Cyberactivism, iPhone 4 and The Courage to Be

August 25, 2010 - activism / anthropology / buddhism / capitalism / connectivity / cyberenvironmental activism / emergence / environmentalism / ethics / ethnography / experience / information technology / internet / social network / software / surveillance

(Note: This post was originally published on an blog about Apple technology, based on a few requests I’m making it available here. -MOR)

Foxconn Plant

Apple has been hard at work the last few years building their reputation as a ‘socially responsible’ company.  Like other greenwashing corporations (Whole Foods for example), this reputation is 9/10ths marketing and 1/10th wishful thinking from the cult of Mac.  Yes, Apple did change components in their products to reduce toxicity and increase ease of recycling, and they do ‘check out’ the factories where their products are manufactured, and wasn’t Kermit the Frog in  one of their ad campaigns along with Gandhi and the Dalai Lama?  But does coming out with a ‘new and better’ product every few months and holding back features to encourage upgrade purchases really help reduce waste?  And what are the standards they use to ‘check out’ those factories? Standards you would accept if you worked there?

So, we need to be asking Apple why workers at the Foxconn plant in China where they’ve been making the new iPhones, are committing suicide.  Or we could just ask the workers:

“Life is meaningless,” said Ah Wei, his fingernails stained black with the dust from the hundreds of mobile phones he has burnished over the course of a 12-hour overnight shift. “Everyday, I repeat the same thing I did yesterday. We get yelled at all the time. It’s very tough around here.”

Conversation on the production line is forbidden, bathroom breaks are kept to 10 minutes every two hours and constant noise from the factory washes past his ear plugs, damaging his hearing, Ah Wei said. The company has rejected three requests for a transfer and his monthly salary of 900 yuan ($132) is too meager to send home to his family, said the 21-year-old, who asked that his real name not be used because he is afraid of his managers.

So, do we boycott the products?  Maybe that’s a good idea, but then what do we do without access to that technology?  Because I wonder if losing the technology might limit our ability to change the conditions in factories like those.  However much I’d love to go all Walden, I’m not a Luddite and I believe technology can be a powerful tool for social justice.  Technophobes and skeptics often argue that we rely too much on unnecessary technology and that it’s contributing to the loss of something essential about our humanity – but in making that argument they forget that language is technology, writing is technology, human culture is technology.  The horrible conditions of production and labor and the class issues and related problems of globalized capitalism that brought about these suicides at the Foxconn plant are not because of ‘technology.’  But still, when you slide your finger across the iPhone screen are you ready to think “cool effect  – oh, and  the person who made this isn’t allowed to talk while working 12 hour shifts on a factory floor”?  We can’t just say, “too bad” and enjoy the technology, can we?  We have to do something.  But what?

As I’ve mentioned, my research interests lie at the intersection of technology and religion.  By religion I don’t necessarily mean gods or churches or dogma or any sort of ‘greater’ power.  I mean something more like the concern you felt for Ah Wei, the Foxconn worker, when you read about him above.  By religion, I mean your interest in issues of social justice, your ideals about the kind of world we should live in, and how we should treat one another.  So the question this story brought to my mind is: If my iPhone is made in a factory that enslaves Ah Wei  – can I buy that product and then turn around and use the same technology to free him of his chains?  Or are we caught in Möbius strip of production, consumption, power and oppression, a catch-22 of capitalism? I think there must be a way out, maybe not by working against technology, but through the technology, specifically through technologies of resistance. So, clearly the question at hand is a lot more than “should I buy the new iPhone 4?” which might be the expected question on a blog like this.  I’ve been looking at this issue of technology and social justice more recently, so I’ll share some of what I’ve found, and hopefully this will give us something to think about beyond the shiny ads from Apple about cool new apps we can download to make our iLife even iBetter…

iBed Peace

iBed Peace?

