¿Qué es la tecnopolítica? Esquema conceptual para entender la política en la era digital

Autor:Can Kurban - Ismael Peña-López - Maria Haberer
Cargo:New School for Social Research - Universitat Oberta de Catalunya - Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
Páginas:3-20
RESUMEN

En este artículo queremos reconsiderar el término "tecnopolítica" y ver qué significa en la política democrática de nuestros tiempos. Comenzamos indagando en el uso inicial del término y cómo se ha ido transformando mediante las distintas y contradictorias adaptaciones de las TIC (Tecnologías de la Información y la Comunicación) en los órganos de gobierno, las organizaciones civiles y los movimientos populares. En la literatura académica se pueden apreciar dos corrientes principales. Por un lado, están los estudios sobre la política mejorada gracias a Internet (conocida como "e-gobierno") y la Política 2.0, que apuntan a la facilitación de prácticas existentes como la votación electrónica y las campañas y peticiones en Internet. Y, por otro lado, la segunda corriente de la perspectiva de la influencia de Internet se sustenta en la idea de que las TIC son esenciales para la organización de una política transformadora y contenciosa, la participación ciudadana y los procesos deliberativos. Los estudios han usado a menudo, con una u otra etiqueta, ideas de la tecnopolítica en términos indefinidos o imprecisos para describir la influencia de las tecnologías digitales en su ámbito de investigación. Tras una labor crítica de revisión y clasificación de los principales conceptos empleados en la literatura para describir actuaciones políticas basadas en las TIC, interpretamos un modelo conceptual de tecnopolítica orientado a dos desarrollos contrarrotatorios: Centralización vs. descentralización. En un esquema formado por las cinco dimensiones contexto, escala y dirección, propósito, sincronización y actores, aclararemos estos desarrollos y estructuraremos los modos formales e informales de las prácticas políticas. Explicamos las dimensiones utilizando ejemplos reales para ilustrar las características únicas de cada campo de acción tecnopolítica y la dinámica de poderes que influyen en ellos.

 
CONTENIDO
Eloi Puig
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IDP No. 24 (February, 2017) I ISSN 1699-8154 Journal promoted by the Law and Political Science Department
Can Kurban, Ismael Peña-López and Maria Haberer
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Submission date: October 2016
Accepted date: January 2017
Published in: February 2017
ARTICLE
What is technopolitics?
A conceptual schema
for understanding politics
in the digital age
Can Kurban, Ismael Peña-López and Maria Haberer
Doctoral Student on the Programme on Political Science
New School for Social Research
Ismael Peña-López
Lecturer at the School of Law and Political Science
Researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3)
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC)
Maria Haberer*
Doctoral Student on the Information and Knowledge Society Programme
Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3)
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC)
Abstract
In this article we seek to revisit what the term ‘technopolitical’ means for democratic politics in our age. We
begin by tracing how the term was used and then transformed through various and conflicting adaptations
of ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) in governmental and civil organizations and
grassroots movements. Two main streams can be distinguished in academic literature: studies about
internet-enhanced politics (labelled as e-government) and politics 2.0 that imply the facilitation of existing
practices such as e-voting, e-campaigning and e-petitioning. The second stream of the internet-enabled
* The three authors contributed equally to the writing of the article.
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What is technopolitics?
perspective builds on the idea that ICTs are essential for the organization of transformative, contentious
politics, citizen participation and deliberative processes. Under a range of labels, studies have often used
ideas of the technopolitical in an undefined or underspecified manner for describing the influence of digital
technologies on their scope of investigation. After critically reviewing and categorizing the main concepts
used in the literature to describe ICT-based political performances, we construct a conceptual model of
technopolitics oriented at two contra-rotating developments: Centralization vs. Decentralization. Within
a schema consisting of the five dimensions of context, scale and direction, purpose, synchronization and
actors we will clarify these developments and structure informal and formal ways of political practices.
We explain the dimensions using real-world examples to illustrate the unique characteristics of each
technopolitical action field and the power dynamics that influence them.
Keywords:
technopolitics, e-democracy, politics 2.0, ICT and politics, e-government, e-participation
Topic
political science, political theory, e-democracy
¿Qué es la tecnopolítica?
Esquema conceptual para entender la política en la era digital
Resumen
En este artículo queremos reconsiderar el término “tecnopolítica“ y ver qué significa en la política
democrática de nuestros tiempos. Comenzamos indagando en el uso inicial del término y cómo se ha
ido transformando mediante las distintas y contradictorias adaptaciones de las TIC (Tecnologías de la
Información y la Comunicación) en los órganos de gobierno, las organizaciones civiles y los movimientos
populares. En la bibliografía académica se pueden apreciar dos corrientes principales. Por un lado, están
los estudios sobre la política mejorada gracias a Internet (conocida como “e-gobierno“) y la política
2.0, que apuntan a la facilitación de prácticas existentes como la votación electrónica y las campañas y
peticiones en Internet. Y, por otro lado, la segunda corriente de la perspectiva de la influencia de Internet
se sustenta en la idea de que las TIC son esenciales para la organización de una política transformadora
y contenciosa, la participación ciudadana y los procesos deliberativos. Los estudios han usado a menudo,
con una u otra etiqueta, ideas de la tecnopolítica en términos indefinidos o imprecisos para describir la
influencia de las tecnologías digitales en su ámbito de investigación. Tras una labor crítica de revisión y
clasificación de los principales conceptos empleados en la bibliografía para describir actuaciones políticas
basadas en las TIC, interpretamos un modelo conceptual de tecnopolítica orientado a dos desarrollos
contrarrotatorios: Centralización vs. descentralización. En un esquema formado por las cinco dimensio-
nes contexto, escala y dirección, propósito, sincronización y actores, aclararemos estos desarrollos y
estructuraremos los modos formales e informales de las prácticas políticas. Explicamos las dimensiones
utilizando ejemplos reales para ilustrar las características únicas de cada campo de acción tecnopolítica
y la dinámica de poderes que influyen en ellos.
