In the age of search, keywords increasingly organize research, teaching, and even thought itself. Inspired by Raymond Williams's 1976 classic Keywords, the timely collection Digital Keywords gathers pointed, provocative short essays on more than two dozen keywords by leading and rising digital media scholars from the areas of anthropology, digital humanities, history, political science, philosophy, religious studies, rhetoric, science and technology studies, and sociology. Digital Keywords examines and critiques the rich lexicon animating the emerging field of digital studies.
This collection broadens our understanding of how we talk about the modern world, particularly of the vocabulary at work in information technologies. Contributors scrutinize each keyword independently: for example, the recent pairing of digital and analog is separated, while classic terms such as community, culture, event, memory, and democracy are treated in light of their historical and intellectual importance. Metaphors of the cloud in cloud computing and the mirror in data mirroring combine with recent and radical uses of terms such as information, sharing, gaming, algorithm, and internet to reveal previously hidden insights into contemporary life. Bookended by a critical introduction and a list of over two hundred other digital keywords, these essays provide concise, compelling arguments about our current mediated condition.
Digital Keywords delves into what language does in today's information revolution and why it matters.
About the Author
Benjamin Peters is assistant professor of communication at the University of Tulsa and affiliated faculty at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School.
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A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture
By Benjamin Peters
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
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First published in 1976, Raymond Williams's Keywords captures the spirit of his times. The 110 entries in the first edition include radical, revolution, and violence. Liberation is one of the 21 entries added to the second edition in 1983. These words linked together the worldwide revolutionary movements of the 1960s and early 1970s.
From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, however, the absence of the word activism in Williams's classic is conspicuous. In the decades since its first publication, but especially since the 1990s, activism has become a popular word in contemporary cultural and political discourse. It is used not only by citizens and civil society organizations, but also by government bureaucracies, international agencies, and even business corporations. Furthermore, the growing popularity of activism is accompanied by the declining use of revolution and liberation, or at least declining up until the "Occupy" movement and the Arab Spring protests. What does the ascendance of activism reveal about contemporary culture, society, and politics?
An Ambiguous Word
Activism is an ambiguous word. It can mean both radical, revolutionary action and nonrevolutionary, community action; action in the service of the nation-state and in opposition to it. This ambiguity has existed since its first usages in the early twentieth century. The German philosopher Rudolf Eucken used the term in his 1907 book The Fundamentals of a New Philosophy of Life to refer to "the theory or belief that truth is arrived at through action or active striving after the spiritual life" (OED, 3rd ed.). In continental Europe during World War I,activism meant "advocacy of a policy of supporting Germany in the war; pro-German feeling or activity" (OED, 3rd ed.). The word in 1920 began to take on the more general meaning of "the policy of active participation or engagement in a particular sphere of activity; spec. the use of vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change." By 1960 the term could have an almost incendiary connotation, as in "The sizzling flame of activism is visible in both the agricultural and pastoral districts" (OED, 3rd ed.). About activism as a service to the nation-state, Hoofd (2008) writes:
Etymologically, 'activism' has strong affinities not only with an essentially transcendental philosophy of life, but also with nationalism and industrialization. Indeed, it appears that 'activism' was an economic strategy originally employed for the benefit of the nation-state in which its citizens could enjoy the largest amount of 'spiritual freedom' through actively encouraged but closely monitored economic competition.
Activism thus had several different meanings in its history — a philosophical orientation to life, an economic strategy to mobilize citizens for national industrialization, a pro-German activity during World War I, and a vigorous political activity.
In its contemporary usage, activism generally refers to citizens' political activities ranging from high-cost, high-risk protests and revolutionary movements (McAdam 1986) to everyday practices aimed at protecting the environment (Almanzar, Sullivan-Catlin, and Deane 1998) and to corporatized NGO activism (Spade 2011). Its popularity undoubtedly has something to do with its multiple, ambiguous meanings, which make the word suitable for different purposes.