Cyberactivism and The Courage to Be

Technologies of resistance are manifold. The mythologies and histories of resistance are transmitted between actors, tribes, nations and networks through mediums as diverse as writing, dancing and uploading. Such means of transmission, the information technologies, are foundational components of the cognitive spaces where we describe the indescribable, make the finite infinite and explore, share and build our imaginative universe. These cognitive spaces are dreamplaces, realms of imagination and psychic depth, where resistance is born from belief in social justice and faith in the possibility of a different, or even better, world. From the so-called ‘archaic’ to the ‘advanced’ – information technologies are, as Erik Davis (2004) describes them, “technocultural hybrids.” These hybrid technologies are part of the revelatory vision, the pictograph and petroglyph, the smoke signal and burnt offering, the alphabet, the printing press, the digital signal, the telephone, radio, television, fax, satellite and well, you get the idea.

Along with the rise of the new network communication technologies emerges a new depth and scope for our dreams of social justice, because of technology, we can imagine greater (as the Sci Fi channel reminds us). These technologies are not only new means of resisting power but also new spaces for institutional power because technology is always a trickster, the coyote of the network society. However, when used as a means to resist institutional power, information technologies can mediate the expression of what theologian Paul Tillich (1959) called “ultimate concern.” When information technologies are engaged to communicate Tillich’s (1959) “ultimate meaning” in answer to the “moral demands” of “ultimate concern,” technology mediated communication can become a religious act of cyberactivism; an expression our “courage to be.”

Worker's Parents

The parents and sister of a Foxconn worker who committed suicide carry his picture outside the factory

Ultimate Concern and Our Common Faith

Tillich understands the religious to be an aspect of the human spirit present in the depth of our spiritual lives. He calls this depth “ultimate concern” and proposes that it is manifest in “all creative functions of the human spirit.” He describes the manifestation of ultimate concern in the moral sphere as “the unconditional seriousness of the moral demand.” Ultimate concern manifests, he argues, in the aesthetic function of the human spirit as “the infinite desire to express ultimate meaning.” At the intersection of “the unconditional seriousness of the moral demand” and the “infinite desire to express ultimate meaning” a path is revealed from the spiritual depth of ultimate concern toward a desire to express ultimate meaning motivated by the seriousness of the moral demand. This is the route from ultimate concern to the desire for action and then on to the expression of ultimate meaning in response to moral demand; in other words, the path from simply having concern to taking action on behalf of social justice.

I like Tillich’s framework for investigating why we’re moved to act against injustice.  But, if Tillich’s position as a Christian theologian is uncomfortable for you, consider John Dewey’s similar take on the religious. In A Common Faith, Dewey (1934) sought to remove the religious aspect of experience from from the “historic encumbrances” of dogma and institutions.  He saw the religious as a “clear and intense conception of a union of ideal ends with actual conditions,” of “ideal possibilities unified through imaginative realization and reflection”.   Basically, he’s talking about imagination, our ability to imagine something better and work together to make it happen, bring about that reality.  So, when I write about Tillich, you can easily replace him with Dewey if you prefer.  Dewey made a wonderful case against closed, restricted and private truths (open source anyone?) and called on us to use the means in our power to make radical changes.  He asked that we work on “behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of conviction” of the “general and enduring value” of the ideal end.  I think this is very much like what Tillich later called “the courage to be” which he describes as “the ethical act in which man affirms his own being in spite of those elements of his existence which conflict with his essential self-affirmation.”

