How have internet technologies impacted our idea of the public, communities, and our change agendas? Jac sm Kee examines the ways movement building and organizing affects and is affected by the digital age we are living in now.
Jac sm Kee is a leading figure at the intersection of digital technology and gender justice, and facilitates network and movement building on feminism and technology. She led the Women’s Rights Programme at the Association for Progressive Communications and is a team member of Malaysia Design Archive.
ResourcesSlide Presentation PDF Oxford Report on Social Media Manipulation Feminist Principles Of The Internet Reuters Article: The Mobilizing Power of the BTS Army
Mallika Dutt: Welcome to Leadership Moves, presented by Inter-Connected. I’m Mallika Dutt. Join Jac Kee in exploring how internet technologies have impacted our idea of the public, of communities, of organizing and movement building. Jac is a leading figure at the Intersection of Digital Technology and Gender Justice. She led the Women’s Rights Program at the Association for Progressive Communications and is a team member of the Malaysia Design Archive.
So a big welcome back for this session, for the first time I started out the first session by really honouring all of you, all of us, for the work that we’re doing, everything that we are dealing with around the world. For those of you who are fasting, I really appreciate the effort that you’re making to be here with us. So I want to go ahead and introduce Jac to you. I’m really excited about this session, because Jac is in Malaysia and we’ve had, as you might imagine, with all of the time zone issues, you know, an unfolding conversation across day and night with many sort of ripples and wrinkles along the way.
I’m particularly excited about this conversation at this moment because we were already living in a digital world unlike anything that we had ever imagined, and then the pandemic happened and it brought the importance of the space and how we inhabit our lives in these multiplicity of spaces into sharp focus in an even more acute way. So, the need for us to understand this space so that we can navigate it with skill and dexterity and joy even as we deal with all of the dangers and challenges of it has never been more important. And so today, we have this incredible feminist activist who has been working at the intersections of technology at the internet level, social justice and collective power for some time now.
She has addressed issues of sexuality, gender justice, feminist movement building in a digital age, internet governance, digital rights, movement building, open culture, I mean, all of the things that we’re trying to wrap our heads and our hearts around. And she brings this experience to us that is expansive and hyper local and networked and global at the same time as she’s razor sharp in creating campaigns and collaborations, like, Take Back the Tech!, the Feminist Principles of the Internet and many other such initiatives. She’s currently the founding member of the Malaysia Design Archive, Co-Director of Centre for Independent Journalism in Malaysia and she is now dreaming in a new fund, the Numun Fund which is going to be the first fund on feministic in the global south with a bunch of other dreamers. And so I am very happy to introduce to you, Jac.
Jac sm Kee: Hello. Nice to see some of you in this interesting, in this interesting space of our contemporary life which is Zoom call. So, I’m Jac and I’m based in Malaysia. Yeah, I’m really glad that Mallika, you know, really reached out and we had this great conversation just finding out about each other’s organizing histories and like, you know, the stuff that we’ve done and I’m really, really happy to be having this, yeah to be sharing some of the thinking that I’ve been doing with some really, some really incredible feminists along this kind of — like the thinking and framework was really germinated through many years with many actors. And a big part of it is when I was working with the Association for Progressive Communications Women’s Rights Program. So, a big part of this book was really also just stated in that space, when we were organizing a lot of movement building in a digital age work and has moved since then, so, it’s really this open, evolving series of thoughts.
And it’s really kind of around thinking about what has shifted in terms of movement building in this current time, really wanting to have a conversation about technology from a movement perspective rather than a specific thematic issue perspective. And hopefully, this is like, you know, this can sort of somewhat resonate with some of the thinking that you have been — or your experience in relation to this. So yeah, so as I mentioned earlier this is really a conversation about movement building in a digital age and it’s not really meant to be all encompassing or comprehensive or a definition, but more like a series of observations and thoughts and analysis that have come through all these different movements and encounters.
So, I guess the first question is, “What’s a movement?” And sort of broadly speaking, a movement has all of these different components within it. You know, they have all of these different moments and periods. So, here are the different components that generally sort of like is being seen as sort of movement dynamics. So, you have this moment of outrage in which you can organize and coalesce together, you think through and develop and design a shared political vision, you build community and then you take action, whatever that might be, achieve some kind of impact and enforce, pushes back and you have some backlash, and then you go back again to the very beginning. So, this is kind of like in very, very broad strokes thinking, like, you know, when we talk about movement we kind of we’re not talking about a singular activity. We’re not really talking about an organization. We’re not even specifically talking about sometimes an issue, but movements are much better, much better defined and assessed retrospectively.
So, it’s — you often only know it’s a movement when you look backwards, like “Oh, you know, was that really a movement that kind of generated a big impact and how big must it be?” And it’s also about kind of, I guess, about naming and recognizing our story, you know, our history. So yeah, broadly that’s kind of like a movement and this is where I also like to usually bring in like an example of a story. Instead now I’m going to talk about three stories, the three story of 2020, and the three stories of COVID and movement building and organizing in the time of the pandemic.
The first one is really something that is maybe very familiar, it’s crisis response. So, in the beginning, like, you know, probably in the beginning of March last year when most of the world was in lockdown, then the — a lot of civil society sort of moved into crisis response. We created and organized very quickly about trying to figure out okay, who needs support to buy groceries, where can we get food to different people, how can we get information here and there, donation drives, so on and so forth.
Even as we were all locked down, that was the fastest thing that we did and maybe this is probably familiar too, you know, like something that most people kind of like, also witnessed where you are, people taking to their phones or to Instagram and so forth and really organizing very rapidly, especially to respond to things where the states were slow to respond to, like government and civic, public service was actually quite slow to respond to, particularly to segments of community that was invisible. So, I show this two — in particular, these are what emerged in Malaysia and the first one was really a donation and food drive for the refugee community in Malaysia. Even though we have a large refugee population, we are not signatories to the UNHCR. So, that’s really literally no safety net, you can’t survive in this space. So, that was like, you know, really coming in together and organizing quite quickly for that. And then the second one these are for, and this emerged for, in response, particularly, I really liked it because it’s a group that came up during COVID time in East Malaysia.