Over the past thirty years, activism has also become less likely to mean radical and revolutionary action and more likely to mean moderate civic action. Many social movements and activism studies support this hypothesis (Meyer and Tarrow 1998; Samson et al. 2005; Spade 2011). A glance at the frequency of the term and its associated words also helps: consider Google Ngram Viewer, which contains 5.2 million scanned books published between 1550 and 2008, with 500 billion words in total and 361 billion in English (Michel et al. 2010). As a hypothesis, suppose that a stronger association of activism with revolution or protest rather than NGO or civil society implies a more radical connotation, whereas a declining association with terms like revolution may indicate a less radical connotation. Now observe in figures 1 and 2 the patterns of usage in Google Ngram Viewer for activism in comparison with revolution and protest and with NGO and civil society from 1950 to 2008.
Figure 1 shows that the use of revolution declined steadily after the 1970s in proportion with the rising frequency of activism, with protest holding relatively steady. Figure 2 shows a remarkable parallel rise in the use of activism, NGO, and civil society. If NGO and civil society activism tends to be moderate, institutionalized, and even corporatized (Samson et al. 2005; Spade 2011; Dauvergne and LeBaron 2014), rather than radical and revolutionary, then the usage patterns suggest that from 1950 to 2008, especially after the 1990s, activism has mellowed to indicate moderate rather than radical forms of action.
An Ambivalent Age
The ambiguity of the increasingly popular keyword appears to serve well the politics and purposes in the current age of ambivalence. That ambivalence is a condition of modernity is already a thesis well developed in the works of classic social theorists from Marx to Weber (Smart 1999), although the post-1989, post–Cold War world entered a period of "new ambivalence" (Beck 1997). This "new ambivalence" rests on the unmooring of traditions and traditional communities, the breakdown of old boundaries of the public and the private, the collapse of faith in human progress, the retreat of grand, emancipatory politics and the rise of life politics, and what Beck calls the "reversal of politics and non-politics" where "the political becomes non-political and the non-political political" (Beck 1992: 186). The causes for this upheavel include, in brief, the shift from industrialization to postindustrialization in global economies, the crisis of the nation-state under the onslaught of globalization, the diffusion of new forms and patterns of communication associated with the development of internet and mobile technologies, and, over and above all these, the disembedding of institutions and the advent of a society of risk (Giddens 1990; Beck 1992). In essence, as Beck puts it, this new ambivalence is the consequence of the "gradual or eruptive collapse of previously applicable basic certainties" for practically all fields of social activity (Beck 1997, 11).
These influences express themselves in political participation complexly. On the one hand, aspirations for political struggle continue to take both radical and nonradical forms. The Zapatista revolt and the protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in the 1990s, for example, were radical eruptions — as were the more recent Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring protests. On the other hand, the history of activism and protest since the 1990s remains marked more by moderation than by radicalism in both Western democracies and other countries.
In Western democracies, popular political radicalism declined in the wake of the protest cycle of the 1960s and 1970s. What have appeared instead are "social movement societies," where protest becomes increasingly institutionalized and bureaucratized, and "civic" rather than disruptive. Meyer and Tarrow (1998, 20), editors of the volume The Social Movement Society, write, "Although disruption appears to be the most effective political tool of the disadvantaged, the majority of episodes of movement activity we see today disrupt few routines." A study of over four thousand events in the Chicago area from 1970 to 2000 finds that "sixties-style" protest declined, while hybrid events combining public claims making with civic forms of behavior increased (Samson et al. 2005). The most distinctive pattern of the post-1970s landscape of citizen participation is collective civic action, not disruptive action (see participation).
In China and the former Soviet bloc, large-scale protest activities declined after the "Velvet Revolution" and the Tiananmen student protests in 1989. History was proclaimed to have ended and revolution a relic of the past. In the wake of the Tiananmen protests, even Chinese intellectuals who had supported the Tiananmen movement bid "farewell to revolution," advocating instead reform as a method of political change and a prominent practice since the 1990s (Li and Liu 1995). Deradicalized civic action, such as NGO activism, also became more common than radical protest as revolutionary aspirations gave way to reformist agendas (Yang 2009).