The Counterculture Revolution and the Hacker Ethic

The manifesto of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), The Port Huron Statement, asks “what is the perimeter of human possibility in this epoch?” and “what role have we ourselves to play as a social force?” (Hayden, 2005). The Port Huron Statement defines a path to social justice when they propose undertaking “the search for truly democratic alternatives to the present, and a commitment to social experimentation with them.” This counterculture manifesto expresses optimism about the potential of humankind, “we regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom and love” and prescribes the specific goal of acting on this optimism:

The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with image of popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic; a quality of mind not compulsively driven by a sense of powerlessness, nor one which unthinkingly adopts status values, nor one which represses all threats to its habits, but one which has full, spontaneous access to present and past experiences, one which easily unites the fragmented parts of personal history, one which openly faces problems which are troubling and unresolved; one with an intuitive awareness of possibilities, an active sense of curiosity, an ability and willingness to learn. (Hayden, 2005)

In specifying this “goal of society” The Port Huron Statement imagines not only changes in favor of social justice, but the establishment of an entirely new system:

As a social system we seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation. (Hayden, 2005)

Especially relevant here is the “media for their common participation.” Perhaps the authors didn’t intend the words to be taken so literally, but in the 40 years since, that participatory media space might have manifest as the internet and the networked spaces that have emerged around it.


The ‘New’ SDS organizes using a facebook group.

Hacking in the Network Society

Manuel Castells regards the “new technological conditions emerging” in our time as “a specific form of social organization in which information generation, processing and transmission become the fundamental sources of productivity and power” (1996). He calls the organization of this process around networks the “network society” (1996). Castells argues that in this network society individuals experience an “increasing distance between globalization and identity, between the Net and the self” (1996). To express ultimate meaning in response to the moral demand of ultimate concern (i.e. to act for social justice), individuals must overcome this paradox of the self in the information society.

Cyberactivists and hacker activists, or hacktivists, lay claim to the disputed territory in the networks of the information society by overcoming this paradox of self and re-affirming their identity as individuals acting based on their ultimate concerns. They exhibit what Tillich (2000) calls “the courage to be” which again is “the ethical act in which man affirms his own being in spite of those elements of his existence which conflict with his essential self-affirmation.” This is the path from ultimate concern to action via the courage to be.

Delivering the 2007 Nathan W. Levin Lecture at the New School in New York City, Castells said “the hackers built the network – and they built it open.” Born out of the defense department ARPANET research project, the internet was a product of “both the ʻclosed worldʼ of the Cold War and the open and decentralized world of the antiwar movement and the counterculture” (Rosenzweig, 1998). As the internet moved from an open systems approach to an open markets approach, “activist and counterculturist hackers….tried to turn the closed-world discourse on its head and make the personal computer and community networks into supports for a discourse of freedom, decentralization, democracy and liberation” (Rosenzweig, 1998).

The Hacker Ethic calls for actively helping “those who have been left on the margins of survival” (Himanen, 2001). In addition, The Hacker Ethic proposes that hacktivists try to “crack the locks of the iron cage” of the economic system built on the protestant work ethic. These fundamental agreements in purpose link the The Hacker Ethic with The Port Huron Statement in a challenge to the institutional power of capitalist economic systems:

…the radical nature of general hackerism consists of its proposing an alternative spirit for the network society – a spirit that finally questions the dominant Protestant ethic. In this context we find the only sense in which all hackers are really crackers: they are trying to crack the locks of the iron cage. (Himanen, 2001)

The hacker ethic is described as a “general social challenge” (Himanen, 2001) and includes “the goal of getting everybody to participate in the network and to benefit from it, to feel responsible for longer term consequences of the network society, and to directly help those who have been left on the margins of survival” (Himanen, 2001).

This hacker call for social change is one route through which the revolutionary ideals of the 1960s SDS have continued into the struggle against institutional power in the new network society. Both The Port Huron Statement and The Hacker Ethic are cognizant of similar injustices and both seek to end them; specifically by democratizing. The Port Huron Statement sought to mobilize the poor, The Hacker Ethic seeks to bridge the digital divide, the class disparity in internet and technology access, and create open information systems accessible to all.

The creator-hackers who built and now fight for the open network are both hereditary and cultural products of the 1960s social revolution(aries). They participate in the counterculture that was born out of the revolutionary call of the Students for a Democratic Society, shaped by experiments with LSD and other psychedelic consciousness expansion, the fight for free speech, and the civil rights, feminist and queer liberation struggles. In the social revolution lexicon, open source and open access to internet mediated communication is the technological equivalent of the protest chant “the whole world is watching!”