So, Malaysia is divided into two parts and East Malaysia world is the richer part, it’s also the one that’s less invested in terms of infrastructure and is specifically focusing on trans-community and queer community in East Malaysia. So, now there’s almost like, yes, COVID but it has become more than that. So, from crisis response it has then evolved into different kinds of capacity building and so on and so forth. And that’s the first story and I think technology has always played a role in trying to figure out how to respond to this particular moment, it’s sort of like augmenting our capacity to be able to broadcast, reach out, coordinate and do logistics. And in times of crisis whether it’s — especially if you think, if you sort of look back into like situations of natural disasters and so forth, civil society has always been very good and very quick in responding to this way. So, that’s kind of like the first story.
And then the second story, the second story is the Zoom story. I really like this meme it’s very funny. It really feels like, the first time I saw it I just laughed. A Zoom call is like a séance, you know, where you go around a table and you go, “Hello, are you there? Is anybody there? Can you see me? Can you hear me?” So, trying to talk, it goes — this is a little bit funny, but basically what has happened is that a lot of activists and organizations has had to transition our work online. So, we are very used to coming like, you know, if you’re in organization we have this office infrastructure and dynamics where we come together, we have our meetings, we have all of our processes and protocols face to face. When we couldn’t move, we suddenly have to move and adapt everything online and Zoom became almost like the singular most important infrastructure for our organizing, it was certainly never designed to be this way. And I always say that Zoom calls reminds me a little bit of the, like, you know, the most brutal versions of 70s architecture that’s not very — yeah, that’s like this little square boxes that you are — square concrete boxes that you’re in and this is how we engage with each other.
But that’s kind of like the invisible part of our organizing last year, like we had all of these plans and all of these things that we wanted to do that we then ended up not being able to do and had to basically shift and adapt online and some of us were able to do this to better effect than others. And some of us were able to resource this much better than others, but that’s like the second reality and components of organizing that was an experience for us in 2020. And then the third one is really 2020 was also, surprisingly, a year of protests and these were, many of these were protest movement and organizing that was also happening 2018/2019 and I was wondering what would happen to some of these protests in 2020 when we are not, like one of the things can’t do is to be together in a community. But it was — there were so many protests and they were sustained and they were both online and offline and maybe to an extent maybe not so surprising, because what COVID also made very stark in our faces is disparity. And when you are kind of pushed and the disparity becomes so front and centre then maybe the only thing you can do is to protest.
And I ended with this image of a monk protesting in Thailand because I find it so interesting that the placard is saying, “We will not be blinded by your PR team no more.” So, it’s about speaking about this kind of like information, communications, scepticism, being very aware that reality is being presented in a very constructed way and that the public has access to the truth or the reality that is outside of this construction and that’s kind of a little bit about what has changed in terms of organizing and movement building in this moment now. Does that sound somewhat like familiar to your experience? Cool. Okay. So usually, when I kind of pick a story to talk about this I usually speak about protests was totally the 2020 experience and backlash, yeah, absolutely. So, that is exactly the point that I wanted to speak about in the next slide, which is what how technology has impacted on our — shifted into our idea of movement building in organizing is that first and foremost, it really expanded this notion of space.
And sometimes this kind of I have to re-emphasize this, this is probably not new anymore to most of you here, but sometimes we tend to think about the online and the physical as distinct and separate. But a lot of these, like even in these three kinds of very different ways of different facets of organizing, there is a flow, you know, that the online and the offline is really not separate from each other but in fact, it’s sort of like one flows from one to the other and then back again. The story I usually use to demonstrate this is kind of the MeToo movement and you can see that very distinctively where you have experience that took place in both online and off or and in person spaces that then gets spoken about and discussed in online spaces, which then moves back to an in person space towards different kinds of organizing towards for institutional access to justice, which then also most back online for greater dissemination, sparking protests on the ground and protest movement on the ground and back again.
So, you really see this kind of like flow and dynamic and that’s where it’s sort of it’s kind of like the key point to bring to this, you know, that it’s really about the flow, but the body is now also really capable of connecting across space and time. So, there is this politics of solidarity that is being enacted as well that I can see, that I’m able to actually somehow participate in a protest that’s taking place elsewhere and demonstrate my solidarity, because I’m bound with you politically or maybe I’m bound with you through a sense of like identity or values rather than geographically. So, for example, one of the — one of the manifestation of the system, Milk Tea Alliance. So the Milk Tea Alliance is basically the alliance between Hong Kong, Myanmar, Thailand, now also India, and also Indonesia, and Malaysia wanting to join in, which is about the shared love for milk tea in all of its different forms, in all of these countries that is also protesting at the same time.
So, really also extending and seeing each other in this moment and saying that our protests in this country is larger than ourselves and we’re signalling to each other in these different moments too, you know, making sure that you are paying attention to each other. And as what [Indiscernible] [0:16:05] saying is backlash is everywhere. So, you have the backlash on ground, but you also have the backlash online and that this, the backlash and the regulation is really taking place in all spaces. I think one of the thing to also say is that the digital space is always, always located in the physical. It’s not really like free floating somewhere out there, but connected to what happens in physical spaces.
And the specificity of the body that is also being linked to the embodiedness of this connection between the physical and the digital is also really key, I think, whose body has a real impact on what space they can have access to both online and offline. And this idea of the publics is that the online space is really not just — it’s not like, I think we’ve moved away from that by now, but for a while we kind of always think about technology as something that is, you know, maybe a tool or utilitarian that you want to wield it to help amplify a message or to reach out to people. But it’s kind of like a public space in and of itself, you know, it’s a space both for enacting our activism so we occupy this space for our activism, but it’s also in and of itself a site for contestation.
