Interview: John Postill on his new book The Rise of the Nerds

Interview: John Postill on his new book The Rise of the Nerds

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. John Postill about his new book, The Rise of Nerd Politics (Pluto Press).

This new book, The Rise of Nerd Politics (Pluto Press), is analytically rich and wrestles with the problem of defining and categorizing this transnational field of politically-active technologists. You unify your techpol nerds in terms of the acronym “clamp” which includes those interested in the application of computing, law, art, media, politics. I think you go a great job of mixing the micro-cultural and the macro-universal in developing your theory. But what is the geographical limit of such a “field” based approach?

Thanks Adam, I’m glad you found it rich. My first attempt at finding a conceptual home for the transnational people I now call “techno-political nerds” (or “techpol nerds” for short), that is, those political actors who are passionately interested in the intersection between technology and politics, was the notion of a “space” of nerd politics subdivided into four main overlapping “fields”, namely digital rights, data activism, social protest and formal politics.

But then I found that calling them “fields” didn’t quite capture the alternation between dispersed (or unfocused) phases in their trajectories (which are better described as dispersed spaces) and phases that are focused around a given contention which I call, following the sociologists Fligstein and McAdam (2011), strategic action fields. Towards the end of the writing process, I found by chance a classic text by another sociologist, Anselm Strauss (1978) on “social worlds” which fitted very nicely with the nerd materials. So I ended up calling it the nerd politics world and subdividing it into four porous “spaces” of political action, with the understanding that those spaces can sometimes morph into dynamic action fields and then back to relatively quiet spaces. For instance, for a while the Snowden relevations of 2013 galvanised the whole space of digital rights around the issue of mass surveillance and privacy. Come to think of it, I wish I’d made this point about the alternation between space and field modes more clear in the book! (see Postill 2017).

More important than the terminology, though, was the fact that once I’d drawn this simple four-cornered map of the nerd politics world I could start making linking materials across widely different sites and actions around the globe. For instance, I could now see that one of my Indonesian case studies, the electoral monitoring initiative Kawal Pemilu (Election Guardians) was clearly an example of data activism, whilst another Indonesian case study, a protracted campaign against an unpopular internet law, was clearly an instance of digital rights activism, comparable to similar campaigns in Spain, Brazil or the US (see Chapter 4).

The lowercase acronym “clamp” is, as you point out, an important part of my argument. I found that not all forms of knowledge are born equal in the world of nerd politics. Five forms in particular (computing, law, art, media and politics, or “clamp” for short) are valued above others. So if you’re launching, say, a digital rights campaign, or a data activism initiative, or a nerdy political party, you’ll be needing not only computing skills but also legal, artistic, media and political skills. In fact, many techpol nerds wouldn’t know how to write a line of code or hack a computer network to save their lives (but will work with people who do). In other words, nerd politics is not so much hacker politics as clamper politics. These nerds are clamping up, so to speak, on corruption, lack of transparency, internet censorship and other political malaises of our age.

As for the geographical limits of the study, to write the book I “followed the nerds” both through primary materials from Spain and Indonesia, plus a short but intense field trip to the Philippines, and secondary materials — mostly on Tunisia, Iceland, Brazil, Taiwan and the US.  I also had some materials from sub-Saharan Africa and other regions but sadly for reasons of space they didn’t make the final cut. The ambition was, as one of the blind peer reviewers aptly put it, “methodological globalism”, which is not the same as covering the entire globe. I’m hoping that researchers working in other parts of the world will find my rough guide useful and help to fill the blanks.

On hearing what I was attempting to do in the book, an RMIT colleague here in Melbourne who knows the subject well said, rather alarmed: “That’s not a book, it’s an atlas!”. Thanks to the constraints of physical book publishing, though, it’s ended up being a manageable tome in which only the most relevant bits made it through. It’s always painful to ditch materials, but it was all for a good cause, I hope.

You’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of practice theory through the years—as a student of Sherry Ortner, I am in the same camp but feel the need to find a way to expand beyond practice theory. What is the limit of this particularly theoretical orientation and methodology? What is the best auxiliary to it?

Yes, I too feel the need to go beyond practice theory. As I argued in the introduction to a volume I co-edited with Birgit Bräuchler titled Theorising Media and Practice (Berghahn Books, 2010), practice theory cannot be a panacea. It’s a very useful approach if you’re studying the repetitive cycles of, say, everyday domestic life, cultural production, or sports training, but on its own it can’t help you much with messy, unscripted, non-recursive phenomena such as a political conflict, a viral video, a hashtag protest, or a moral panic. For these sorts of (micro)historical events, in my own work I have often turned to the Manchester School of Anthropology (Gluckman, Epstein, Turner, etc., see Evens and Handelman 2007).

The Mancunians pioneered not only the study of social networks, but also understood political fields to be mercurial and open-ended, and invented analytical tools such as the notion of “field” itself (well before Bourdieu) and “social drama” to reveal the “processual form” of conflicts and other unruly social phenomena. In the concluding chapter of The Rise of Nerd Politics I suggest that, in order to understand any form of political praxis, in addition to regular practices we must take into account non-regular actions. Both the routine and the non-routine must be included in our analyses. Of course, ethnographers tend to be more interested in ordinary practices, while historians and journalists prefer to focus on extraordinary events. In the book I try to integrate the two.

You chart the history of hacktivists across Spain and other locations and tell the story of Anonymous and WikiLeaks and others actually involved in exfiltration or cracking hacking. But it seems to me, and I detail it in my forthcoming book, State Hackers (MIT Press, 2019, with Luca Follis), that the leading edge of hacking is no long in the grassroots, civil society, and subculture but in the state and the alphabet soup of surveillance agencies across the five eyes. Hacking methods are now state repression and surveillance tools. Have the progressives lost the battle for cyberspace?