Police Video

…and they’re watching back.

Technology and Counter-Power

Network communication technologies offer expanded powers to amplify and transmit one voice to many. As Castells argues, “electronic media…have become the privileged space of politics…without it there is no chance of winning or exercising power” (1997). In one example, the story of Alex White Plume growing hemp on the Pine Ridge reservation to support his Lakota family has been transmitted far and wide through electronic communication technologies. On PBSʼs P.O.V. web site, users can view a trailer of a documentary film about the family, watch video updates on the case and learn more about the background story. Hyperlinking from this site can lead the visitor to participate in activism on behalf of the subjects of the documentary.

The geography of these relationships, the network of users, producers, media and participants, is a decentralized space and with the reduction of centralized control comes greater opportunity for the individual to express what Tillich calls “ultimate meaning” and “unconditional seriousness of the moral demand” and also, very simply, to find like-minded individuals.

But when they find each other, do they act? And what is “action” in cyberspace? And if they do act, is there an impact? It would seem so, and it is because these communication technologies have been so effectively used as counter-power that hegemonic powers perceive such open systems in cyberspace and even access to technology as a threat. Warf and Grimes (citing Mueller and Tan, 1997) provide the example of China:

Some governments have come to fear the Net for its emancipatory capabilities. The Chinese government, for example, was stung by students’ use of faxes and e-mail during the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre. It was especially aggrieved at their use of a network – ChinaNet – based at Stanford University, so it began in early 1996 to limit access to Internet nodes. (Warf & Grimes, 1997)

Craig Howe, however, argues that the “pervasive universalism and individualism of the world wide web” is “antithetical to the particular localities, societies, moralities, and experiences that constitute tribalism” (Howe, 1998). In Howeʼs view, the decentralization of communication space removes a vital component of tribal identity. Howe makes a technological determinist argument that “if Indian communities wish to stake out a place in cyberspace, then they must understand that in so doing they are capitulating to the underlying philosophy of the Internet. Cyberspace is a fantastic technological achievement founded on the ideals of Western civilization” (Howe, 1998). Howe suggests that cyberspace lacks a spatial, social and spiritual dimension and is therefore a danger to tribalism. On the contrary, cyberspace has the same relationship to solidspace as the public temple, the sacred space, the dreamspaces and the place of visions. It could be read just as easily as a powerful numinous place where identity becomes fluid, where boundary areas electrify creative potential and where power is decentralized and democratized.

As Lucas (1996) writes, “new computing and telecommunications technologies offer exciting possibilities for indigenous people to preserve and develop their own cultures on their own terms.” Regarding the recording of oral traditions, he says:

The problem is not therefore one of recording knowledge that was not meant to be recorded, but of the custodians of oral lore being given the opportunity to develop protocols, customs and conventions for recording and disseminating oral knowledge in a way that is consistent with local traditions and community desires. (Lucas, 1996)

Lucas also suggests that new media technologies offer solutions to communication between native peoples spread across the vast continents of North America and Australia (1996). He proposes that this kind of communication networking makes it easier for native peoples to “compare and contrast their respective social, cultural and political situations” (Lucas, 1996).  In other words, let them use the technology how they want and it will do their work.

Cell Phone Ear

Technology and the self: cyborg adornment.

Counter-Power and Cyberactivism: Burma 2007

Under the headline “Burmese authorities target citizen journalists,” the Democratic Voice of Burma reported in October 2007:“government authorities are initiating a media campaign targeting citizen journalists who took footage of government brutality during the recent protests in Rangoon and distributed it to foreign media, according to journalists and reporters in Burmaʼs former capital.” That the brutal military dictatorship of Burma would target individuals who upload and transmit unedited footage, suggests they recognize the power afforded to the cause of the pro-democracy protesters by simple user/producer uploaded content.