So, whose space is it? Whose discourse dominates this particular space? And it’s become also this increasingly important space for public and/or democratic participation, like we’ve never, like almost every single head of state has a Twitter account or a Facebook account. Never before in our, I think political history have we been able to reach out so directly to some like, an elected representative, you know, such direct communication. And also, governments are putting so much money into controlling discourse online. Malaysia is famous for hiring cyber troopers. So, really literally hiring people to monitor the internet, to create discourse, to create moral panics over gender and sexuality plus, plus often to choose specific individuals to make an example out of through arrest and so forth. So, this is really is to just to kind of, like demonstrate how critical this public online public space, how this critical this online space has become in terms of one of the publics that we engage in.
And it’s almost like this space for meeting making, right, like this discursive domain and it’s often harder to pin down compared to, for example, policy. A policy is very, very sensitive to the discursive and sometimes I feel like, you know, democracy is a little bit like a popularity contest, how you hold on to power and social media has become this kind of like ability for you to almost be very close to shaping this popularity. Yeah, that’s right. And there’s actually a report that was done some, a few months ago that looks at which can — which governments actually directly engaged in hiring or putting money into shaping online discourse and online content. So yeah, so just to kind of like, and to say that and to always pay attention to bodies that becomes objects of value struggles online. So this, like when something is happening online and there’s a lot of like, I almost want to call it like moral panic, right, like, everyone’s sort of like freaking out and debating something a lot.
It’s often queer bodies, gendered bodies, particularly marginalized bodies and also intersectional bodies. The report was published, I think, by Oxford something, I can send the link. I’ll look for it and then share that. It’s quite a useful, useful report. It’s quite heavy. It’s a totem, but I found it quite useful just to like scan through and see like, “Is my government in here? Is my country in here? And what have they been doing?” But yeah, so just to bring in that point as well and that’s like a really, really important point because I think a lot of feminists have been doing a lot of research as well on the anti-gender discourse and really seeing how gender and sexuality is always thrown into the space of conversation either as a way to kind of distract against something that’s happening, or as a way to kind of like create this sense of hyper nationalism, or as I just heard by another researcher who does work around feminism in China this kind of like a nationalist troll.
This is increasingly happening right now when nationalists trolls who’s being hired by the Chinese government is actually actively attacking young women over their conversations around feminism and using the accusation of, “You’re pro Hong Kong,” and really looking for images of them, like, you know, standing in solidarity to Hong Kong as a way to just shut them down. So, you see this nexus very clearly when you are actually paying attention to this particular intersections. So yeah, and finally, of course, access is a really, really key issue and it’s becoming even more key because we’re also talking about the ability to build skills in engaging in this new kind of emerging participatory space. So, how long you have had access for or how short I think it’s kind of like, these are the contexts in which actually really matters right now and how you are kind of like how you’re also able to kind of engage with this space. But it’s also interest — I think we’ll find this out a little bit later. I’m still kind of a little, like curious about it because there is specific culture, communication culture that is not only specific to context because the context also determines the access reality.
But then it also is at the same time simultaneously linked to the online platform itself, so and the community you’re part of. So, I’ll give you an example. Myanmar only had broader access to the internet very recently and it was because Facebook introduced free basics into Myanmar, which meant that for many years, for most people, internet in Myanmar equals to Facebook. That created huge problems and yeah, just created like really huge problems even.
And, in fact, kind of like, you know, to the point where Facebook was really being named as playing a key role in the genocide that happened a few years back against Rohingyas.
And in the recent, kind of in the recent protests, the recent, the on-going protests, one of the first things that the Myanmar — that the junta, Tatmadaw Junta restricted was Facebook. And they’re like, “We’re going to lock this down because that’s kind of where people were sharing. That’s where people were documenting. That’s where people were organizing.” So, they just closed that down — Facebook, Instagram, and also WhatsApp.
And so it was really created a moment of like, “Oh, no, we need to find like alternative space or a different way to try and figure something out.” But that, of course, happened VPN were being downloaded and like, you know, this app that allowed for Bluetooth communication happen. But that’s it has this — it sort of speaks to kind of the — like you really do need to be able to sort of build the skills to engage this space and to engage with this space in a very — in a way that is very aware of some of the limitations of it. And at the same time, it has its particular culture that is also emerging and unfolding, yeah.
So, let’s see, and access, of course, when we talked about the situation of COVID, access became even more pronounced because without everything was just assumed to be okay. You can’t move in person now, let’s just move everything online and there was an assumption that if you have device, you have connectivity, that’s fine. And then a lot of the government response was we are going to invest in technology, we’re going to lay down contact tracing technology, and this is going to solve all of our problems rather than investing on people or law or community resilience and what came out of that is often an exacerbation of inequality. Yeah.
And the other kind of shift that has come about in terms of and it’s maybe a much more hopeful one, in terms of the change in organizing the technology has brought about is in terms of the constellation of actors and that’s kind of really cool, actually. We are, if you look at this kind of like, messy network, we are much more familiar with the bottom half with who we understand as being nodes and actors in the movement, you know, you see membership networks, you see non-profit organizations, consortiums, coalition, transnational alliances, you see constituency based funds. So, these are the women’s funds or the LGBT funds or the disability fund. So, you see these are like people you kind of recognize and see as immediately being part of your movement ecosystem. But people that the kind of like top half, you don’t see them quite as clearly usually, you know, they are there, but they kind of like a little bit like, you only maybe — we only maybe see them.