I can’t wait to read your book. That’s precisely the kind of volume that will complement my own, which is focused on pro-democracy forms of nerd politics rooted in civil society. In other words, I don’t look at state hacking. There’s only so much you can do in a single book, and in mine I focus on pro-democracy hacking — more precisely, on clamping, as explained earlier. Clamping covers a range of practices and actions, including hacking and leaking, but also things like putting on “data theatre” plays or monitoring an election through publicly available data.

I don’t think there’s a single, final battle. We’ve had, and will continue to have, numerous battles over the internet and, more generally, digital communications. We’ll always have leaks and protests and struggles over internet legislation, among other conflicts. Much will depend on the distribution of forces for and against civic freedoms in general at any given point in time within a political system, as well as on the ability of progressive nerds to engage in what I call “strategic part-nerdships” with other political actors to defend people’s digital freedoms.

For instance, 2014 was a good year for civic hacking in Indonesia: the Kawal Pemilu (Election Guardians) data nerds bolstered liberal democracy in Indonesia when they demonstrated that the presidential vote count had been clean. They weren’t alone: they mobilised over 700 citizens for the task, both nerds and non-nerds. By contrast, 2016 was a poor year for progressives in that country as Islamist forces managed to harness social media and other forms of communication to falsely accuse the Christian, ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, of blasphemy. A doctored video in which Ahok appears to be insulting Islam went viral. As a result, the governor ended up in jail. So we have to look both at the bigger picture within a political culture and at what its techpol nerds are up to.

One of the problems with our current obsession with identity politics in the West (and elsewhere) is that we’re losing sight of other forms of politics, such as the kind of state surveillance you are referring to, not to mention the corporate surveillance of the big Silicon Valley and Chinese corporations, or indeed the uncivic surveillance of religious mobs and other reactionary forces.   

What is different about left-wing and right-wing techpol nerds?

I think this distinction would muddy things if we applied it to the world of nerd politics.

A more apt distinction is that between anti- and pro-authoritarian nerds. In the book I explain that my focus is on pro-democracy nerds, and that I have little to say about techpol nerds working to further the interests of authoritarians like Putin or Erdoğan, or indeed of tech giants like Google, Apple or Facebook. What exactly they mean by “democracy” varies in interesting ways among individuals, groups and political cultures, e.g. Brazilian nerds generally have a more lefty, “participatory” understanding of democracy than Californian (more libertarian) or Indonesian (more liberal) nerds.

The anti-authoritarian nerds I write about (the sort of people who’d feel at home at a digital rights meeting or at a free-culture hackathon) are internally quite diverse. They range from pro-state Marxists, liberals and postmodernists (or “postmonerdists”, as I call them) on one side of the fence to anti-state anarchists and libertarians on the other.

What unites them above their differences is a dogged determination to use their interdisciplinary skills to “clamp” our existing political systems so that we can move towards democracies that are able to function effectively and fairly in the digital era. They are also united in the belief that the fates of the internet and of democracy are inextricably entwined.

If you insisted and I had to use the leftist vs. rightist distinction, I’d say that there are not many right-wingers among anti-authoritarian techpol nerds — unless you include libertarians under the right-wing umbrella. There are lots of centrists (and often forgotten segment in today’s narratives around polarisation) and quite a few leftists of various stripes.

Why do these distinctions among nerds matter? For the same reason they matter in our political cultures more widely. Unless pro-democracy actors of various ideological persuasions work together, the autocrats could win the day not only in China, Singapore, Russia, Turkey or Iran, but globally.

You spent a lot of time in the field, six months in Indonesia, a year in Spain and much time elsewhere. But with the Spanish case aside, I was impressed by how little material from the fieldwork makes it into the text. I wanted more detail from Indonesia, to see how that amount of data is filtered and interpreted. This is not a critique. I think many of us internalize our experiences and write from that sense of embodied knowledge as opposed to the laborious work of re-consulting our notes, interviews, translations, etc. What is the right amount or right type of ethnographic experience to put into a book?

I’m not quite sure when it happened, but at some point during the early stages of writing the book I decided to use the best and most relevant materials to hand — regardless of whether they were primary or secondary. The idea was to explore the transnational world of nerd politics and build a general argument. So I ended up including a whole set of case studies from countries where I hadn’t done fieldwork, namely Tunisia, Iceland, Taiwan, Brazil and the US. In other words, I didn’t privilege my own primary research. Each major chunk of empirical evidence had to justify its existence, as it were. The right amount of ethnographic experience to put in a book will depend, I think, on what you’re trying to achieve. In my case the aim was to extend the analysis beyond my main two field locales — Barcelona and Jakarta — to ‘test’ the four-corner model of the nerd politics world across a range of very different political cultures. Having previously written two ethnographic monographs that were geographically circumscribed (to specific areas of Malaysia), this was quite a departure for me. I enjoyed myself immensely imaginatively going places, and I hope I have been able to convey some of that globetrotting joy to the reader. My current project, Runaway Media, has this same cross-cultural ambition.

Adam Fish is cultural anthropologist, video producer, and senior lecturer in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University. He employs ethnographic and creative methods to investigate how media technology and political power interconnect. Using theories from political economy and new materialism, he examines digital industries and digital activists. His book Technoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) describes his ethnographic research on the politics of internet video in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. His co-authored book After the Internet (Polity, 2017) reimagines the internet from the perspective of grassroots activists and citizens on the margins of political and economic power. He is presently working on a book about hacktivist prosecution called Hacker States and a book and experimental video called System Earth Cable about “elemental media”–atmospheric and undersea information infrastructures in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Iceland, and Indonesia.

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