Re: Action? - Software for political protest

Short thesis

Once the social media bubble bursts and the institutions in place prove to be more efficient than online petitions, once physical protests are met with police brutality and legal ignorance, what are other avenues are left for an effective political action?

As technologists, programmers and designers, we know how to create and use software. As we try to get involved in political action, technology is often our first choice. But how efficient has our use of technology been so far?

This talk will take a look at the essence of the political protests of the past and the present, and examine how software changed it, for good and for bad. It will include a theoretical, legal and practical overview of what makes a political protest efficient, as well some of the tools that exist or could exist in order to push them further.


This session will be a talk about the possibilities for developing and using software in order to enable pro-active political actions.

Most of the technologies developed recently for political and citizen action seems to actually be developed for citizen re-action. Cryptography and privacy software reacts to invasive government surveillance and corporate tracking. Social media movements react to the biased information of the mass media. Data visualizations react to the obfuscation of actions, from drone strikes to the carbon footprints of server farms. Bots spit out facts on the internet without directing them specifically at anyone.

In parallel, it seems that our current tools of political protest (worker strikes, demonstrations, public petitions, etc.) are not as effective as they once were. Recurrent protest movements in western democracies such as the U.S (e.g. the Black Lives Matter movement), in France (the Nuit Debout movement), in Spain (Indignados) or in Greece have not had the expected outcome of their organizers, failing to curb police violence, states of emergency, austerity measures and extra-territorial financial intervention. Once the protests die down and the media attention goes away, it is business as usual. It seems that those means for political action -violent, street-level protest- have become less relevant in face of the shifting structures of power they are meant to counter.

It has become clear now that those structures of power have become more and more decentralized, less bound by specific physical nodes and more tied to information relations, mostly through the development of digital communication technology. Networked communications and social media have had the same effect for political organizations, starting up movements and uprisings such as the Arab Spring or the Umbrella Revolution, and yet it does not seem to be enough to change the long-term status quo of the balance of power. The question I will be asking, then, is how can we also use these tools to support active political protest so that we can, once again, make them relevant to fight against the negative actions and behaviours of the current political, economical and technological authorities?

This talk will first focus on a historical account of how political actions have evolved during the past century (from early european revolutions to the Civil Rights Movement, the NetFlood Zapatista campaigns, Ocuppy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter), and how some of them achieved success for their agendas, and then focus on what is being done today/what can be done in the future. As such, I will present projects that are currently in development or are being developed around the world to actively put pressure on them and return agency to protesters as a group with legitimate political demands instead of simply “protesters”. I will look at the technical, legal and ethical implications of developing such tools and the potential impact that they could have if political activists could use software for action, on top of exclusively re-action and organization.