Yeah, we only kind of like maybe see them if we feel like we need them. So, often we see like social media activists when we need to have an amplification or we feel like, you know, there’s this active organizing that’s taking place online, but we don’t know them and we need to reach out and build our lines. But this is kind of like what, how technology has afforded with all of its limitations and thoughts, what Valeria is saying is really true, like our reliance on social media, right. With all of its problematics as well, there is a very low cost, a much lower cost of access and participation into this public is at a very different entry point, is at the point of like individual interest is at the value level as I was mentioning earlier. So, you can form community in kind of like a different way and I want to sort of before this you could — there was a few actors that kind of grew fat and got large a little bit.
So, if we don’t see the ones who are on top as being part of the movement, and they’re the ones who are very much usually actively online sort of doing things and engaging in all kinds of conversation and so forth, then when they face backlash, we don’t see them, like we are not able to extend our solidarity or support to them, if we don’t see them as part of the movement in our strategies and in our organizing, you know, and in our alliance building. And if we don’t — and often, especially and I often have this conversation when I was doing a lot of engagement with donors and funds as well. We just circulate resources to the bottom half and they miss out most of the people on the top half. When they are actually also, this is the scale and the size and the diversity of the movement right now. These are the leaders that are distributed and organizing and doing things but are often kind of under resourced and left, maybe a little bit disconnected from the more familiar forms of formal organizing and that’s something for us to think through, right, no matter where we sit.
And it’s interesting to then look at this thing and figure out where do you sit right now and where do you also sit? So, often we sit in several different places at the same time and if you do then you are an important connective tissue. If you sit in more than one of these nodes, then you are an important connective tissue. And I wanted us to pay attention to free radicals and free radicals are basically those who have one foot in organized activism and one foot in distributed activism and they are critical connectors. So, they are often the people that we see in some of our organized spaces. So, the designers, the translators, the facilitators, the trainers, the documenters, the ones who kind of like, we know them and they come into like, you know, we invite them into organizing spaces, but often not as a sustain thing in strategizing. But they are very, very critical as connective tissues really connecting between kind of distributed, informal organizing as well as formal organizing, and who may or may not, I used to — there was a time when I call free radicals like sandwiches, you know, like those who are very skeptical towards formal organized activism, but at the same time still has faith in systemic change.
So, like being able to see many pieces of this at the same time, but yeah, it’s good to get to know who your free radicals are and invite them more closely into alliance and into the planning of like movement organizing work. And then the other one is also, I wanted us to pay attention to the content creators, cultural workers, fandoms and community of nerds because really, culture is such a powerful driver of change right now. The domain of change, I think this is the accidental side effect of social media that we didn’t expect or I certainly didn’t expect, which is this democratization of star power. And this like facilitation of the creation of culture sort of like everybody could not only participate in culture, but very visibly shape it as well through your participation and it’s so quick and it’s so alive and it’s also very organized. So, I’ll tell you a little story about K-pop activism. So, maybe you heard about it but last year was the year of protests, you know, and maybe you heard that K-pop fandom raised US $1 million for Black Lives Matter in 25 hours.
The K-pop stans which is basically the fandom is really very, very, it’s a whole ecosystem in and of itself. It’s extremely organized. It’s very, very, very, very clever and very aware of the space that they’re in, the dynamics of the space that they’re in. So, the — part of their work is to raise basically always make sure that they are idol is trending or that they are basically getting eyeballs to videos the minute that it’s being watched. They’re very aware of how to play with the dynamics of social media. And so one of the things that they have also always been doing is, in fact, they have always been fundraising for different kinds of causes. And if — and this didn’t only, I mean, they got a lot of visibility last year because of the, you know, when they found out that BTS, which is basically the largest K-pop group in the world right now raised, like donated a million to Black Lives Matter. They matched it and managed to like raise this million in a year, sorry, in a day, in 25 hours and then they really got like that attention.
But they also raised like, the K-pop communities in Thailand raised 100,000, a million Thai baht so about US $100,000 more than, again, more than a million Thai baht, US $100,000 for protesters also in the middle in July last year because after they saw one of the protesters being treated very roughly by the police officers and being hit by water cannon and that got them very angry and they are actually, “We should not be treated this way.” They need supplies. They fundraise for helmets and mask and so forth like, yeah, and they also organized like a boycott. So, don’t pay for advertisement for these, like, you know, companies who are not supporting the protesters. So, they have immense power and this is really a power of very organized collective and it’s very connected to kind of artists and music and so forth as well. And not only K-pop like another example I can give is the singer songwriter in Indonesia. In 2019, there was this one law that was being pushed forward by the Indonesian government to say, “Oh, all music station has to play six,” I can’t remember how many now, but like, you know, a certain percentage of local Indonesian music because we want to protect our musical heritage.
But as a musician, they saw through it to see actually what the government wants to do is to license all singer songwriter and to make it much more difficult for singer songwriters to actually make an income outside of this particular system. So, they organized and then they realize that, “Oh, wow, we have power because we’ve got fans and our fans are able to then shift certain things.” So, there’s something that’s happening here about this connection between what is this notion of public and also like a public that is younger that is very, very skilled and in understanding the dynamics of this space and able to subvert it in a way that, you know, makes sense to them. Not only in terms of fundraising, they also did like a bunch of things, which is to hijack, you know, to occupy hashtags, to make it not bookable anymore, and so on and so forth. And also just on K-pop, many of the fandoms young, queer and are women, younger women so that there’s also something that’s very interesting that’s happening there in terms of demographics, right.
So, I pause there and in fact, yeah, I’ll share you a link on if you are interested in this that sort of unpacks the anatomy of how K-pop were able to mobilize so quickly, or specifically not K-pop, but just the fandom of BTS is fascinating, like just amazing.
Mallika Dutt: I mean these are fascinating stories, really, really helpful reminders. I think particularly for those of us in non-profit social justice spaces to think much more expansively about who we’re incorporating into our understanding of movement space. I know for me, just listening to this, and I pay a lot of attention to all of this and I know for me it’s already has all these light bulbs popping.