Davis (2004) argues that by creating a new “interface between the self, the other, and the world beyond,” new media technologies become a foundation for “the social construction of reality.” The ʻrealityʼ of the situation in Burma is a socially constructed reality, built up over time by the battles for power and counter-power in media space as much as those in physical space. Cyberactivism opens this space by providing a means for those with less power to share information and to communicate outside the media networks controlled by institutional power structures. This information sharing affords counter-power to individuals and enables a participatory flow of information as Kreimer (2001) describes:

Finally, the Web makes it possible to establish two-way linkages with potential sympathizers. Unlike the unidirectional nature of most mass media, websites, bulletin boards, chatrooms, and email are potentially interactive. Information can flow toward movement organizers as well as away from them. Every sympathizer or movement member becomes a potential reporter; the capacity of insurgent movements to expose local abuses multiplies.

In the case of Burma, the power of internet mediated communication is in the depth and scope of storytelling. Through the internet, people around the world were able to see and read what was going on in Burma from the perspective of those experiencing the crackdown. The importance of internet connectivity to the pro-democracy protestors was re-iterated by a post to the Burma blog requesting that the United Nations, United States and United Kingdom embassies in Rangoon, Burma create wireless internet networks extending outside their buildings which pro-democracy protesters could use to covertly upload news, images and other information to the world community:

29 Sep 07, 11:30 – MyoThant: A group of 88-generation activists are urging UN and US & UK embassies in Rangoon to open a 1-page web service via WIFI access to general public just to submit news photos (with user name: 2007, pw: 2007). Please write to them to request this.

This request for a wireless network became necessary as the military dictatorship of Burma cut off internet access to the outside world, as reported by

As violence began in Myanmar on Wednesday, protesters sent a steady stream of images and videos of the protests – often recorded with cellphones – to the Western media through electronic mail and Web sites including Yahoo’s Flickr, and YouTube. Bloggers had also chronicled the recent political unrest at sites like and Within the past 24 hours, however, that stream of messages has slowed to a trickle, as the government cut off all digital ties to the outside world.

In an interview I conducted during a protest at the United Nations Dr. Mala Htun, Professor of Political Science at the New School for Social Research, reiterated the importance of the internet and mobile technology to the pro-democracy movement, saying at the time:

Weʼre extremely concerned now that the government has cut off the internet connection of Burma to the outside world, theyʼve cut off mobile phone connections. So the only way we were getting news, since Burma has banned foreign journalists, the only way weʼve been getting news from Burma is through text messages, is through phone calls, is through the internet posted by ordinary citizens.

After hearing from them about the situation in Burma, I agreed to assist the expatriate Burmese community here in New York by filming their protest as they confronted the Foreign Minister of Burma after his speech to the U.N. general assembly. I uploaded the essential scenes of the protesters as they confronted the Burmese Foreign Minister to YouTube. I expected that some who had attended the event might view the video, but the vastness of the media landscape and the seeming impenetrability of the institutional modes of mass communication made me skeptical that my single video could have an impact. However, after just one day on YouTube, the video had been viewed over 6,200 times and was the “#26 Most Viewed” of the day and the “#66 Top Favorites” of the day in the category “News & Politics”. As of December of that year the video had been viewed by 22,427 individuals. The Democratic Voice of Burma, a radio and satellite television station in Norway that delivers media to the resistance movement in Burma contacted me and requested the footage which they then transmitted by satellite into Burma. Warf & Grimes (1997) discuss such counter-power applications of communication technologies:

A powerful counterhegemonic use of the Internet is the ability to communicate intersubjective knowledge – as much an attribute of hypertext as innate in the Internet. People from different places, with radically variant experiences, are able to convey a notion of what it is like to be them, to live their lives, via the Net. For example, the production side of the commodity chain no longer is shielded when one reads an essay, written by a shoe-factory worker, that describes conditions where Nike shoes are made. In an ideal situation these texts are written by the individuals who are involved, not by experts or elites, and are unfiltered.