Palabras clave
tecnopolítica, democracia digital, política 2.0, TIC y política, e-gobierno, e-participación
Tema
ciencia política, teoría política, democracia digital
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What is technopolitics?
1. Introduction: Internet
and Politics
The features of shareability (Shirky, 2008) since the
beginning of the 21
st
century followed by the massive influx
of mobile broadband connectivity and social networking
sites in society around 2008 toge ther triggered the
innovative power for constructing new communicative
and organizational tools. New software, web platforms and
mobile applications accelerated and facilitated the processes
necessary for idea collection, discussion, decision-making
and voting as well as media and content creation.
These inventions not only make individual input and
participation easily traceable but also store relevant data,
making information searchable and reproducible. A culture
of free software and free culture (Lessig, 1999, 2004), open
government (O´Reilly, 2005; Noveck, 2009; The White House,
2009) and democratic innovation have emerged since then
to sustain the development of free tools for communication
and organization around the principles of commons-
based peer production (Benkler, 2006). Many people are
following this approach and networking with other groups
in order to equip themselves with free and effective tools.
Against this trend, we see the persistence of the rather
traditional approach that treats communication and
information more exclusively within a small network of
people in a vertical, top-down manner (Peña-López, 2011a).
Significant information is collected into a centre with a view
of scarcity and shared with each actor according to their
authority, following the rules of secrecy.
The Internet is already becoming a site of contention
between these two communicational paradigms: freedom
of information vs. secrecy and surveillance (Rumold, 2015).
When we compare this approach with the role of secrecy
and surveillance in the political establishment in the post
9/11 period, we hypothesize the arrival of a period in which
the two organizational models collide.
The Internet has always been heralded as a great opportunity
to enhance democracy (Barlow, 1996; Lebkowsky, 1997). But
three decades since its inception, the Internet only proved to
be a mirror of society and politics. Despite its potential for
facilitated communication, deliberation and organization,
internet-enhanced politics did not yield sufficient democratic
transformation. Today we observe that online tools for
communication and organization, when combined with legal
and political tools, can provide technopolitical strategies to
fix the broken parts of democracy. There is a substantial
body of literature that states that digital tools foster a new
ethic (Himanen, 2003) that quickly translates into new kinds
of operating. The possibilities of increasing the granularity
of tasks contributes to the decentralization of management
and decision-making (Benkler, 2006). These are particularly
reflected within the discourse around free and open source
software against proprietary software (Raymond, 1999;
Stallman, 2002; Benkler, 2002; Castells, 2012).
In this article we would like to offer a conceptual approach
to understand the major political forces shaping the future
of the Internet and democratic politics. This approach is
not very novel, but the context and the compilation of
contributions makes it highly relevant since we believe
that there is an unprecedented level of contingency in
politics (caused by the communicative effects of the
Internet) that needs to be captured. We want to introduce
a notion of technopolitics that is based on two prevalent
approaches that differ on the role of communication and
on the value of information: i) the centralized approach and
ii) the distributed approach. In the centralized approach,
technopolitical practices are applied top-down, in which
information is exclusive to decision-makers. This refers to
the ways in which the state or the government increases
its power in new technologies (Mitchell, 2002; Rodotà,
1997) as in the initial use of web-based technologies for
traditional politics, named e-government or e-politics
(Dunleavy and Margetts, 2006; Livermore, 2011). In the
distributed approach, technopolitical practices are applied
bottom-up, in which information is co-produced and shared
by the individual through overlapping networks as in more
transformative use of ICTs for allegedly new ways of doing
politics - what we refer to as democratic technopolitics.
The former makes use of technologies for increasing
efficiency and efficacy in the established modes of
governance and government within the representative
paradigm of democracy and embraces practices such as
e-voting, e-campaigning and e-petitioning to facilitate
their operations (Reddick, 2010, Piaggesi et al, 2010). This
is reflected in the notion of e-government meaning “all
processes of information processing, communication and
transaction that pertain to the tasks of the government (the
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What is technopolitics?
political and public administration) and that are realized by
a particular application of ICT” (van Dijk, 2006, p. 104). The
latter - technopolitics - amplifies this basic understanding
by looking at the subversive use of technologies combined
with legal and political tools. New political organizations
use online tools and platforms in order to facilitate and
accelerate the necessary processes - such as idea creation,
prioritization of issues, content and media creation – when
engaging in formal politics. Independent actors can
participate in practices and processes with the help of ICTs,
such as petitions, campaigning and party formation.
Departing from these approaches, we want to argue that
representative democracies are being heavily challenged
by new technopolitical practices. From that we hypothesize
that we are in the middle of a shift towards a technopolitical
age, a political operation mode within the unfolding of the
network society enabled through mass self-communication
(Castells, 2007). As we will trace throughout the article,
in contrast to the concepts of e-democracy, e-governance
etc., technopolitics allows us to translate the complexity
surrounding the integration of new technologies into the
power dynamics among political actors and their respective
contestations and negotiations between centralization and
decentralization.
2. ‘Technopolitics’ in the academic
literature
The debate about the decentralizing and centralizing
tendencies of technologies in general, and digital
technologies in particular, has a long-standing tradition
in organization studies (Bloomfield and Coombs, 1992).
Combining the development of both - on the one hand
the “displacement of some forms of decision to a new and
more peripheral location” and on the other the shift towards
information and communication monitoring that results in
“a new se nse of cen traliz ation of power an d control ” (ibid., p.
460) - is challenging. When reviewing the appearance of the
term “technopolitics”, a wide range of understandings and
defenders of both sides, the centralized and decentralized,
can be found that is derived from the complexity of the issue
under investigation. In its basic form, the term “emerged in
the history of technology tradition to account for the ability
of competing actors to envision and enact political goals
through the support of technical artefacts” (Gagliardone,
2014, p. 3).
Two of the first occurrences of the term are both from 1997.
