Occpuation of Puerta del Sol in Madrid, May 2011. Marcelo Expósito, All rights reserved.The following comments are reflections arising from anthropological research I am carrying out on digital networks (hereinafter, the Network or the Internet), and from my own experience as a social activist. As reflections, these are a way to share concerns and check out hypotheses rather than consolidated statements.
I want to start from an assertion: the cities make the Network and the Network makes cities. Here are two examples.
The Network not only connects individuals. It also connects socio-economic conglomerates as nodes whose importance and hierarchy depend on many factors. However, inside the commodified societies we live in, those nodes noticeably prevail that are associated with highly technologized economic activities and with financial services.
From this perspective it can be understood that we are speaking both about global cities (nodes of the economy-network of high value for the global market) and globalizing cities (those which ‘produce’ globalization). Such nodes expand a deregulated capitalism. And at the same time, they reproduce in their own physical space all the inequities of the planet. To illustrate, let’s think about cities like London and Hong Kong. They are global financial centres and they are also international digital nodes.
In their constellation, there is a powerful service economy, with high levels of income for the people who belong to such an elite. But at the same time, they generate degraded social peripheries that feed the node, similar to those which can be found in the suburbs of Africa or Latin America: scenarios where precarious work and living conditions are the rule of the day, in which basic human rights (dignity, housing, health, education, freedom of expression, etc.) are seriously challenged. And these internal dichotomies become key for the reproduction of those cities financially and digitally connected to the world-system.
Another example of dangerous pairing between Network and city, are the so-called smart cities. The name sounds fine, but in daily practice they tend towards a technical bureaucracy in the management of cities which, with no comparable precedents, paves the way to the control and surveillance of people. In essence, smart cities replace citizen participation, policies of closeness, the voice and the presence of the people, with the massive data-processing activities of those who inhabit them.
The Network: from hacker ethics to market logic
The Internet was born in the 80's of the last century as a strategic project of the American military complex. However, hacker ethics and civil society somehow twisted that goal to find in the Internet a free circulation of contents, resource sharing, expanded social collaboration and the building up of communities without hierarchies or intellectual property.
Over this has been imposed an established neoliberal hegemony, extending to the Internet both the logics of the market and of security. We can see how the big technological corporations impose both on the very network structure, the ownership of the infrastructures and software. We can also see how the increasing use of technological resources in the above-mentioned control and social surveillance consolidates the formation of a sort of macro-digital-authoritarian State in the shadows.
The mass processing of data (Big Data) as applied, violates the privacy of individuals and uses digital tracking to create a profitable market from our tastes and consumption profiles. Finally, the centrality of the Internet in the daily life and social relationships of people seriously affects even their affections, feelings, emotions in their relationships and their own ways of thinking and information management. Therefore, it is not only that the network is increasingly functioning according to the logic of the market, neoliberal hegemonic thinking and the anti-democratic control of our activities and privacy. It turns out that power relations, by adopting new and more subtle forms are being reformulated. For instance, if Foucault helped us to understand power at the molecular level (biopower, microphysics of power, control of subjectivity), the Network behaves more and more as a digital Panopticon that disciplines our behaviours and controls the very production of subjectivities.
To consider what I mean, let’s look at the way communication is trivialized in a great proportion of conversations in social networks, a click activism devoid of commitment, technology consumerism, etc. And this is only one example. Because the control of subjectivities turns out to be much more subtle and hard to detect. This is what I hope to describe in these notes.
Inspiring resistance in the Network
Obviously, not everything on the Network is market and control. There are many spaces of freedom and new types of participation. There is an almost infinite potential of knowledge. There is a rupture of the notions of time and space that has opened up a new historical era, perhaps characterized broadly by the simultaneous expansion of the Network and the exponential growth of cities.
That is the cause behind significant new types of urban conflict and resistance. Much has already been said about the riots by urban youths of middle class status without a future (15 M, the squares of the world), which combine innovative ways of using the Network, the occupation of public space and institutional struggle.
But this is what interests me. How can we arrive at a systematic grip on these urban experiences in the Network – not so much from the perspective of connected crowds or swarms, rather in terms of the practice of subjects in their urban daily lives and their specific ways of resisting. How do they use the Network? To be fully equipped with coherent elements of analysis, we must also understand these new types of urban struggle.
Market urbanism based on the hierarchical fragmentation of cities, the gentrification of neighbourhoods, and the replacement of citizenship participation by a caste of bureaucrats who operate with the sole criteria of profitability in urban planning, have deprived people of their living spaces. Rather, the city is becoming non-spaces: places of trade, transit, speculation, business.
In response, social movements have articulated their resistance based on action and the proposal of new premises for organizing life in the city. Here converges feminist thought with regard to caring, the ecology (environmental and social sustainability throughout the value chain that produces the city) and radical democracy (participation, control and citizen self-management). All that combines in a basic and integrating/ inclusive right: the Right to the City. i.e., the right to community, freedom, and a dignified life for everybody. That is the goal.
And the instrument to achieve this is the (re)-appropriation of urban spaces through their use and their resignification to make them places for life and citizenship. This is the issue I am working on, with and from such social movements as Educrítica, NSD, or PAH.
Appropriate the Network
Observation of and discussion with social activists who use the Network intensively, has led me to elaborate a concept of ‘Appropriation’ of the Network which seems to circulate at three levels.
There is a first very intuitive level: appropriating the network is similar to #takethesquare, #taketheschool, #takethecity... #takethenetwork. Take it! Make it yours!
A second level aims to identify the conditions of use for a real Appropriation.
And a third level in political and ideological confrontation produces conceptual categories to articulate alternative discourses confronting the hegemonic discourses of the market and security.
Is at this third level where the transfer of ideas and of struggles for the Right to the City and the Right to the Network is most intense. So we are articulating three lines of thought associated with the Right to the City. One comes from urban anthropology and differentiates between places (where identity, relational processes can occur and spaces full of history and the senses) and non-places (the opposite, emotionally cold spaces, commoditized spaces, spaces of transit).
Another line comes mainly from social and environmental psychology, also drafting the ‘place’ as a relational articulation of space and people which leads to building up shared meanings, collective identities, attachments and a sense of belonging.
Finally, the contributions of lefebvrist socio-anthropological vision consider space as always a social production and therefore subject to conflicting social logics. This leads us to oppose the poetry of Inhabiting to the techno-urban speech of the Habitat. The former expresses daily life, the lived experience that seeks its meaning. The latter is built, programmed, standardized, homogenized. The Habitat is an instrument for introducing urban subjects into spaces previously protocolized, regulated, disciplined by the logic of power.
It is no accident that such a transfer of concepts is involved in the building up of a dignified life for people in both the urban space and the Network space. In the end, the Network is a relational space for the construction of experiences and of meanings of life, as is the city. From the perspective of the people, similar difficulties are posed whether one is building physical or virtual places. For that reason, not only can we apply similar social approaches in both spheres, but there is no possibility of democratizing the Network and the city separately. These are popular tasks that belong to the same social agenda.