Technopolitics and the new territories for political action

We are witnessing the emergence of relational, transversal, participatory  power. Whoever understands this, stands a chance of political legitimation. Interview. Español Português

Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí Oleguer Sarsanedas
20 June 2016

Thousands of participants display their cell phones as flashlights, as they listen to Okean Elzy, one of the most successful Ukrainian rock bands during a Pro-European Union rally in the Independence Square in Kiev. 2013. AP Photo/Sergei Grits.

On the occasion of the Political Communication Summit held in Buenos Aires on June 8-10 in which he was as a guest speaker, DemocraciaAbierta interviewed Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí, one of the leading political consultants in Spain, promoter of apps4citizens - a meeting space for different actors (organizations, businesses, governments and citizens) to identify, promote and develop mobile applications for social engagement and civic participation -and, in partnership with Google, of Go App 2016. His last published book is Tecnopolítica.

Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí defines technopolitics as "political action, political communication, and – partly - political management, through technology." He means proximity technology, that of personal devices - mobile phones, computers, tablets -, an extraordinarily powerful, flexible, friendly and versatile technology, with fewer and fewer entry barriers and increasing potential. The technological power of these devices enables action, communication and political management. But technopolitics is more than that:

Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí: It is also a set of practices associated with a way of understanding political communication, political practices. Technopolitics means putting the individual and his communities at the centre of politics, which is something quite different from the idea of political action as a representation of class conflict. A community is not a class: technopolitics has discovered new social territories and geographies, because through communicating with people and their interests, it has shown that those interests are more relevant for political action than economic, educational, or social and labour conditions. The shift from conditions to interests is a fundamental change in political conception. Technopolitics is based essentially on people's interests, not so much on their conditions - unlike analogue political communication. It puts the person, his community and his interests at the centre of political action."

Oleguer Sarsanedas: Is technopolitics the so-called “new politics”?

AG: As any label is an oversimplification that can be useful but also confusing, I prefer to speak of new political practices. We are in a phase of cultural construction of political practices, a way of doing politics that has already had some successes in electoral processes and participation.

OS: But does changing the way of doing politics change politics too?

AG: This is the central point. When communication stops being sequential (some think, others analyze, others communicate), we find ourselves in a new ecosystem - a digital ecosystem that changes the rules of the game. This is a very fast and undifferentiated form of communication, where there is no separation of roles by competence, as in social networks (where one thinks, says and does at the same time). There is now a new way to communicate and do politics, to do it and communicate it – the two are inseparable. This capacity for transformation of both form and content is huge. In so far as politics is the construction of majorities, the representation of interests, and the harmonizing of the common good with private interests, it must build legitimate majorities and, for this, communication is essential. Communication becomes, in fact, the natural terrain for the construction of majorities. That is why in the new communication practices, in the new political action practices, the great change has to do with communication, the way of doing things, of communicating.

OS: The traditional parties, however, may be tempted to mimic the form without changing the content - whereas one of the basic characteristics of technopolitics is that citizens become activists...

AG: Indeed. And activists are not just supporters, they don't play a secondary role, as followers or relayers. In Spain, for example, Manuela Carmena's campaign in Madrid in the May 2015 local elections had three features. One, it was overwhelmed by activists. Two, the activists did not ask for permission to do so, but acted on their own, regardless of the direction of the campaign. Three, they showed that there is always more talent outside than inside. In the activist world, you do not need to wait or ask for permission: we appropriate Carmena, she is ours, not just the party's or the coalition's. Technopolitics has freed us from asking permission, and thus generates very interesting emancipation, creativity and innovation dynamics regarding our relationship to politics - more active, more centre-stage and emotionally stronger dynamics. Why are activists who take over campaigns so powerful and so motivated? Because complying with orders, instructions or suggestions is not the same as creating a movement, a dynamic, an action. Returning to your question, the traditional political parties may believe, indeed, that it is only a matter of carrying out an aggiornamento, that all they have to do is "modernising", install an App and get on the social networks. At bottom, what they are thinking of, is a technical update.

OS: Technical and also strategic, because whoever controls the dialogue on social networks controls opinion, right?