In ’TechnoPolitics’ Jon Lebkowsky refers to “broad-based
coalitions formed ad hoc with minimal partisan wrangling
and little reference to any particular agenda other than
constitutional integrity” (Lebkowski, 1997), or in other
words to highly distributed decision-making with minor
organizational infrastructure. On the contrary, Stephano
Rodotà (1997) sees a powerful potential for technopolitics,
but most often as improvements of the traditional ways of
doing politics. Indeed, he argues for the concurrence of more
actors in the political agora, especially citizens, to perform
the usual tasks: transparency, accountability, more or less
direct participation and decision-making, higher degrees of
deliberation, etc. The main democratic structures, however,
remain mostly unchanged.
Edwards and Hecht (2010) define technopolitics as “hybrids
of technical systems and political practices that produce new
forms of power and agency”; that is, the entanglement of
technology with politics takes place on narratives of national
and social identity with concrete policy positions and material
outcomes. Their approach is particularly comprehensive in
terms of understanding technology and politics as a dynamic
and sometimes co-constitutive process. In their view, the
entanglement of technology with politics never produces
singular responses and it always presumes the multiplicity
of positions when it comes to using a technology for political
purposes. Hence they place power at the core of analysis in
understanding technopolitics. Although Edwards and Hecht
do not argue the primacy of technology over politics, they
acknowledge the constitutive role that technology plays in
terms of political power. Given the multiplicity of positions,
this means that technology can empower actors in various
degrees or empower a single actor against others. Therefore,
framing becomes an important part of understanding the
various positions among contentious actors and ‘contesting
claims’ involved in policy choices and their political impacts.
In other words, an actor’s positions and motivations play
an important role in constituting and transforming political
power. As they state, “these technologies are not, in and
of themselves, technopolitics. Rather, the practice of using
them in political processes and/or toward political aims
constitutes technopolitics” (Edwards and Hecht, 2010,
p.256-7).
Following a similar approach, Hughes (2006) expands the
scope of technopolitics by focusing on innovations in nano-
biotechnologies. He observes that the ethical issues emerging
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What is technopolitics?
from the various uses of such technologies generate political
controversies. Arguing that “these coming technopolitical
conflicts will be fought over the development, regulation,
and accessibility of human enhancement technologies and
will bring to the table fundamentally different conceptions
of citizenship, rights, and the polity”, he points out that
new technologies have shifted the technopolitical terrain
prevalent in the 20th century between technoconservatives
and technoprogressives.
Based on Winner’s (1980) proposition of artefacts as having
inherent politics, Hughes treats some technologies as
empowering tools while others are perceived as the opposite.
The selection and appropriation of different technologies
that cut a cross the existing political lines betwee n left
and right leads to the emergence of new positions such
as technolibertarians and technodemocrats. These actors
endorse the integration of new technologies in human life
while each have conflicting positions towards the role that
political regulation should play in this process.
While Hecht isolates a specific technology in order to see
its role in constituting political power, Hughes proposes to
employ technological innovations based on their intended
role in politics. This creates both an advantage and a
problem. Hughes’s understanding of technopolitics puts
great emphasis on the design process involved in the
innovation and implementation of new technologies as well
as the political repercussions. Similarly, Edwards and Hecht
maintain that “the material effectiveness of technologies
can affect their political effectiveness”, though they do
not go into great depth in the study of the design process
involved in the use of new technologies. However, Hughes’
framework risks falling into political determinism, as if actors
understand the entire logic of such technologies with a fixed
political position. In that respect, Edwards and Hecht provide
a much more dynamic understanding of the design process
in which political positions are shaped along the way.
Douglas Kellner (2001) understands technopolitics as a
strategic way of citizen empowerment. He notes some
resistance in using ICTs. In particular, the Internet and ICTs
are important for the democratic project as they open “new
terrains of political struggle for voices and groups excluded
from the mainstream media and thus increase potential
for resistance and intervention by oppositional groups”
(p. 23). Following Hecht, Kellner treats technology as an
independent agent that can be strategically appropriated
for different political purposes by conflicting actors.
Inherent in his writing is a normative and strategic stance
towards the appropriation of ICTs for democratic purposes.
Technopolitics is “not an end in and of itself”, he states, but
rather it should become “an arm of struggle” for democratic
revolutions (Kellner, 2001).
Recent attempts to rework the definition of technopolitics
make good cases to expand such a perspective. For
Rasmussen (2007), it is impossible to make clear distinctions
between technology and politics, not because they are
inherently entangled but because politics uses technical
standards (as more effective than laws) and because
technical expertise has started to acquire a political power
that was not intended. According to him, since its inception
the Internet has always been a contested terrain among
various actors, in particular due to its open architecture.
Similar to Kellner, he highlights how the design principles
of the Internet, such as decentralized networks and open
processes, inherently ushers in new poli tical expressions
and motivations. Nevertheless, Rasmussen reminds us that
the history of the Internet as a terrain of technopolitical
controversies “reveals prolonged tension – in fact almost
open controversy – between the closed and the open”
(Rasmussen, 2007, p. 2). In particular, he highlights how the
issues of regulation are contested and negotiated between
these two approaches.
It is important to note that he understands technopolitics as
a double-movement between technological innovations and
political interventions. In explaining the role of ICTs in the
last decade, he proposes that we have entered another phase
of the Internet’s history: “increasingly advanced technical
solutions that bring new terminals and platforms and a
greater awareness of what the Net represents in a social
sense, but also a closer legal and political intervention in the
Net” by IT bureaucrats. We acknowledge his suggestion that
the Internet represents a space of openness and at the same
time “it creates barriers in the form of regulation by the
government, more restrictive rights” (Rasmussen, 2007, p. 2).