Jac sm Kee: Yeah, I think the only other thing I wanted to say is that the Chilean government was the only one that really recognized the — like they had a report after the 2019 protests to try and find out like, you know, who, what were the different forces and who was playing an active role and you’re trying to like figure out what was happening in terms of the mobilizing and they are like, K-pop. They were very influential. So, there’s a huge K-pop community in Latin America. So, it’s really funny if you think about it, right like Korea is a tiny country, but the kind of cultural reach and the organizing that also happens from space to space in all of these different countries it’s really, it’s really something. So yeah, in terms of like, you know, what the activities that we organize or the spaces that we convene or the things that we participate in, I think we often think about culture. We’re always trying to, for want of a better word, we’re always trying to maybe instrumentalize art or instrumentalize culture, like we always think it needs to have a purpose.
It needs to like, we need to do art for human rights, we need to do art for something, but you sort of see like, actually, this is a very critical part of being of really surfacing — putting to the surface how we want to be as a society, what are the values that we share, what’s important, how do we signal to each other. And it’s instead maybe a space for huge learning to try and figure out like, you know, what’s — how are some things emerging and the values of it and maybe just kind of, yeah, be in this, like, be in non-purposeful spaces sometimes is quite critical just to be able to allow ourselves there. I know, like, we don’t have the luxury of that often because that’s how our economy is, right, like the economy of grant making and proposals and so forth, like every objective needs to have an outcome and an indicator rather than simply be. But maybe the outcome and indicator is just to learn and to grow community and to grow this notion of like, you know, who is this community and the movement and how do we build stronger bonds without trying to always make something happen.
Anyway, this is just me like, blah, blah, blah. Okay. So yeah, so let’s get back to the slide. They are big with Brazilian youth. Yeah, I remember, like a colleague of mine actually going for a K-pop concert and I’m like, “What?” But I have been to one. Okay. So, the next one is the shift in terms of dynamics of organizing. So, what has been really interesting here is that there is a mash up between social and political capital. So really, if you have huge social capital you also have the ability to influence politics and values. This means that people with huge amounts of followers and influencers you actually then also become identified as someone with huge, you know, huge power and that we would like to be an ally ship with you or we want you to basically, like be able to. Yeah, I think I’ve been for quite a few sort of activists organized spaces that’s really trying to see how can we work better with social media influencers in our space, and so forth.
But really, it’s kind of like two different universe and two different ways of economy circulation, connecting together and understanding this is quite critical, you know, like, trying to see that actually politics and values is actually a part of your identity. So, if you see in a kind of like, maybe your Twitter or your handle and so forth, there’s a little bit of something in there that sort of describes not just who you are, but your attitude in life or things that you believe in and the values that you hold on to. So, that’s like social media it’s like quite an important space for conceptual solidarity that you just share to each other this is how you connect. Then the other thing that is, you know, interesting to bring up is this idea of both autonomy and the collective. So, one of the things that is increasingly the manifest is that any — especially if you look at it’s both at the same time. So, you have this very strong personalities, for example, you have very strong personalities and people with huge followers but then you also have things which are being organized that is very distributed.
So, you don’t necessarily have one organization or one head of organization that is holding or organizing the protests, but things are happening in multiple sites at the same time. And leaderless organizing is being held up as a very important value right now, especially in a lot of youth led movement to mixed, to different effect. I think we are trying to figure out how leaderless organizing can actually manifest in the way that also helps us to be able to make decision, be able to move and to make decisions and to be able to kind of like exercise autonomy because your shared political vision without always having to do a consensus. So, for example, in Thailand, they were using Telegram polls to make decisions, like collective decision making during the protests and trying to like do this via polls of Telegram, which did not really — but it was too bifurcated and maybe not quick enough for when you have to de-escalate or when you have to make a quick decision about doing something. But it does allow for distribution and for quick correlation of like, of agreements, but it can also sometimes hide power and sometimes doesn’t really allow for clarity.
So, I think all of these things are really interesting to think about in terms of how autonomy in the collective is manifested as a reality in a dynamic today. And then, of course, culture is power, I was talking about that earlier, the revolution will be likely to. And yeah, it really is also, I think, maybe there is something about the way in which it’s about publishing and broadcasting and signalling, and also for memetic conversations that the visual language becomes also very key. And that the visual language and the distribution of signs and symbols, this is not new, I guess, it’s something that we’ve always kind of known, right, in politics it’s very effective and you have a quick sign and a symbol that can gesture to each other. But I think what has happened is that it’s also been given this few and this platform to accelerate and for greater participation in. So, you’re able to kind of like, belong in a way that is much more about effective. Yeah, that sense and I spoke already about the democratization of star power and popularity.
So yeah, definitely it is powerful. I mean, sorry to keep talking about K-pop, but Blackpink, which is this other really huge K-pop band. They’re releasing a song as part of COP26. It’s a UN Multilateral Process in Climate Change, but they’re releasing this specifically a music video to, you know, to tell their 60 million over fans to really get engaged and figure out how they can participate in this process. So, it’s powerful. Yeah. And that this idea of who is community is shifting, you know, in that sense. So, yeah, the reason sort of, like I wanted to talk about pace is that sometimes I don’t — so there is this kind of like, the idea that a movement has to be something that lasts for a long period of time and then you kind of know that it’s a movement, if it’s been around for like, you know, X number of years. But there’s something about technology that has, you know, interfaced so much without organizing, and technology, especially, I think when I say that, I also specifically mean social media as an infrastructure. That really encourages very quick action, you know, that’s what it wants.