And what about the digital divide? How does this affect access to this unfiltered, primary source reporting? Quoting a Pew study, Kreimer (2001) notes:

“Penetration of the Internet has already achieved the levels associated with radio in 1930 and television in 1955,” and the access divide is rapidly narrowing. Already, the American gap in Internet access between women and men, and between urban and rural residents, has vanished, and the rates of Internet connection among Hispanic and African Americans are rising more rapidly than the rates among the racial majority.

In addition, the ʻold mediaʼ now pick up and re-broadcast internet communication so that it reaches audiences through television, print and radio. An individual is unlikely to have satellite dishes, broadcasting stations, or the ability to reach tens of thousands of people – internet communication technologies afford this ability to communicate and allow individuals to participate and distribute information on a much larger scale. As barriers to accessing the internet are reduced by the increasing penetration of mobile phones with the ability to access the internet, these information technology tools of counter-power are becoming not only more accessible but vital to resistance.

Monk Video

A flip cam for every monk?

Resisting Institutional Power

Discussing economic boycotts as a strategy against the U.S. wars of imperialism, Arundhati Roy (2004) writes:

…already the Internet is buzzing with elaborate lists of American and British government products and companies that should be boycotted. These lists are being honed and refined by activists across the world. They could become a practical guide that directs and channels the amorphous but growing fury in the world. Suddenly, the “inevitability” of the project of corporate globalization is beginning to seem more than a little evitable.

Roy describes the state of ʻold mediaʼ in the Network Society as an “old buffalo” surrounded by a swarm of bees; the New Media. “The old buffalo is the text, the bees are the hyperlinks that deconstruct it. Click a bee, get inside the story.”

Internet mediated communication technologies are these bees, they are technologies of resistance in the face of the Network Society and the ʻold mediaʼ power grab for new forms of institutional power. When Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr. of the Iraq Veterans Against the War was assaulted by Capitol Police as he waited in line to witness the testimony of Gen. David H. Petraeus on the occupation of Iraq, the attack was captured on video by a witness with a camera-equipped mobile phone. The video was uploaded to YouTube and became one of the most viewed clips, registering millions of views. Speaking to an Anti-War demonstration in front of the white house in 2007, Rev. Yearwood referenced the incident and its implications for participatory technology in the network society when he proclaimed “The revolution may not be televised but it will be uploaded!”

Cyberactivists answer this call when they report on injustice, communicate dreams for future social justice, and when they upload, post, and resist.

But what about Ah Wei, the foxconn factory worker?  He continues building the tools that cyberactivists will use to document and upload.  When protesters coordinate by SMS, videotape an arrest or live blog a call for solidarity, they’re doing it on one of the iPhones that stained his hands black in the factory.  So who is Ah Wei to them, who is he to you and I?  Is he collateral damage in the war against the greater threat of hegemonic powers and the continuing rise of global capitalism?  Is he an unwilling soldier in a mock battle, making high-tech toys for spoiled kids playing revolutionary?  Are he and his fallen brothers and sisters martyrs in a struggle for the soul of humanity?  Or is he just another guy trying to survive and support his family? As I think about whether to replace my iPhone with another, or with any number of other products made in factories like this, I’ll be thinking about these questions, and about that man or woman working for 12 hours to make the device, who isn’t permitted to speak to the others working next to him.

ACTION: You can join a campaign to hold Apple accountable for the conditions in their manufacturer’s factories here.

iPhone Suicide

UPDATE: The most recent reports suggest Foxconn will be closing their mainland China operations, putting as many as 800,000 out of work.  Do they think this is going to decrease the number of suicides?  There’s also an invigorated consumer drive for fair trade phones.  Labor unions are protesting Apple and Foxconn at technology trade shows and worker protests in China appear to be spreading with the Financial Times reporting that “workers keep themselves up to date on strike action via mobile phones and QQ, an instant messaging tool.”

Partial Cyberactivism Bibliography

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