AG: Yes, but, basically, they do not believe that there are new forms of organisation, or new ways of creating content or ideas. They believe that the organisational format cannot be subjected to a digital environment. In fact, they are showing their ignorance of technology for creation and innovation processes. Companies do know how this works. There is more tecnopolitical knowledge in the business world than in political parties. They have understood more, and better, how technology is changing organisations, what its role and relationship is to brands and services. They have understood that this new relationship is highly important. Traditional demoscopy measures opinions, but there is a new demoscopy that measures searches, interests, consumption - much richer in terms of trend analysis and the measurement of things, more complete, complex and diverse. It is a much richer and more interesting vision of reality.

OS: Is a party like Podemos a technopolitics testing ground?

AG: It has obviously many aspects of a testing and innovation lab. It is making good use of the tools, learning and following good practices.

OS: And are the traditional parties learning?

AG: This is the most taxing thing for them. They are not designed to learn, but to colonise, to occupy space. The traditional parties believe that the way to solve problems is to occupy the institutions. They do not believe that citizens', consumers', users'  behaviour is more important than, for example, market regulation. They tend to overstate the potential of regulation.

OS: It this a clash of political visions?

AG: They are very different visions indeed. There is a very strong contrast in the way they understand power, how to get it and how to use it. But as Moisés Naím says, the traditional powers based on size and position are losing out to the new powers based on relationships and content. It is the first time in the history of humanity that we group and rank people using non-physical templates - through search engines like Google, for example. This new relations- and content-based management is the new pattern of power-construction that is competing with the old one. Today, a small, fast entity can beat a slow, big entity; a small, connected entity can beat a big, unconnected entity. We are witnessing the emergence of relational, transversal, participatory power. An ecosystem that has cultural and behavioural practices very different from the old is in the making. Whoever understands this well, stands a chance for business if it is a company, for audience if it is a media, and for legitimacy if it is a political organisation.

OS: We are currently experiencing political polarisation in Latin America with the end of the so-called progressive cycle. But, at the same time, a new wave of political awareness is emerging. You know the subcontinent well. How do you see the situation there?

AG: There is a shift from the traditional left-right axis towards a renovator-conservative axis, which is not the same. And the old-new axis is also shifting towards a bottom-up/top-down axis. These are important shifts that change the way we view things. What is happening in Latin America is that the political forces that used to be called leftist but have not understood the new ecosystem are suffering in the same way as the traditional right-wing forces that have not understood it either.

OS: In Brazil, for example?

AG: Yes, that is a good example. When a transport problem emerged there, the ruling party believed it had to talk to the unions. But the new policies that emerged from these protests widened the horizon and broadened the possible solutions. They broadened the way of looking at problems, from the two dimensional view of traditional politics, from an incremental logic, to a three dimensional view – that is, technopolitics. Technopolitics introduces volume, atmosphere, depth and territories that have nothing to do with the established geographies. In the case of Brazil, some believe that the protests can be resolved through the unions and the State, and some believe that users, collaborating with diversely talented individuals, are capable of solving complex problems.

OS: Another dimension of technopolitics is its ability to create new transnational perspectives, global connections - between, for example, the global South and the precariat and other political subjects of the North. Is a geopolitics of the commons being created?

AG: The 20th century was the century of nation states and national parties, identity-based parties (the Socialist Party, the Communist Party). Today, the digital ecosystem enables you to live with various identities and to explore your multifarious identity. We are several things at once and this is a serious change, the big change. What limits does it have? What borders? What maps? What routes? What intersections, what capital, what flows? Changing geography for territory is a radical and profound transformation. The interesting thing now is that the new politics does not depend on the reality of a specific place, but that it can be part of other realities. And this is not a traditional, import/export learning process, but a process of multiple, transnational, transversal, cross-border creation. This is the reason why the new politics can face or can imagine itself with the capacity to overcome the obstacles of political geography. It is obvious that the nation states political action tools have proved inadequate for the challenges we are facing, such as climate change or immigration. It has been an enormous historical and political mistake to think that they could. The new politics, by looking at the citizens as subjects and at their behavior, is better oriented and better equipped to address global challenges. The new politics realises that people's behaviour is the best way to achieve democratic regulation. The terrain new politics has to conquer is how to convert citizen power into user power and consumer power, because this is the power that changes equations. I think there is a political opportunity for both global harmony and local opportunities. When people decide to be the change they wish to see in the world, as Gandhi advised, this is extremely important. Apps are the tools that allow me to be aware of my reality, my actions and their consequences, that allow me to make decisions by bringing my responsibility to the forefront. This change in behaviour, and the technology that enables it to be measured, offers us everyday solutions and allows us to change politics into an everyday affair. My way of living becomes the core tool, which allows me to assume my responsibilities and at the same time to create communities. Technopolitics, as we have said before, formulates policies that are based on the interests of the people.