Of course, moderation does not capture all the ambivalent trends of contemporary activism, such as the rise of the outsourcing of grassroots politics (Fisher 2006), the "nonprofitization" of social movements (Spade 2011, 40), and the corporatization of activism (Dauvergne and LeBaron 2014). Some activist organizations outsource their political campaigns to commercial campaign organizations, much as big corporations outsource their jobs and products to overseas factories. Others collaborate with businesses in pursuit of dubious goals, as when environmental organizations partner with oil companies to protect the environment. Deeply troubling to critics, "activist organizations have increasingly come to look, think, and act like corporations" in the last two decades (Dauvergne and LeBaron 2014, 1).
The Internet Brings Hope
At the same time the internet has introduced a range of new practices known as cyberactivism, hacktivism, internet activism, digital activism, and online activism. Symptomatic of the large world-historic transformations sketched above, these forms promise for many retransformation toward a more radical grassroots politics.
Online or cyberactivism (McCaughey and Ayers 2003) dates back to at least the mid-1990s (Jordan and Taylor 2004, 13) and the hacker communities of the 1980s or earlier (Turkle 1984; Levy 1984; Bowcott and Hamilton 1990). Hacktivism seeks radical ways of "beating the system" in particular (Bowcott and Hamilton 1990). And the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) used online electronic bulletin board systems (BBS) and newsgroups for protest in the mid-1990s (Wolfson 2014). During the Tiananmen student protests in 1989, Chinese students in North America and Europe used newsgroups on Usenet to mobilize support for protesters in China (Yang 2009, 28–29). By the mid-1990s, cybercultural and activist communities were proclaiming the power of the new technologies with manifestos: Timothy May issued his "Crypto Anarchist Manifesto" in 1992; in 1996, John Perry Barlow published his "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," while the Critical Art Ensemble (1996) published its manual for electronic civic disobedience; and in 1997, dissidents in China launched what they thought of as the first electronic magazine with the bold statement that computer networks had changed the equation between the autocrats and their struggles for freedom and democracy (Yang 2009, 92).
Other terms have followed the rapid proliferation and diffusion of global network technologies, such as tactical media (Garcia and Lovink 1997), radical media (Downing 2000), new media activism (Kahn and Kellner 2004; Lievrouw 2011), alternative media (Couldry and Curran 2003; Lievrouw 2011), hacktivism (Denning 1999; Jordan and Taylor 2004; Coleman 2013), networked social movements (Castells 2012), and online connective action (Bennett and Segerberg 2013). The outcomes of online activism discourse, however, remain far from clear. After over two decades of struggle and contestation, the meanings and significance of online activism are more ambivalent than ever, while the push for its politicization is often offset by the pull toward depoliticization. A closer comparison of these terms reveals both a profound fascination and deep anxieties.
The Ambiguity of Online Activism
Online activism is just as ambiguous as conventional activism. Email and web petitions, the hacking of websites, the Indymedia movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the Arab Spring protests have all been called online or digital activism. But a cyberactivist may also be just a regular computer user seeking to get other people onto the "information superhighway" by any number of everyday activities, such as these ten: (1) join something; (2) use the local library (to go online); (3) respect other people's bandwidth; (4) be all you can be — be "out" online; (5) learn a second language; (6) give your knowledge away free; (7) help a journalist; (8) get your mother on email; (9) encourage a kid; and (10) adopt a Newbie (Coyle 1994).
At other times, one person's online activism could be another's revolution and a third person's crime. The military often views hacking as an act of cyberwarfare, cyberterrorism, or cybercrime (Vegh 2003, 81). Online activism is sometimes dismissed on the ground that it is not as effective as "real" activism on the streets; at other times, street protests are characterized as networked digital protests simply because Facebook and Twitter were used to organize the protests offline. The result is the conflation of the more radical types of online activism with more moderate varieties. Far from a naive confusion of the meanings of a word, this conflation represents a history of political struggle over the meanings and practices of online activism.
