Columns

XX.6 November + December 2013
Page: 12
Digital Citation

Interactions during conflicts


Authors:
Rogério de Paula

Are we faced with a proverbial brave new world? In the aftermath of a wave of protests and popular unrest in the streets of Brazil’s largest cities, which came to be dubbed the Vinegar Revolution [1], I could not help but mull over the meanings (political and beyond) manifested as well as suggested by the collective but not always concerted actions of the people who took over the streets. The events that took place in Brazil during June and July 2013 are in many respects complex and multi-faceted, and can hardly be discussed adequately in a single publication, let alone a single column.

Instead, I will focus on a thin slice of these events and examine what I found to be interesting emerging interactions among people’s collective actions, mobile and social technologies, and the streets. I will start by describing my personal, and quite accidental, encounter with the protests, and then offer a few remarks relative to the collective nature of these events and the importance of understanding technology, mobile and social, as an integral part of these collective actions. I am particularly intrigued by the capacity people have to mobilize and coordinate complex collective actions by means of loose connections and communication channels.

My goal is not to rave about the now touted “democratic nature of social technologies,” which by and large has been the recent discourse around the role of such technologies in popular protests around the world. Rather, I am interested in the collective interactions that emerge from the interplay of people, physical spaces and events (being on the streets, clashes, face-offs, and the like), media (social and traditional), and new technologies. The risk of ignoring these interactions is to reduce these important events into simple spectacles, something we merely tweet about. As Guy Debord put it in The Society of the Spectacle, “The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudo-world that can only be looked at.”

Encountering Protests

In the early evening on June 13, 2013, I left the IBM office—an iconic building located in the heart of São Paulo—toward the Avenida Paulista, known as the financial center of Brazil. I had been invited to attend a book launch at a bookstore on southern Paulista. We were enjoying our drinks and the authors were signing their books when the rolling steel doors at the entrances of the mall in which the bookstore is located were shut. The cracks of tear-gas canisters popping and glass windows being shattered could be heard faintly from inside, while outside the conflict between riot police and demonstrators was picking up. But the cocktail party went on undisturbed, albeit with people chatting about the “events” taking place in Brazil at that moment.

For one thing, we were simply enjoying the drinks and conversation, as it is not unusual to see demonstrations in that part of the city. What we did not anticipate was the scale of the conflict between demonstrators and riot police on that day and the resulting violence, with large numbers of detainees, injuries, and property damage. This in fact turned out to be the most violent protest in a series of street demonstrations across major Brazilian cities in the following weeks. Police violence and demonstrators’ vandalism were widely and graphically displayed on both social and traditional media. As these images were shared, viewed, and discussed online with bewildering speed and reach, various social groups started to mobilize themselves to participate and take their stand on what seemed to be the beginning of a revolution of sorts—one most likely stuck in people’s imaginations as they identified with events taking place in other cities around the world.

A week earlier, on June 6, a group of demonstrators known as Movimento Passe Livre (MPL, the free fare movement) carried out a somewhat peaceful demonstration against the rise of public-transportation fares. The demonstration had been in the making for some time, given that the fare rise was announced in early January and was set to take place in the beginning of June. The group hung a 32- by 65-foot black banner with the white words SE A TARIFA NÃO BAIXAR A CIDADE VAI PARAR (“If the fares do not lower, the city will stop”) in downtown São Paulo next to the city hall.

On that day, the movement organizers as well as the city were taken aback by the 5,000-person turnout—more important, the police were not prepared for those numbers. The image of this huge banner and the blocked avenue underneath was seen live in the evening newscasts and on the front pages of the largest newspapers in the country the next morning. By and large, they reported on the traffic delays and disruptions caused by the demonstrators in a city already distressed by daily traffic congestion problems.

In the events and protests that followed, the city officials and police braced themselves to encounter the demonstrators. The city and state officials synced their rhetoric against the “disrupters” and “vandals” who were disturbing the city and destroying public and private property. The police, on the other hand, came out in much greater numbers, prepared to face the protesters. They created contingency plans, set up roadblocks, contacted the movement leadership, and brought riot police onto the streets. But they could not anticipate what was about come. The apparent success of the first demonstration generated a buzz online, which awoke broader interest by a number of other groups (social movements, political parties, anarchists, and the like). City officials, police, and even the original organizers of MPL were swept up by a tidal wave. At that point, as an organized, focused movement they lost control over the agenda, the participants, and the message. Anything was to be protested against: the underperforming education system, the inadequate healthcare system, inflation and cost of living, political corruption. We were witnessing the birth of a self-denominated apolitical movement.

In the face of escalating protests, the politicians in general froze, unable to discern how to position themselves (and, very likely, how to take advantage of the situation); the police were held in check as they were criticized both for not establishing order and for being repressive and violent; and the traditional news media were unsure what slant to take on the events as they saw their own mobile TV stations being destroyed and burned by the angry mob. The overall balance among official traditional institutions was being challenged. They did not know (and for the most part still don’t know) how to deal with the amorphous nature of these emerging movements.