Another valuable attempt to employ technopolitics is
Gagliadore’s work on the development of ICTs in Ethiopia
(2014). Focusing on government-led projects, he analyses
how political and technical forces interact and negotiate in
particularly authoritarian regimes. His study illustrates how
the same technology can be appropriated in opposite ways
according to different political motivations. He observes that
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What is technopolitics?
despite the donors’ (international assistance organizations)
demands for openness and democratization in using these
ICTs, the Ethiopian government has appropriated them
to foster their state and na tion build ing process, while
marginalizing other uses of these ICTs. This is important in
understanding how ICTs used for democratic technopolitics
can be appropriated in a form of surveillance such as in the
case of the National Security Agency (NSA).
In a similar manner, Toret et al. (2013) understand
technopolitics as “the tactical and strategic use of digital
tools for organization, communication, and collective action.
It is the ability of connected communities [...] to create and
change social movements” (p. 3). For a lot of authors, the
15M Movement in Spain has provided the blueprint for a
technopolitical citizen movement that goes beyond the
mere collective interest articulation as typical of social
movements from either right or left but rather is a citizen
mobilization characterized by a joint “perception of its
[citizenship’s] loss” (Gerbaudo, 2017, p. 42)
These accounts show the ambiguity of technopolitical
writings and highlight the need to provide a descriptive
notion of technopolitics that encompasses both centralizing
and decentralizing tendencies. This will be expanded on in
the following sections alongside a number of categories.
3. A twofold understanding
of technopolitics
From our discussion above, we can summarize that
technopolitics assumes the primacy of technological change
and the contingency it creates in terms of political power.
It also concerns a specific period of transition in which
technology and politics become entangled primarily due
to the introduction of new tools for communication and
organization. This affects both higher level politics, such as
the connections between WikiLeaks and the Arab Spring,
and lower level politics, such as the connective action
and participation in the initiative for a new constitution in
Iceland, the 15M Spanish Indignados Movement, Occupy Wall
Street in the United States of America and in the Umbrella
Movement in Hong-Kong. Accordingly, technopolitics in
the digital age studies the co-constitutive relationship
between political power and formal democratic processes
and grassroots and extra-institutional movements, many of
them not only mediated but enabled by ICTs.
We want to propose a conceptual framework that firstly
provides an analysis of the context, namely the crisis
of democracy in which technopolitical practices take
place. Secondly, we want to look at the purpose of these
practices since technopolitics also considers how the same
technology can be appropriated and utilized for different
political ambitions. Conflicting motivations, contestations
and negotiations among different actors also call into
question what are legitimate and illegitimate uses of the
same technology. This perspective allows one to take into
greater account the ways in which political power influences
technological developments. And thirdly, technopolitics
shifts attention from pre-determined political positions to
a system of relationships in which technology is immersed.
However, this does not reduce the significance of the
individual, particularly in the digital age. Looking at the
scale and the actors involved in technopolitical practices
will support the analysis on how this immersion takes place.
After reviewing the two streams found in the literature,
we perceive technopolitics as the embodiment of a twofold
process: One is to expand pre-existing power structures by
using new technologies within a centralized understanding.
The other is the generation of forms of power by subverting
ICTs into tools for contentious politics within a decentralized
understanding. Unlike Hughes (2006), we do not aim to treat
these actors as having predetermined political motivations.
Instead, we propose to focus on the role that technology plays
in constituting political oppositions and its impacts on the
communication and organization patterns of these actors.
In the following sections we will gradually conceptualise
technopolitics from its practices. We will begin with the
context they are embedded in and then move to the purpose
of technopolitical practices and the scale and direction of
such practices. Finally, after analysing the actors engaging
in technopolitics we will conclude by asking how all these
pieces synchronize, especially when they happen in different
spaces and/or at different levels.
4. Conceptualizing technopolitical
practices
4.1. Context
The end of post-WWII reconstruction in Europe, the decay
of Keynesianism as an economic model and a certain
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What is technopolitics?
commitment of higher income countries to the development
of lower income countries - most of them ex-colonies of the
former - led to a significant change of approach in what
development and progress meant. Beyond physical access
to resources, economic development and the establishment
of healthy institutions, concepts like capacity building,
emancipation and freedom itself quickly came into the
spotlight. Two acknowledged approaches in this line are
the capabilities approach of Amartya Sen (1980; 2001) and
Ronald Inglehart’s reflection about emancipative values and
democratization, much centred on individual citizens (Welzel
et al. , 2003). These approaches can be also understood
in terms of the direction of power. Development in terms
of resources, economics and institutions mostly aims at
centralization, especially when we speak about institutional
development, and economic development that is also about
the institution of the market and the regulations to enable
and protect it. On the other hand, the capability approach
and emancipative values speak of decentralization, namely
the empowerment of the individual to achieve the lives he/
she has reason to value, which in our case can be understood
as technopolitics for governance and citizen sovereignty.
In this respect, there are three issues that are often
omitted in decision-making and are closely related to the
potential that ICTs can have if thoughtfully implemented
in a democratic system. Furthermore, if ICTs have a role in
democracy – and in democratizing – it is necessarily related
to the three stages of civil libert ies that a citizen may enjoy:
Firstly, ICTs have an impact on civil rights, civil liberties
and political freedoms. While freedom can be understood
as being able to think and act following one’s own will,
representative democracy implies a loss of freedom as some
sovereignty is shifted towards the elected representatives.
This does not mean that people are not free, but they are
definitely not free to decide because they voluntarily handed
over part of their freedom. Or perhaps not that voluntarily:
representation is compulsory by birth in most places in the
world (Jurado Gilabert, 2013).
Secondly, empowerment can be understood as a step
beyond freedom. If freedom is the absence of restrictions
to think or act according to one’s own will, empowerment is
the strengthening of the ability to think or exercise that will.
In other words, one cannot just do what one wants within the
system, but the system will contribute to it, as it will foster
one’s capabilities. It is in this stage where empowerment,
beyond the freedom to choose one’s representatives,
means a certain margin to contribute directly to what is
being debated or to the topic of the debate itself. Most
initiatives and projects have been be gun in this scenario
of empowerment through participation (Abdul Rahim et al.,
2005). The problem is that the mirage of empowerment
can lead to exploitation (Beardon, 2004) or actual
disempowerment (Peña-López, 2011b) if some structural
changes are not met (Giddens, 1984; DeSanctis and Poole,
1994).