That’s the business model, right, the more engagement, the more interaction, the more data, the more I’m able to then be able to generate this into some kind of — some kind of income. That it also maybe messes a little bit with our sense of like, the pace of organizing and I’m not quite sure which way it is falling right now. Whether we are talking about like is something’s kind of like emerge and then they disappear because some impact has happened or it’s about connecting all of these different small dots into a larger arc, maybe. But yeah, there’s something about pace that is interesting to think through. And this is really just kind of like a pretty kind of standard image to see the dynamics or the — yeah, the dynamics of movements of organizing, like a wave. So, you have this period of peaks where it’s very, very visible. So, you have the protests, you have the backlash, you have the tags, you have to shut downs, you have the — so these are moments, which is like very much in the spotlight and lots of things are happening and it’s hyper visible.
And this, and especially when you think about kind of like social media organizing and when it’s really circulating around this politics of visibility that’s when we see, we recognize it and we put a lot of resources into it. The resources in terms of understanding, doing research, supporting the work, the metrics that we see in terms of impact so that’s kind of like where we pay a lot of attention to. And then the kind of the periods before and after, which is actually really critical to build towards these peaks are the bits that is strengthening out the infrastructure of our organizing and our movements. So, it’s really about analysing the situation. It’s about convening and holding space, organizing building skills and so forth, resting and taking care of each other and how we sort of practice and enact our activism. And so, for example, a lot of us see what — I’m sorry, I keep bringing up K-pop. I don’t know why. It’s like the most — I think I spend a lot nerding out over it recently, but it’s kind of like front and centre in my brain.
But if you see a lot of like, kind of the fascination, right, like, oh my god, they raised this amount of money. They managed to get nobody attended in. The TikTok users managed to make sure that Trump’s first rally was empty because they organized to buy tickets and so forth. So, that’s like the top moment, but you kind of don’t see the bits which is more invisible. The part around the organizing, the part around the building community, the part around like, you know, how do we strengthen our skills, how do we understand this space that we are engaging with right now so that we can also be able to be more effective in our strategies for change, so on and so forth. So, these pieces are the pieces in fact that we should be released that we — that it would really support us if you can spend more energy and more time thinking through. So, for example, I wonder if last year was maybe one of the years, you know, there was so much was also happening and we did say it was a year of protests, right and it was also a year of like, so much visibility.
But it was also a year of kind of like having to slow down because suddenly all of the activities that was being planned could not take place. There was no like, you know, no events to travel to, no events that you had to hold, but maybe people had to hold them online and we have been for so many, so many, so many, so many online things. But it also kind of allowed us to maybe pay attention to actually what is it that we are using in terms of our infrastructure for organizing the mundane and the everyday. Where does the everyday — what does the everyday movement building work look like in this kind of context where there are so many sites and many moments of peaks, like, do we just only kind of pay attention there, but where else? Where else do we do the work of consensus building, of sharing vision and leadership, of enacting solidarity of like, you know, figuring out all these different new actors and so forth? So, that’s like, yeah, a question that I’m also wondering how this is.
Finally, given all of this, really, what’s super critical is to pay attention to the politics of technology infrastructure. So, even as you’re saying that there’s all of these new publics that are emerging, that there is like, you know, this lower point of access into public space, there’s much more access and so forth. All of our public squares are privatized. So, what does it mean when they are privatized publics and not only privatized, but most of them are cited in the US unless you are organizing, like, yeah, most of them are said that in the US if you’re organizing in Chinese language than in China, or some of them as of Korean and Japanese apps, but all of them are privatized. So, then what does that mean? So, for example, when you’re not blocked FB suddenly access to your public is gone and then in India during the farmer’s protests Twitter was being blocked. And then, on the other side of it, you have Twitter and Facebook suspending Donald Trump whilst he was the president of the United States of America, ostentatiously one of the most powerful personal political leader in the world.
Who do they answer to? Who are they accountable to? What does it mean when a corporation can shut down a representative leader like that? Like, what is the power of corporations here and what does it mean when all of our infrastructure that we invest in for our organizing is fuelling a particular form of techno capitalism? Zoom shares went up by 425% in 2020 and we still use Zoom, even though Zoom was the first place to be vulnerable, like Zoom bombing was the first thing that happened, and it was targeting sort of gender and sexuality as though we had no choice. And maybe we had very little choice, which is outrageous, considering how much the billions of dollars that’s been put into Silicon Valley to develop technology. Why are we in this space of so little choice? What does that mean, you know, in terms of like the infrastructure that we rely on for our day to day? Where do we put all of our data in organizing? How many of us are using Google Drive? What does it mean when a single company owns about 90% of all of like, you know, is custodian of 90% of all of the data of activism around the world?
It’s something to think through and we spoke a little bit about, yeah, kill switch and closing down of accounts and what does it mean when we are forced into tech adoption that makes us feel kind of disempowered when there are black boxes, but we are not allowed to open into it and understand it. When technology makes us feel like it’s something that somebody else is making or that experts are more aware of. That in order for us to feel secure or in order for us to have control over our memory we need to outsource it to an expert or we need to bring somebody else from some, like what does all of that mean in terms of our ability to create organizing spaces for ourselves given that technology is imbued and woven into all of it?
And what about the kinds of the space that we — the skills that we need to have in the capacity that we need to have in order to do this? And of course, what is the pace of our organizing, and if we are running our work according to the pace that’s being set up by a corporation that’s really not interested in slowing down? Like, you know, the whole business model is about engagement, the more engagement, the more money, the more quick, the more you forget, and move on to the next thing, the more outraged and angry and emotive you are, the better it becomes.
Then, what does that do to our own pace of being and our own pace of organizing? How do we take back some control in relation to this? What kinds of like, you know, it’s really — it’d be technology infrastructure is one of these things that you will always see as quite utilitarian maybe or it’s something that is a little bit scary or you don’t really know about it. We are always made to feel a little bit, like we don’t know enough when it comes to tech and we need to fit that, like it’s kind of like, yeah, it’s about everything that we do and all that we are. So, we do know it and if you don’t know then it’s a problem with the system and the structure. Yeah. Okay. So, I will pause there, and actually end there maybe, and open it up for conversation.