Although the trend is neither straightforward nor irreversible, the more radical elements of online activism are becoming underplayed, if not dislodged, in activism discourse. Governments seek to criminalize radical online activists, and corporations seek to co-opt them. Thus over time, hacktivism has begun to connote illegality rather than its early evocations of countercultural creativity and individual heroism (Jordan 1999; Taylor 1999; Turner 2008). Radical cyberactivist organizations and practices like Indymedia and the Occupy Wall Street movement were subject to policing (Downing 2000; Pickard 2006; Sullivan, Spicer, and Böhm 2011; Gillham, Edwards, and Noakes 2013; Sauter 2014). In addition, online activism appears increasingly channeled into conventional institutional politics: "The digirati needs to learn how to make friends and win influence in Washington," Richard F. O'Donnell (1996) warned in 1996; "Otherwise they would be courting irrelevance." The online movement Moveon.org, for example, has become a member-based nonprofit organization. Like mirror images (see mirror), policing and mainstreaming have sped the absorption of online activism into normal institutional politics, undercutting its subversive potential as an extrainstitutional praxis. As in activism, so in online activism: the early radical aspirations of cyberactivism and hacktivism have weakened.
Online Activism in China
In his introduction to the 1976 edition of Keywords, Williams notes a limitation to his book: many keywords have developed important meanings in other languages, but, with few exceptions, these meanings go unnoticed in his analysis. Williams stresses the comparative study of how the keyword meanings go through complicated developments. In this spirit, let us examine a cluster of Chinese words related to online activism to reveal comparative meanings with the English language.
Until recent decades, activism was uncommon in the mainland Chinese vocabulary. Its literal translation, xingdong zhuyi appeared in academic articles in the late 1980s and early 1990s introducing histories of Western and Korean student activism; the term would not enter everyday language until later. The term activist, however, has been a keyword in official Chinese discourse since at least the Mao era: an activist actively participates in projects and campaigns sponsored by the government. In other words, an activist actively serves, not opposes, the nation-state. A dissident or protester is the opposite of an activist in this original Chinese sense.
Although varieties of online activism (in the Western sense) began to emerge in China in the 1990s, there were no standard concepts to describe them then. The Chinese word for protest, kangyi, was sometimes used. One of the most influential online forums in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Strong Nation forum, was originally set up as the "Protest Forum," to rally, for example, against the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in the former Yugoslavia in 1999.
Excerpted from Digital Keywords by Benjamin Peters. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Introduction, Benjamin Peters xiii
1 Activism, Guobin Yang 1
2 Algorithm, Tarleton Gillespie 18
3 Analog, Jonathan Sterne 31
4 Archive, Katherine D. Harris 45
5 Cloud, John Durham Peters 54
6 Community, Rosemary Avance 63
7 Culture, Ted Striphas 70
8 Democracy, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen 81
9 Digital, Benjamin Peters 93
10 Event, Julia Sonnevend 109
11 Flow, Sandra Braman 118
12 Forum, Hope Forsyth 132
13 Gaming, Saugata Bhaduri 140
14 Geek, Christina Dunbar-Hesterv 149
15 Hacker, Gabriella Coleman 158
16 Information, Bernard Geoghegan 173
17 Internet, Thomas Streeter 184
18 Meme, Limor Shifman 197
19 Memory, Steven Schrag 206
20 Mirror, Adam Fish 217
21 Participation, Christopher Kelty 227
22 Personalization, Stephanie Ricker Schulte 242
23 Prototype, Fred Turner 256
24 Sharing, Nicholas A. John 269
25 Surrogate, Jeffrey Drouin 278
Appendix: Over Two Hundred Digital Keywords 287
About the Contributors 291