And thirdly, the next step after freedom and empowerment
is, necessarily, governance. If freedom is to exercise one’s
will, and empowerment is to do so with multiplied force,
governance is well above that: it is not thought and action
within the system, but on the system. That is, governance
is about deciding or, at least, to be able to participate in
a decision, thus co-deciding. And co-decision comes after
deliberation and negotiation. Governance is to design the
system according to one’s needs (or more appropriately
according to collective needs), or at least to design
the appropriate institutions to do so (Font et al., 2012).
Surprisingly enough, given the potential of ICTs to affect
governance, discussions around politics 2.0, e-voting and
e-participation very rarely address changing procedures,
protocols, institutions, frameworks or systems and even
less transforming or even substituting them by other social
constructs.
In short, increased freedom, empowerment and governance
are the greatest potential outcomes of ICT in democracy.
But quite often these concepts are not explicitly taken into
account when democracy or its quality is at stake. On the
contrary, they are taken for granted or, in the best possible
scenario, as some independent variables which do not affect
a system that is also taken as exogenous (as given).
The tension arises when these tools can easily be
appropriated and turned into “networks of hope” (Castells,
2012). What we have witnessed since the beginning of the
21
st
century, and especially since the start of its second
decade, is the mastering of ICTs to create communities,
platforms, movements and layers of activism that have
fought against different local and global crises. For example,
the Western financial crisis (that affected many other
countries); the lack of control of financial and economic
globalization; the inability of governing bodies to realize the
interests of their respective citizens; the various unrests,
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demonstrations, protests, revolts and revolutions. However,
these are communities, outside of institutions, outside of
organizations of representation, brought in and enabled by
technopolitics (Cantijoch, 2009; Fuster and Subirats, 2012;
Peña-López et al., 2014).
4.2. Purpose
We have already pointed out that in the political realm
ICTs facilitate and accelerate the organizational and
communicative needs of citizen platforms, making political
organization possible with only a few online tools and a small
initial budget (then mostly crowdfunded). Many software
programs, web platforms and mobile applicatio ns speed
up the processes necessary for idea collection, discussion,
decision-making and voting as well as media and content
creation. This also makes citizens’ input and par ticipation
easily traceable.
The role that ICTs, in particular online participation tools
and crowdsourcing platforms, play inside newly formed
political organizations has gradually increased. However,
these developments take place in a certain political context
in which the pre-existing institutions and practices provide
both opportunities and limitations. Therefore, technopolitical
strategies aim to make use of existing practices and
processes of participation (such as petitions, voting in
elections, or party formation) with the support of ICTs.
In order to understand the components of technopolitical
strategies, we provide a conceptual framework that aims to
distinguish the effects of ICTs on different political levels:
a) Communicative: using ICTs to produce or reveal
information for the public’s use, such as influencing public
opinion by using tools and practices like content creation
in social media, hacking or advocating in platforms such
as change.org.
b) Legal: pushing a participatory agenda by digitalizing
existing rights and democratic practices, such as
online citizen initiatives, ICT-enabled advocacy groups,
e-referenda processes or e-recall.
c) Organizational (internal): using ICTs in political
organizations for the purposes of cheap and easy ways of
communication and organization, such as crowdfunding,
crowdsourcing, candidate selection and e-campaigning.
d) Institutional (external): pushing ICT-driven participatory
policies in government, such as transforming decision-
making mechanisms, co-production of policy-making and
participatory budgeting.
We also observe that in the aftermath of the social
movements of 2011-2013, many technopolitical actors
shifted their attention to political campaigning and electoral
politics. New types of political organizations utilize the
internet to facilitate and accelerate their organizational
and communicative needs, for example “new parties”
such as Podemos and Barcelona en Comú (Tormey and
Feenstra, 2015) in Spain. In fact, these organizations
acquire a political identity through the use of ICTs. They
use social networks for co-production and distribution of
political campaigns. Decision-making within the political
organization is opened up for citizens’ engagement through
online and offline participation. Moreover, party information,
including financing, is put on web-platforms, making the
organization more transparent. In addition, ICTs facilitate
and accelerate communication between the movements’
leaders and local assemblies, which also strengthens the
democratic legitimacy of the organization. This open and
transparent approach helped them obtain popular support
and even a surprising number of votes in elections. Until
now, online tools and platforms were used in processes
such as candidate selection, finalizing electoral lists, law
and policymaking (municipal and national), campaigning
and finance.
The internal roles of ICTs in changing the model of
political organizations also create external impacts on
institutional politics and the political establishment. As
technopolitical actors promote the principles of openness
and decentralization, they also expose the shortcomings
in existing rules and processes. For example, online tools
for candidate selection provide an alternative to the closed
lists in other political parties in Spain and career politicians
in general. Crowdsourcing legislation directly affects party
politics in Finland and Iceland and crowdfunding poses a
transparent alternative to campaign finance. This online
engagement created pressure on other decision-making
mechanisms to open up and for other institutions to
provide more information and become more transparent.
Many corruption cases were revealed. Interestingly, these
citizens’ platforms define their political organizations as
tools for democratic change.
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Looking at this framework, we can see how different actors
and motivations can be categorically simplified. On the one
hand, one network of networks relies on the closed processes
of decision-making with information being exclusive to a
certain number of people. Here, a communication network
is pre-established, based on the rules and protocols of legal
entities. Centralized power is organized in a more or less
top-down approach. Information is abundant, but exclusive
to a small group of relevant actors designated by political
processes. The exclusiveness of information makes it more
valuable and prone to misuse.
On the other hand, another network of networks relies on
the open processes of decision-making, with information
available to online crowds and their socially connected
extensions. This network depends on co-production and
sharing networks to spread political information, empower
citizens and create political power. Certain tools can empower
the local organization and connect it with larger political
entities, such as citizen movement networks like Barcelona
en Comú, or new political parties like the Icelandic Pirate
Party, or certain political leaders like Bernie Sanders. The
common approach in all these examples is to open up political
processes so that citizens can be involved in or monitor them.
