, it keeps people from snooping into your business while you use the internet. Very important not just in China, but also in the States, where someone is watching your every digital move.

Speaking of watching your every move, Naomi Klein had an article published in a recent issue of Rolling Stone about the state of surveillance in China…er…state surveillance in China? (The state of state surveillance.) It made checking back into the five-star Wenjin a bittersweet activity. Interestingly enough, it turns out the police do do random searches of foreigners here, and it happened to someone on my trip. Conveniently enough, the day we moved out of the youth hostel, one of my tripmates had her passport taken during a police search of her hostel room. You need to show a passport to check into hotels here. They scan your bioinfo page and your visa page, and according to some sources (including Ms. Klein) they send that data to the police. Luckily my tripmate got her passport back, but it was definitely a sober reminder that we are in China.

One of the things that always surprises me here is how readily both Chinese and Westerners equate economic freedoms — property ownership, freedom to start enterprises, and the ability to make money, for example — with political freedoms, like freedom of speech, of assembly, and of the press. I’m guessing that for my dad’s generation, the economic freedoms are enough. He was five when the People’s Republic of China was founded, and so the ability to change one’s economic status is probably one hell of a thrill. However, the fact that people still need to use proxies to access some sites on the internet — and the fact that Shenzen has 2 million CCTV cameras for a little over 12 million residents, as an example — doesn’t seem to wig people out.

Maybe this’ll come with time. I’ve been reading Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody and I am trying to fathom how to apply these sorts of things to Chinese situations, especially since the internet is so restricted. Caroline Watson from Hua Dan also pointed out to me that anyone who is not a member of the rising middle class or above doesn’t have access to computers and the internet. They do, however, have mobile phones, and that seems to me to be an untapped resource. People are starting to normalize this technology in their lives. The next step is coming up with an innovative use for it…and in my experience, the people of China are very innovative. I’m interested to see what comes of it.

On the flip side, the Chinese government is pretty ace at packaging even the stuff that leaks out on the internet — look at what happened earlier this year in Tibet. Most of the information that came out of the Lhasa riots was disseminated by the Chinese state media. The few citizens, journalists and bloggers who were able to get information out don’t seem to be recognized by the mainstream media, and it’s really hard to read who’s being serious about what. What does a technologically-savvy Chinese population have to do to break this trend?

I think a major reason the Chinese government was able to spin these protests was the fact that by and large there were not all that many people posting images to the internet. I wonder if many more people began posting images and even tweeting from their mobiles (Twitter, by the way, is not blocked by the Great Firewall), the government might have a harder time sweeping up after itself.

By and large people seem to keep in line here. There is no violence to speak of in this city, which is amazing, but certainly a result of the fact that the government is so stringent about its rules. But as the country gets more economically liberal, will people begin demanding further political liberalization?


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