Rethinking “Liberation Technology”

Since the Arab Spring in 2011, there has been much ado in the democracy scholars community about “Liberation Technology,” the phenomenon of using almost any kind of technology to push for democratic political and social changes.

At the time, it did indeed seem like a marvelous concept to watch. I myself deeply examined Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution, and what I found was both inspiring and heart wrenching: Facebook events around the world holding solidarity, a YouTube video showing a woman named Nada gunned down in the street by the Revolutionary Guard, images of millions of people wearing green and holding their fingers in a peace sign around the Azadi Tower in Tehran. I hope my critique and expression of frustration with the academic dimension is not interpreted as undermining these images.

The term liberation technology, in my mind, has three problems. First, these cases of democratic change seem to fail more than they succeed, and even if they succeed, they are fragile and prone to failure (e.g. Ukraine). How can this be, if millions of people supported that change as evidenced by the liberation technology?  I acknowledge that many activists took to social media or recorded the protests at a great risk to themselves.  But there is a significant difference between posting something online and the hard, slow work of making a democracy work.  Moreover, I am not wholly convinced that every person participating in the technological aspect of the revolution is equally enthusiastic or prepared for this hard, slow work. I know that this scholarship is recent, but I am have not yet found a convincing application of the theories of liberation technology turned into the practice of creating a democracy.

Second, if I may digress into semantics, is the words “liberation” and “technology.”  I think in an effort to remain flexible with the word “technology,” it became too broadly encompassing. Did technology mean social media? Did it mean cell phones, smart and otherwise? Did it mean crowd sourcing online, regardless of platform? Did it include “old school” technology, like video cameras or tape cassettes (if so, then the Iranian Revolution of 1979 had the color revolutions of the 1990s and the Arab Spring beat by twenty years, and they should be given credit)?  This dovetails into the word “liberation.” Liberation from what? Dictatorship? Oppression? Western influences? Believers of other religions? How can a scholar tucked away in calm university settings dictate what is appropriate liberation, and what is simply rhetoric? Too often I see scholars choosing what they mean by these words to fit their cases, as opposed to having a clear definition before proceeding with their analysis.

This leads me to my third problem with liberation technology.  To give credit, I have seen it mentioned before.  The beauty of liberation technology is that it is easily available to anyone.  This means that it is not only available to every citizen, but also to every militia member, every government official, and every terrorist. Their rhetoric is that they are “liberating” their people from something – the West, anarchy, etc. Who is to say that they don’t believe it?  And they use a wide range of technology too – sometimes to spy on their own people, but sometimes to put out their own images too.  If technology was more specifically defined, this might help solve some of the problem – for example, if one says that physical technological objects are not liberation technology, then one would not be able to argue that using video cameras to spy on citizens is a form of liberation technology.  But a lot of it is inevitable.  A recent New York Times article discusses ISIS’s use of technology, and how they are truly quite talented.  What is a generalizable rule that separates videos of violence from rebels like ISIS from videos of other violence?  ISIS makes its videos to recruit new rebels. Activists make videos of violence to recruit more activists.  There is an intuitive difference between the two, and I believe that is what the democracy scholars are trying to say.  They just haven’t quite found the right way yet.

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