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 liked it. My first attempt at finding a home for the transnational people I now call “techno-political nerds” (“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. This space was 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 histories and phases that are focused around a given contention. I call these latter contentions, following the sociologists Fligstein and McAdam (2011), strategic action fields. So these spaces morph into fields and back into spaces over time.

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 this world into four porous “spaces” of political action (again, digital rights, data activism, social protest and formal politics), with the understanding that those spaces can sometimes morph into (dynamic) fields and then back to being relatively quiet/dispersed spaces. For instance, for a while in 2013 the Snowden revelations galvanised the whole space of digital rights around the issue of mass surveillance and privacy, turning it into a strategic action field. (Come to think of it, I wish I’d made this point about the alternation between space and field modes clearer in the book!).
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 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 (called UU ITE), 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 all others. 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 are happy to 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, corporate abuses, internet censorship and other perceived political malaises of our age.

As for the geographical limits of the study, in order to research and 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 Africa and other parts of the world will find my rough guide useful and help to fill the blanks in the near future.

On hearing what I was attempting to do in the book, an RMIT colleague here in Melbourne, Julian Thomas, who knows the subject well said to me, rather alarmed: “You’re not writing a book, you’re writing 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, like you I 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 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.).

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 considered this concept) 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 to understand any form of political praxis, we must take into account not only people´s regular practices but also their 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 I think 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 – or 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 being waged at present. We’ve had, and will always have, numerous battles over the internet and, more generally, over digital communications. There will always be 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 – i.e. partnerships in which nerds and non-nerds work together – 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 Indonesia as Islamist forces harnessed 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 appeared 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 exactly 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 tech corporations, or indeed the uncivic surveillance by religious mobs and other reactionary forces of progressives and certain minorities.

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, Xi 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 pro-democracy 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 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. Uniting 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. At least that’s the long-term vision. They are also united in the belief that the fates of the internet and of democracy are inextricably entwined.

If you insisted that 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 bring libertarians (in the US, not Spanish, sense of the term) under the right-wing umbrella. By contrast, there are lots of centrists (an often forgotten segment in today’s narratives around polarisation) and quite a few leftists of various stripes operating within the world of nerd politics.

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 get their act together, the autocrats could well win the day not only in China, Singapore, Russia, Turkey, Brazil 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 materials. The idea was to explore the transnational world of nerd politics and build a general argument. As a result, 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 chunk of empirical evidence had to pay its own way, 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 traditional 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, the difference being that I’m now hoping to drop the academic register so as to reach a general readership.

A lot of political activism on campus nowadays, not all of it clicktivism, one meatspace component being “no platforming”—the forceful denial of speakers students disagree with. What do you make if this approach?

I don’t cover this issue in the nerd politics book and my knowledge of it is superficial. Speaking as a citizen and scholar, I side with those who reject this approach because it shuts down debate and reinforces ideological prejudices and political polarisation. We should let our political foes talk both because it’s the right thing to do and because it will give us a better chance to refine our own arguments and evidence.

We live in a devilishly complex world. It’s unlikely that all the answers we’re seeking to the major environmental, political, and economic challenges we’re facing will come from our own favourite filter bubble.

You live in Australia but used to work in the UK? How are these two environments different in terms of quality of life, students, academic culture?

That’s right, I’ve now lived and worked in Melbourne, Australia, for six years. Before that I worked as a senior lecturer in the UK for six years. Prior to that I held two successive postdocs in Germany, and in between I took up a one-year research fellowship in Spain.

I haven’t really got enough of an overview of the respective systems two compare Australia and the UK with any reliability. So what I’m about to say is purely anecdotal. First, in terms of quality of life, Melbourne is, of course, routinely ranked as one of the best places in the world to live. I think this is a fair accolade. It is expensive, though, and becoming more crowded by the year, but for now it’s still great city to live in. Second, in the UK I taught mostly undergrads and PhD students, whilst here in Melbourne I only teach Master’s and PhD students. As far as the PhDs go, there are no distinct patterns I can make out: each project is an gloriously unique as the rest. Third, in the UK the higher education sector is larger, more dynamic and far more entwined with the rest of Europe and with North America than Australia’s. The UK has a more competitive market (you’re often competing for jobs and grants with the whole of Europe and beyond). It’s probably a more meritocratic system, too, than Australia’s more domestic and endogamic system, where who you know seems to matter more than it does in Britain.

You are super productive. You’ve also got a family and an energetic fieldwork agenda. How do you do it? Is it worth it?

If you’d asked me this question 10 or 12 months ago I probably would’ve said ‘Yes, it’s definitely worth it’. I would’ve mentioned the ample rewards of a research career: all the travelling, learning, socialising, reading, teaching, writing, reviewing, and so on, that go into the sort of work that we do.

These days I’m not so sure anymore.

After 18 years in the business – I got my PhD in 2000 – I’ve finally come to realise that I was trying to do too much, including a huge amount of unsung labour (reviews, evaluations, PhD exams, external supervisions, etc) – and probably heading for burnout.

There is such a thing as having too much of a good thing. Taken separately, all those activities I’ve just mentioned are rewarding in their own right. The trouble begins when you cross a reasonable workload threshold and take on too much without even being aware of it. The demands of an academic job these days are ridiculous, and many of us end up working at all hours. Combine that with raising a family and the burden can become intolerable.

There’s also the added problem of the return on investment, especially when it comes to publishing. With the relentless pace of academic publication and other researchers’ busy lives in a globalised, fragmented academic market, it’s hard to see how our texts are advancing a given area of knowledge. I don’t see many Kuhnian paradigms waiting to be overthrown, or Popperian theories on the brink being critically falsified. I don’t know about you, but I don’t often get much feedback on my academic publications once they’ve passed the peer review. Some of them may get cited, yet my overall sense is that there’s a lot of wasted effort.

As if that weren’t enough, most universities these days seem to be run by profit-driven managers and CEOs – some of them earning over a million dollars a year – that rely on a new breed of careerist, CV-obsessed ‘researchers’ seeking fame and fortune at the expense of others.

At the moment I’m trying to figure out, in conversation with other concerned scholars, a ‘slow academia’ alternative to the round-the-clock academia that seems to be the norm today. I’m trying to do less but better. For instance, I no longer work weekends. I’ve managed to reduce my workload quite considerably and hope to continue to do so. I’m also discussing with fellow slow-downers practical alternatives to the current corporate university model, whilst looking at career options outside academia. Spoiler alert: the solution is well known, it’s called well-funded public universities.