OS: You are a promoter of apps4citizens. What is this about?

AG: It is an idea we had a couple of years ago based on three principles: do devices, technologies, apps, specifically geared to political and social action exist? Yes, they do, we have found them. This is why apps4Citizens is, first of all, a library of initiatives and technological resources for social action and political change. Secondly, do these tools have transforming capacity? Do they help us in protests and, at the same time, in resolving problems? They do this as well. We have found many solutions, technologies, apps, practices, experiences, that allow precisely this, with capacity to add and share knowledge. Thirdly, is there enough primary matter in the Latin American and Spanish context? The results have been satisfactory: we have found many communities of civic activists, a lot of civic and technological talent, and many innovative practices that solve problems and allow people to feel that they are leading their own destiny.

OS: Give me an example.

AG: Apps for reporting discrimination of any kind – gender discrimination, for example. The number of applications available to help women deal with gender violence is extraordinary. The number of applications available to warn and cooperate in such cases is huge. Solely in this area there are about 30 high-end apps, very functional, very intuitive, very operative and very innovative. Solving social problems involves as much innovation as solving an industrial or technological problem. It is possible to create high-end, scalable innovation that can solve problems at different levels. An example is the Go App initiative, a project that Google Europe has entrusted us with, to promote the creation of technology around a particular social challenge. The development is channeled through the participation of social agents actively involved in this challenge, individuals or groups who are interested in proposing initiatives and who maintain an ongoing dialogue with political and technical actors in public administration supporting the process. In the case of Madrid, with more than thirty participating teams, we have already completed the process and the results on the chosen working area - environment and mobility - have been quite relevant. We are now continuing with Seville, with another aim: promoting occupation on the basis of the opportunities offered by the circular economy. We shall be adding more Spanish cities soon... quite a learning experience.

OS: What are these apps for? What will the city council of Madrid use them for?

AG: To solve problems of trans-mobility, for example, for which there are no good apps. Some people want to combat climate change, pollution in their city, and they want solutions so that they can make a positive contribution with their mobility behavior. What is the use of knowing my carbon footprint? It is useful for many things. Knowing it is not only a right, but also an incentive for a particular behaviour. This is the important thing: its relationship to social change and its influence on behaviour, which is the spearhead for social change.

OS: What programmes are you doing in Latin America?

AG: In Latin America we work as consultants in Mexico, Panama, Dominican Republic, Argentina, Ecuador and Chile in public and political communication and we also develop techno-political initiatives on issues such as social and citizen participation. There is a new, very involving fraternity, which is not cultural and has nothing to do with geopolitics, but instead with people, with affinities. This new fraternity is a powerful seed for change, because it makes us more aware of the fact that there can be no individual future if there is no collective future - the idea that there is no space you can protect if the air around you is polluted. This new fraternity is a great opportunity. It reduces the distance between people, their schedules, their interests, and this is producing changes that hopefully will have social consequences.

OS: In Spain there are fresh elections coming up: on June, 26. What role will technopolitics play in the campaign and the results?

AG: There are many yet undecided voters, about 30%, who will decide which way to vote 24/48 hours before election day. These voters have postponed making their decision, and technopolitics plays a very important role here because their late decision-making will be strongly influenced by the final messages they receive, by word of (digital) mouth. Moreover, in this campaign in particular, mobilisation becomes a central element. Spanish society on the whole did not want new elections, and this means convincing voters to go to vote against their will. Whoever knows how to mobilise them better and gets them to make the itinerary from the social networks to the polls, has an advantage. Finally, considering that these voters are living in a multi-screen environment and that they spend almost 4 hours a day in front of a TV set, whoever has a better multi-screen communication design for this audience, gets ahead. Whoever knows how to bring together what is on TV with the search engine results and associated content, gets ahead. The key issue in this election is – through multi-screens - how to break the voters’ scant attention and make choice of content binding.

Translated from Spanish by Katie Oliver, member of Democracia Abierta's Volunteer Program.

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