Mallika Dutt: Just digesting all of that incredible information, I feel like we’ve been on this huge landscape journey of where we are now. So helpful and so many blind spots that I have had that I hadn’t really even understood and reflected on and really the juxtaposition that you’re putting out in terms of the pleasures and the possibilities of organizing and movement building in this digital space are enormous. And then all of the questions that you left us with around all the questions of not just access, but way beyond access are really sobering, very sobering. So, I’m just kind of taking a breath to digest all of that and I invite the folks who are part of this conversation to switch on their screens, if they are willing to do that because it’s always lovely to see your faces and to invite any reflections or questions that you might have.
Valeria Cerda: Jac thank you so much. For sharing all that knowledge I think that was — I was reflecting a lot on a lot of the things that you were saying because I think in some way, shape or form at some point in time, I feel like I had this quick thought about like, what about like, what are we doing to create our own data systems? Where are we storing our data? Like, how are we creating movement, you know, infrastructures just kind of those things that you’re mentioning, and I don’t know, maybe because it seems like it’s such a big project. I would like dismiss and be like, “Okay, I’ll think about that some other time.” and I feel like there will be this moment where we all have to like face that where like we are fragile and we’re not set up to like, run part of the show. And so, and I also try to like, picture it like, you know, even like when a pack of like lions in the jungle when they attack a gazelle, like, you don’t see one lion like taking a bite out of the gazelle, right. It’s like a community of folks taking a bite off something and like having like that shared project.
So, I always ask myself, like, “What’s that bite? What’s that one thing I’m doing that’s a part of that shared project when it comes to like, movements at it?” because I think I’m really passionate about that and really curious. I’m like, “What does it look like to create our infrastructures like, what’s that one small piece that I could take on?” Then maybe makes the project seem not so scary, and not so like, enormous because it almost feels just like a monster that I wouldn’t even know where to start.
Jac sm Kee: I totally understand what you mean when it feels like, “Oh my God we have to build a movement infrastructure and that just sounds huge because we’re talking about infrastructure.” But if you think about it in every single thing that we do every time we adopt a new technology and we are — and then we sort of send that Google Drive link to our partners and say, “Hey, can you access this,” and I’m using this email and so forth. We are actually building movement infrastructure. It’s just that it’s externalized. We are — do you see what I mean? Like, every time you do something you’re enacting a practice and then it sort of encourages it and then it grows outwards. Or every time I say, “Let’s have a WhatsApp group,” you’re creating a movement infrastructure on WhatsApp. So, if instead of going, “I’m going to build a WhatsApp group.” Let’s say, “Oh, let’s try this other thing, whatever it is,” you know, like, let’s try, even if it’s like, and you’re going to have all these security experts telling you nothing is more secure than XYZ. It doesn’t matter.
It’s like, have the ability and confidence to be curious. I think that’s the most important thing just to feel that I’m just going to test a few things out and see because, you know, I have access to the internet and I can find things out. And then I’m going to see who else is curious with me to try and check a few things. And for organizations, if you are an organization and you’re able to then — and if you already work in coalition with a few other organizations then also think about how you pull resources to be able to afford better tech. So, for example, if you’re saying, “Oh, you know, we can’t afford our own servers or our own databases because it’s just going to cost too much and we’re only a small organization, etc.,” but five organizations pulling funds into hosting like a server space to then with activist servers and say, you know, “We really want to be able to have like, our own server space, can you help us out? We don’t know much. How much does it cost? How can this be sustainable?”
Even beginning that conversation I think it’s a good way to start and nowhere more than now. I think COVID actually helped us to be much more expansive in our thinking rather than think about infrastructure as individual or organizational, how do we think about it at community and network and movement level? So, one example I can give you is that there were a few kind of like, because video was such an important thing. So, then a few organizations got together, a few tech activists got together and spoke to a few organizations and said, “You guys have budget? Can you guys pull together your budget to hire this server space so that we can install this video conferencing platform on this server space so we don’t have to use Zoom? That can be more secure for activists and we can test it out and try it out and see if this can work.” So, that’s one idea and an example of sharing infrastructure but really, we are doing it. I think the point to do that is like you said like that one small bite, like we’re doing it all the time. So, just one practice will actually make a big difference kind of moving forward.
Mallika Dutt: Jac I have a question while we’re waiting for other folks to ask questions. Where is your joy coming from these days, like what’s really giving you juice? What’s exciting you, what’s making you like, get up in the morning and go, “Oh, yeah,” besides K-pop, you know, just asking.
Jac sm Kee: I mean, I’m not even a K-pop Star and I wish I am now, but like that does bring me joy just makes me feel very hopeful like, geez, you know, the level of creativity and yeah, and energy that people are putting like, large groups of people are putting into things that I am not aware of and can be connected to and learn and participate that gives me a lot of joy. And as problematic as Google is I love the University of YouTube, like I learn so much on the University of YouTube. I’m so glad that YouTube allows individuals to actually like be self-sustainable by producing content that’s just freakin brilliant, like the amount of things I’ve learned there’s not enough activist content. I mean, like organizing and activism is skills and I don’t know, this is the thing I’m also wondering, like, where are we building skills on organizing and how are we sharing these skills of organizing, you know, like, in a protest moment, for example, you always need to negotiate the — you always need the person who’s watching out for the sides.
You always need the person who’s like, you know, in touch with the lawyers, the people who stick, who’s de-escalating. You need all of these roles, but in this decentralized youth led distributed movements, where are we learning these skills? Where is this happening? Like, maybe activists need to also like yeah, where is our university of activism YouTube? I think that’s one thing I would love to see also.