In the last few years, digitally equipped and politically active
young people have attempted to participate in political
processes. These coalitions are proving to be persistent
and there is a degree of political trust building up. Fact-
checking, content creation and data visualization all serve
to distribute political facts and information so that citizen
participation either transforms a particular process or
exposes its shortcomings. Interestingly, by using existing
rights and democratic practices these new actors hack the
system from within by bringing their own organizational
and institutional models.
Against this trend, the closed and centralized political
powers resist the attempts to open up decision-making
processes and make institutions financially transparent.
This means a citizens’ network is now entering political
processes, although the political establishment limits them by
making information and decision-making less accessible. They
interact with formal processes in different ways. This creates
an antagonistic relationship between the establishment and
‘new politics’ on issues such as eliminating the influence of
big money in politics by making party accounts transparent,
or increasing citizens’ access to the political system by
opening up electoral lists, or by proposing new issues.
The Internet is already becoming a site of contention between
two communication paradigms: freedom of information vs.
secrecy and surveillance. When we compare this approach
with the role of secrecy and surveillance in the political
establishment in the post 9/11 period, we believe that we are
approaching a period when the two organizational models
will collide. ICTs play an indispensable role in facilitating
citizen input in the co-production of laws and policies and
expediting citizen monitoring of government.
The entrance of technopolitical actors strengthens the quest
for democratic change by creating pressure to open processes
in decision-making and make institutions transparent.
By combining existing rights and practices with ICTs,
technopolitical strategies transform institutional politics from
within. Overall, online participation tools and crowdsourcing
platforms promote open and decentralized political processes
and this reconfigures the political landscape by directly
challenging the network of the political establishment.
4.3. Scale and direction
When elaborating on centralized versus decentralized
development from a perspective of scale, one needs
to understand the distinction between representative
and direct/strong democracy (Barber, 1984). Within the
representative paradigm, the traditional structure of
political geography can be divided into four main political
scales: the communal, regional, state and international
scales (Cox, 1998). Within democracies, these scales ensure
a hierarchical separation of power with the state as the main
political actor (Taylor, 2015) that is influenced by economic
and political interests on a global scale. Therefore, power is
kept centralized with the nation as the most influential actor.
We argue that in the technopolitical age this hierarchical
structure is preserved, but that these scales are more closely
linked together with a shift of power to the communal
level, underpinning the direct/participatory approach to
democracy and redefining power relationships within the
state (Sassen, 2006). This tendency is not entirely new as
in 2000 the World Bank put decentralization of decision-
making at the centre of policy experiments (Bardhan, 2002),
but it is reviewed in the light of digital technologies and their
democratic capacities either for long-term participation
or one-off participation spaces. In other words, with the
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proliferation of ICTs we can observe more flexibility, more
dynamics between the traditional scales (with a greater
amount of information about the activities of each scale)
and enhanced sovereignty of the individual. However,
automatically centralized information about these activities
can endanger the participatory project leading to easier
surveillance which is a key problem when aiming for the
security and integrity of individual choices, i.e. secret voting.
The communal and regional scale can be described as
a conglomerate of small-scale groups. These can be
geographic units, meaning that their identity is bounded to
their location, or they can be interest-centred units through
sharing common issues of concern. In most cases, however,
they are a hybrid of the two units. The Plataforma de
Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) in Barcelona, for example,
is a political organization located at the communal level,
sharing both geographic proximity as well as being united
by a common interest to approach the housing crisis in
Spain and mobilize against home evictions.
Two important changes can be observed on the communal and
regional levels through the use of ICTs: easier organization
through facilitated communication within the communal
scale and their visibility on the international scale through
the use of social media. Regarding easier organization, the
vast range of Information and Communication Technologies
for Development (ICT4D) projects for local communities
in developing countries proves this statement (see Unwin,
2009). But the same shift can also be obser ved within
the representative democracy paradigm. For example,
neighbourhood groups and local branches of recently formed
parties are able to organize themselves more effectively
with the support of ICTs, enhancing their political potential
for tailoring collective interests and communicating them to
higher levels, as demonstrated by municipal political parties
in Spain (Tormey, 2015).
Regarding the visibility of communal issues on the global
level, ICTs have the potential to publish local issues and
quickly bring them to the attention of an international
audience. Within the vast body of literature about the role of
ICTs in social movements, a popular example is the Zapatista
movement, one of the first examples of web-mediated social
movements (Cleaver, 1998; Ronfeldt and Arquilla, 1998).
This shift is most noticeable on the national level.
Representative democracies function around the state;
however, the primacy of the state as the main political agent
is being challenged in the “network society” (Castells, 2008)
with the availability of tools that make its actions transparent
and make governments accountable for their decisions.
Slogans such as “governance without government” (ibid.)
give rise to the question of whether the traditional political
bodies of the state have become unnecessary and whether,
for example, “the age of party democracy has passed” (Mair,
2013, p. 1). In other words, the state “can no longer be seen
as a pre-given political unit” (Beck, 2006, p. 51).
Against these predictions, however, we can observe that
the state still exists as the main political actor. The NSA
scandal in 2014 serves as a recent example. In 2013, Edward
Snowden leaked documents revealing the surveillance of
civil society and high-level politicians by the NSA in the USA.
Civil organizations argued that basic human rights were
being violated, but the state did not suffer any consequences
with respect to its economic and political interests. The same
example serves to illustrate the power civil society has with
the support of ICTs, namely revealing injustices and the
hidden practices of traditional political actors, strengthening
their own role as political actors. Despite this, the power of
the state is still not challenged.
Building on the last example, we find the globalization of
politics, that is, the nation state is still the main actor in the
political scale. However, the pressure of “cosmopolitan self-
transformation” (Beck, 20016, p. 166) within globalization
“has shifted the debate from the national domain to the
global debate, prompting the emergence of a global civil
society and of ad hoc forms of global governance” (Castells,
2008, p. 678).