Since the end of the military dictatorship in the mid 1980s, the streets of larger cities in Brazil serve as sites of public demonstrations and as forms of democratic enactments guaranteed by the Brazilian constitution. Often given limited visibility by traditional newscasts, these movements, which have their origins in late 1970s union movements, follow strict power and political hierarchies and official channels for communicating and negotiating. In contrast, the movement (or better, movements) we were about to encounter on the streets substantially departed from the traditional movements’ practices. For one, they mostly comprise well-educated, middle-class young adults in their early to mid-20s who have not yet entered the job market. They are computer and media savvy. Their interactions are often mediated by social networking, micro-blogging, chat, and SMS applications. Events and demonstrations are posted online, and routes broadcasted on-the-fly on micro-blogs. They all carry their own recording device (i.e., their smartphones). Pictures and videos are posted on photo-sharing and social networking sites, graphically narrating events as they unfold. (In fact, peaks of tweets have been correlated with street events and social data analyzed elsewhere on the blogsphere [2].) They prize democratic discourses and enact liberal values, yet claim no political stand. More interesting, they are directly or indirectly connected with the distributed, fast-paced, faceless demonstrations in major cities that have become a global (or globalized?) phenomenon.

The confluence of dystopian politics, economic disparities, some level of naïveté (youthful and otherwise), a utopian democratic rhetoric driven by new social technologies, (new) media consumption, and spectacles seems to have created an unparalleled condition of sociopolitical unrest. In fact, over the past few years, we have been witnessing the birth of a series of popular anti-establishment demonstrations and protests around world. Epitomized by events and protests such as the 2011 Occupy movement in Western cities and “Egyptian Revolution” at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, what we have been observing are populations coming down into the streets to protest against existing political-economic powers and structures while bracing for changes. Some of the outcomes of these events are clear and settled, but their broader and longer-lasting consequences and significances are still unfolding.

Social Technologies: New Political Activism and the Political Gap

Just as the touted apolitical nature of the demonstrations was anything but apolitical, the design of technologies (interactive and otherwise) is in part a political exercise. More remarkably, in light of the increasing role of new technologies in support of activism and protests—by means of mediating interactions, coordinating actions, and disseminating messages, images, and agendas, locally and globally, during and in their aftermaths—we need to be cognizant of their political powers.

Governments increasingly dream about a “shutdown button” and/or surveillance platforms (see current debates on NSA’s role and limits in accessing, gathering, and analyzing all sorts of online data from people, be they U.S. citizens or those from other countries). While they by and large operate under the discourse around preemptiveness—being able to anticipate unwanted events—they are indeed no longer comfortable with the possibilities that new social technologies can engender, fearing the loss of control. In contrast, we, as citizens, on one hand celebrate the possibilities of more democratic and egalitarian realities—here or elsewhere. On the other hand, we fear the new panoptic possibilities of control (in a very Foucauldian way) these technologies enable. While some on the streets (virtual or otherwise) hail the revolutionary and democratic veins of social networks [3], others start to recognize the risks of becoming overexposed online as governments start to develop and deploy systems to monitor activists’ Internet activities [4].

This discomfort clearly suggests that governments are not prepared to deal with the emerging uses of social technologies, for good or bad, during demonstrations. They still operate in the spheres of formal institutions and laws that visibly regulate demonstrators’ interactions and actions. On the other hand, these demonstrations were not organized around traditional hierarchical structures, such as those of the older social movements, which enabled them to more easily establish communication channels with existing formal institutions. The gap created by these different organizational structures clearly prevented the two parties from establishing spaces of dialogue and negotiation.

As an interaction designer and social scientist, I felt caught in the middle of this conundrum. Am I supposed to be designing new technologies that attempt to narrow or fill this gap? Or should I take a step back to focus on the social/cultural examination of these events? In the end, I believe that both are equally important and necessary. For one, we should be (and are) taking the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the spaces of interactions (and the lack thereof) that emerge in the confluence of political activism, conflicts, and politics. This, in turn, allows us to examine the collective nature of social actions (mediated by technology or otherwise). Also, it enables us to look into the materiality of the interactions—after all, real conflicts take place (and often bring about change) in the real world: on the streets, around the corners, and in the various squares around the globe. We should thus not take people’s actions as simply independent, isolated, or virtual. The unit of analysis is no longer a faceless individual interacting with others over technology; instead, it is the collective action—how people on the streets are capable of collectively wielding power, promoting new agendas, and transforming governments around the world. Ideally, it emerges as a new kind of governance where technology does not privilege any particular group, idea, or agenda; instead, it enables people to create new spaces of dialogue and interactions. In so doing, it creates a brave new world—hopefully not a proverbial one.

References

1. Brazilians have a peculiar way of self-deprecation. As you may know, vinegar works greatly against tear-gas. In one of protests, a person was arrested for carrying a bottle of cheap vinegar in his backpack. Thus, humorously, the “Vinegar Revolution.”

2. Monroy-Hernández, A. and Spiro, E. How is the Brazilian uprising using Twitter? FuseLabs blog; http://blog.fuselabs.org/post/54384449224/how-is-the-brazilian-uprising-using-twitter

3. Martins, L. Enfim usamos a veia democrática e revolucionária das redes sociais (“Finally, using the democratic and revolutionary vein of social networks”). Gizmodo; http://gizmodo.uol.com.br/protestos-sp-redes-sociais/

4. Ventura, F. Entenda o decreto do governo do Rio de Janeiro que exige dados telefônicos e de internet dos manifestantes (“To understand Rio de Janeiro’s new bill that demands access to demonstrators’ phone and internet data”). Gizmodo; http://gizmodo.uol.com.br/decreto-quebra-sigilo/

Author

Rogério de Paula is a research manager at IBM Research, Brazil, where he leads the Social Enterprise Technologies Group, an interdisciplinary group that explores the new frontiers of social, smart technologies in the context of large-scale organizations.

Figures

UF1Figure. Protesters in Natal occupy the streets on June 20, 2013.

Copyright held by author

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2013 ACM, Inc.

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