Urvashi Butalia: If I can just say that it’s really interesting and really nice to hear stories from another part of the world, from the global south because the context is something that you can immediately relate to. So, I really enjoyed your presentation very much, learnt a lot from it and my question was really an extension of Mallika’s that in the face of all this, where’s the joy coming from? Where’s the hope coming from? But you responded to that. Thank you.
Jac sm Kee: What’s your joy when it comes to technology? Is there joy? What’s the emotional landscape of everybody when you think about technology? I should have asked this question in the beginning, you know, what’s your emotional health? What is the first emotion you have when you think about tech and what’s the emotion that you have right now?
Marcel Pereira: I’m a big sci-fi fan. So, everything technology is always interesting to me. So, that’s where part of my joy comes like, when I am really depressed, I find — go for a sci-fi classic and I spend a couple of hours reading it and it makes me happy. And also, you’re talking about K-pop like, that’s from your context, here in Brazil, something that like, drives people around it’s Big Brother, the TV show, Big Brother and the soap operas. And it is actually like, we had like the Big Brother, I don’t know if everybody’s familiar with, but it’s like a reality show where people is in a house and they have some competitions among them. The public vote people out of the show as the weeks go on and there’s an interaction with politics and entertainment in that show because, for example, you see that like, well, a character was like the number one in the show and then she said that — someone that was in favour of Bolsonaro and then she was put out of the show.
And that was in a certain way showing some shift is in politics that were happening. On the other hand, you see everybody start talking about the characters dividing them on which side of the political spectrum they are like, so there’s a big interaction there. And you see that that part of the progressive right it knows how to use it but you see that like, for example, the progressive left it has a harder time using that kind of resources when talking to their public. So, when you were speaking about that, those are things that I was thinking about it. It came to my mind. Not saying in the last point, you talk — I mentioned on the chat the Shoshana Zubov ‘Surveillance Capitalism’. And in the book like, she paints a very scary scenario on how all the digital media it’s used to capture data Fi Life to produce data that it used to predict and control behaviour of people on all aspects.
But she also brings a point that well, we are in this world, like that’s not much we can do to change it. What we have to do is to enforce policies that can control how those giant corporations spread and how their power grows. And that it is possible, it has been done before with television, it has been done with marketing, it has been done with psychology in mental health policy. So, it can be done. We can control it. We can. We need to bring social control on that and her point is that like well, if you want to do activism today, if you want to do social movement today, you cannot forget that you need to advocacy for digital rights. Doesn’t matter where you are, doesn’t matter what’s our agenda, you need to make advocacy for digital rights.
Jac sm Kee: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a really important point. I think you kind of like not only one is you really, yeah, the disconnect you mean in terms of more traditional forms of organizing and then sort of this emerging organizing that’s happening, you know, between the top and the bottom. It’s a familiar thing and part of it is also generational and generational through kind of likes organising movement generation. So, different language, different reasons, so forth but this connection is really key because there’s no two eras that’s not influencing each other. So, we need to figure out and be this kind of like boundary, call it like boundary magicians, you know, you kind of have to be in this intersection and then figure out how do we connect and the free radicals I was speaking of they are really critical connected tissues, really look around and see who are the connecting tissues to help be this almost like interlocutors to create space for cross conversation and not intergenerational in terms of like, “Oh, elders teach the younger one,” or “Younger ones teach the older ones.”
It’s kind of not really that. It’s really how do we make sense of the now, right and to pull that together. And absolutely engaging in digital rights activism as part of your activism, whatever movement you’re in is quite key because it does interface with everything that we’re doing in more and more ways whether we — whether it’s currently visible or not. And if there is no language then it’s the best time because you are defining and you’re creating the framework and the language. If you’re — or I also want to introduce like the Feminist principles of the Internet, he just left, but that also is a really useful set of like, you know, political framework to think about technology in that sense, which was something that we worked on. And transparency in tech, like, really understanding how some things were breaking down huge monopolies. We shouldn’t have to live in a world where 10 companies control everything. That’s crazy, actually. It sort of evolved this way, but it should not continue.
Mallika Dutt: I think some of the last sentences Jac that you said really made me think about, you know, when you said we need to be magicians. There is almost the sense of magic that we need to be invoking into our work and into our organizing because we are in such an emergent place. Things are collapsing around us. Things are changing dramatically around us and a lot of ways there is such great potential to co-create different ways of living and being together on this planet. Such deep movements around decolonizing old ways and so many creative movements around imagining new ways of being together. And so the magician metaphor for me, the alchemical process, the science fiction, futuristic imagination process, the high priestess, all of it is just such an incredibly important way for us to engage. And, you know, in whatever ways we can, yes, we are in our organizations, but we’re multiplicities of identities. So, what’s the free radical that lives in all of us?
What’s the free radical that is unbounded, unfettered, unrestrained that is outside of the organization that we are a part of, the build community, the Ford Foundation, all which are important, but what’s the, you know, what’s the free radical that exists in you that is dying for expression that just wants to bust out and burst out and be playing a little bit more in this world that we are bringing in, dreaming in together, if you will. So, thank you. Thank you so much. I know how late it is for you, Jac and for so many people who are still on this call. One of the things that I love the most about technology is that it allows these conversations to happen. That it allows people from 30 different countries to be engaged in these kinds of dialogues together even if it’s Zoom, even if our little boxes on the screen I think that is an amazing alchemy that is happening. Just even in these conversations that we’re having together as we’re dreaming in the new world.
This series of Leadership Moves is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation. Stay connected at mallikadutt.com. That’s M-A-L-L-I-K-A D- U-T-T dot com.
This series is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation.
“Inter-Connected Theme” composed by Devadas, (c) Mallika Dutt, LLC 2021.
Production team: Mallika Dutt, Devadas Labrecque, Ambika Pressman.