To summarize, we can highlight three major shifts within
the political scales brought about by the technopolitical
age: easier organization and information sharing among
community projects, facilitated interest ar ticulation for
policy design on a higher level and facilitated mobilization
for contentious politics. Here the ambiguity of the two-
fold understanding of technopolitics manifests itself in
enhanced control and surveillance directed by states and
a centralization of the capacity to monitor citizens.
4.4. Actors
In the representative paradigm, the individual as a political
actor is rather insignificant. Apart from voting, there is
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no immediate connection between the political and the
individual, as outlined in the introduction. This led to the crisis
of democracy where the political sphere is detached from the
individual (Peña-López, 2013) and mostly finds its means of
political expression outside the traditional voting procedure
as a participant in larger scale actions, in collective action
within protests where an individual forms part of a whole.
In the technopolitical paradigm we argue that a contradictory
shift takes place regarding political actors. A strengthening
of the role of the individual, in its most extreme form, is the
hacker (Levy, 1984; Raymond, 1999; Himanen, 2003). At the
same time, the power of the network in contentious politics
leads to the new logic of connective action (Bennet and
Segerberg, 2012), a hybridity of identities that bridges the
individual and collective expressions and leads to distributed
leadership instead of centralized or decentralized leaders
(Nunes, 2014). In other words, in Western political systems
“the individual linked by networks is becoming the basic
unit of the network society” (van Dijk, 2006, p. 20) and as
a result the main actor in the technopolitical era. Therefore,
we want to trace the shifts among the three main political
actors: the institution, the individual and the collective.
Whereas governments on all scales (see above) use the
internet to enhance their traditional practices, the most
significant shift within technopolitics takes place at the
bottom, within the role of individuals as empowered actors.
In our understanding, they form the key players in the
technopolitical age. Not only does the rise of social media,
such as Twitter and Facebook, allow people to create content
and comment on existing content, as observed in the diverse
social movements around the globe facilitated and carried
by the use of ICTs (twitter revolution etc.), but in the case of
hacktivism, the infrastructure of the internet also permits
direct and subversive influence on political issues. WikiLeaks
and the leaks by Edward Snowden are the poster children
for the empowered individual that has the ability to directly
challenge and influence political processes that happen
on higher levels. So within the centralized approach, the
individual has the capacity to directly subvert the hegemony
of the state by making sensitive information visible.
The decentralized understanding of technopolitics raises
the question: How does the empowered individual behave
in the network? Bennett and Segerberg (2012) introduced
the significant distinction between traditional collective and
connective action, a differentiation that helps us understand
the transformation of the role of the individual within the
logic of networks that are exemplary for the technopolitical
paradigm. Based on Olson (1965), the authors describe
collective action as “getting individuals to contribute to the
collective endeavor that typically involves seeking some
sort of public good” (Bennet and Segerberg, 2012, p. 749).
Here the individual dedicates him/herself to the narratives
of the collective, contributing through his/her presence and
following the narratives of the main organizations guiding
the spirit and themes of the movement. The connective
action logic is grounded in Benkler´s observation (2006)
that “participation becomes self-motivating as personally
expressive content is shared with, and recognized by, others
who, in turn, repeat these networked sharing activities”
(ibid, p. 752). Therefore, the connective element that
forms some sort of discourse amongst individuals leads
to a strengthening of personal identity and self-validation.
The change in the relationship of the individual with
established organizations in the technopolitical paradigm
is impressively shown in a survey by Anduiza et al. (2011). The
results of the survey indicate that, in contrast to traditional
protest movements, the few organizations involved in the
15M movement were not the main trigger of the movement
(Democracia Real YA excluded) and neither did most of them
have any membership possibilities. In a similar manner,
Nunes (2014) points to another distinction regarding the way
individuals organize within the technopolitical paradigm,
and introduces an explanation of “distributed leadership”
enhanced through mass self-communication where there
is no absence of leaders but “several, of different kinds, at
different scales and on different layers, at any given time;
and in principle anyone can occupy this position” (p. 33).
Similarly, Toret et al (2013) describe the actors of the
15M movement as a “presence of collective accounts
as fundamental elements in the diffusion networks
pointing towards the existe nce of a network-system of
decentralized-distributed organization, without leaders or
stable representatives” (p. 12) and refer to the image of
the swarm as a reconfigurable, flexible organization that
survives without the individual.
In conclusion, we can observe a shift of identities towards
the representative paradigm where the institutional actor
keeps its role, but the individual gains more power which
leads to a distinct understanding of collective action when
organizing with other individuals.
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4.5. Synchronization
“If a place can be defined as relational, historical and
concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be
defined as relational, or historical or concerned with identity
will be a non-place.” This is how Augé (1995, p. 77-78) defines
non-places, the transitional spaces that seem to lie between
what we usually understand as a place. Augé’s reflection is
useful for our reflections: these non-places are, indeed, very
relational, dense with identities and, in a very subjective
manner, historical. Non-spaces are useful for our purposes
as they challenge the idea of the traditional well-delimited
space, both in time (when it is “used”) and in space (in its
very definition). Technopolitics also challenges the idea of a
place as a well-defined piece of space where people “gather”
and events “happen” or take place. In addition, because of
its sense of being in transit between other (real) places, this
helps to usher in another crucial concept in technopolitics:
synchronization.
While discussing the 15M Spanish Indignados Movement,
Monterde (2015, p. 207) writes that “another property of the
multilayer space is that its dynamics depend on the activity
of its own system, and the activation of the system happens
when there is a synchronization of layers. The synchronization
has to do with the way frequencies are adjusted in a world
characterized by dispersion”. For this synchronization to take
place, it “needs a deterritorialization of personal identities,
to find out the common, anonymous and powerful dimension
of the connected peoples. In this context, synchronization
deals with the growing feedback of (any kind of) singularities
that come and act together” (Toret, 2013, p. 67-68).
This apparent lack of hierarchies but, at the same time, a
proposal for new ways to act and coordinate is somehow
what was envisioned in John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of
the Independence of Cyberspace (Barlow, 1996). Here, the
concept cyberspace defined as a “third environment” by
Echeverría (1999) is characterized as an environment which
would go beyond the natural or physical environment and
the urban or industrial environment. For Echeverría, the third
environment is a new way to organize. It is thus interesting to
see how these different spaces or environments intertwine,
complement each other or contribute to co-building a
common procedure or goal.
On the one hand, the different “spaces of autonomy”
(Castells, 2012) conform the nodes of new networks of
cooperation where action takes place and synchronizes
between different spaces or layers. According to the author,
the American Occupy Wall Street movement built “a new
form of space, a mix of a space of places, in a given territory,
and a space of flows on the Internet” (ibid., p. 68).
This mixture of spaces is, on the other hand, at the core
of what Martínez Roldán (2011) and Corsín Jiménez and
Estalella (2014) refer to when they speak about the city
as hardware, as the construction of a new urban space
populated by the wisdom of crowds and synchronized with
other layers of knowledge. This situation of redefining
physical spaces into knowledge hubs is not new (Best, 2010),
but the phenomenon of technopolitics takes the issue to
another level.
5. Technopolitics:
towards a definition
Technopolitics involves the dynamic process between
technological developments and political purposes.
Technopolitics constitutes contested terrains in which
political actors appropriate new technologies and use them
for what they perceive as political instruments. These actors
“interact with technological opportunities and constraints”
and different technopolitical strategies emerge as a result
of this interaction. This dynamic and contentious process
amongst various actors reconfigures political relations and
power dynamics through conflicting appropriations as well
as negotiations.
Technopolitics also reconfigures power relations and opens
up possibilities for new practices and approaches in the
short term and organizations and institutions in the long
term. In reshaping practices, technopolitics reshapes the
mediation structures between people and between people
and institutions. These mediation structures, enabled and
enhanced by ICTs, allow for more open and distributed
governance in an expanding process of the devolution of
sovereignty.
Although technopolitics can be understood and applied
both for centralization and decentralization purposes,
or to enable and enhance centralized and decentralized
environments, procedures and actions, we believe that the
social structures (Giddens, 1984; DeSanctis and Poole, 1994;
Parvez, 2006) they provide or enable or which emerge will
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be decentralized. This is because the impact that they have
on existing purposes most likely favour decentralized rather
than centralized structural outcomes.
The opportunities and constraints that are internal to the
logic of a technology face the opportunities and constraints
that are internal to democratic institutions and organized
politics. It is their complementarity or opposition that
determines the final spectrum of approaches that can be
used in politics. In other words, the design principles of a
technology also shape the form in which political purposes
are contested and the other way round, as expressed by
Giddens (1984) in his structuration theory.
Thus, we believe that technopolitics is not the addition of
ICTs into politics or activism, but a much more complex
phenomenon that spreads in many directions.
We define technopolitics as a new context, enabled and
enhanced by ICTs, where its actors aim at higher levels of
freedom, empowerment and governance. Technopolitics
reflect a multipurpose application of ICTs that aim at
more efficacy and efficiency in democracy, but also at
transforming traditional democratic practices, oftentimes
to get them back to their original purpose, but with a refined
vision and mission focused on political emancipation and
decentralization. Furthermore, we understand technopolitics
as a multi-scale way to approach politics that is deeply
rooted in the community but which connects with the global
agora, and directed both to the achievement of finalistic
goals as well as of intermediate goals affecting the design
of protocols and processes. It encompasses the concurrence
of multiple actors, contributing with their actions - big or
small - and knowledge in a gift-economy characterized by a
highly granular design of tasks and degrees of participation,
and in the end it can be perceived as a synchronization
construct that operates in and through many layers and
spaces, (re)connecting actors and communities through
shared procedures and converging goals.
Future empirical research should address these aspects and
shed light on the distinct categories that have been presented
here; for example, comparative research about contexts and
scales, the different actors that we were referring to, and the
elaboration of middle-field theory regarding purpose and
synchronization. It was not our intention here to provide the
necessary empirical operationalization for these endeavours
but rather point towards a direction in how technological
changes impact the political spheres between centralizing
and de-centralizing tendencies.
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Recommended citation
KURBAN, Can; PEÑA-LÓPEZ, Ismael; HABERER, Maria (2017). “What is technopolitics? A conceptual
schema for understanding politics in the digital age”. IDP. Revista de Internet, Derecho y Política. No.
24, pp. 3-20. UOC [Accessed: dd/mm/yy]
org/10.7238/idp.v0i23.3061>
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About the author
Can Kurban
hcankurban@gmail.com
Doctoral Student on the Programme on Political Science
New School for Social Research
.newschool.edu/parsons/faculty.aspx?id=4d54-6334-4d7a-4533>
The New School
66 West 12th Street
New York, NY 10011
Ismael Peña-López
ictlogist@ictlogy.net
Lecturer at the School of Law and Political Science
Researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3)
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC)
/>
Estudis de Dret i Ciència Política
Parc Mediterrani de la Tecnologia (Edifici B3)
Av. Carl Friedrich Gauss, 5
08860 Castelldefels (Barcelona)
IDP No. 24 (February, 2017) I ISSN 1699-8154 Journal promoted by the Law and Political Science Department
Eloi PuigEloi Puig
Jose R. Agustina
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Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
20
Eloi PuigEloi Puig
What is technopolitics?
Can Kurban, Ismael Peña-López and Maria Haberer
Maria Haberer
ahaberer@uoc.edu
Doctoral Student on the Information and Knowledge Society Programme
Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3)
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC)
.rdi.uoc.edu/es/investigador/haberer-anna-maria-babette>
Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3)
Parc Mediterrani de la Tecnologia (Edifici B3)
Av. Carl Friedrich Gauss, 5
08860 Castelldefels (Barcelona)