The low-tech vibe, partly born out of a structural necessity, has come to be symbolic of the movement itself. If Occupy is a thought experiment in questioning society and envisioning new possibilities, then the story of technology and Occupy is also about questioning the role modern technology has in our lives.
Excerpted from Nathan Jurgenson:
“The prevalence of smartphones, social media, videostreams and the like may be the dominant technological narrative told about Occupy Wall Street, but to focus only on high-tech is to tell a very incomplete story. The reality is that Occupy has also embraced non-electronic low-tech; not just out of necessity but politically and symbolically.
Examples are most obvious at the various occupation encampments. The low-tech vibe, partly born out of a structural necessity, has come to be symbolic of the movement itself. If Occupy is a thought experiment in questioning society and envisioning new possibilities, then the story of technology and Occupy is also about questioning the role modern technology has in our lives.
More conceptually, space and time are important technologies because the name “occupy” specifically refers to occupying physical space for an extended period of time. A march takes up space, but an omnipresent occupation with tents also takes up time. With the recent wave of police effort clearing occupations of their infrastructure, this balance of space and time becomes increasingly important and something I hope to expand on in a later post.
I am not arguing that these non-electronic examples are the whole story of technology and Occupy, but instead that this is an important and often neglected angle. For example, TIME’s Matt Peckham describes “the high-tech behind Occupy Wall Street’s low-tech message.” While Peckham does not articulate what that low-tech message might be, we can use his high-tech example, Tumblr, to discuss what might be the most interesting example of low-tech: the way in which Occupy has atemporally imploded high and low-tech together.
Most of us are aware of the “We are the 99%” Tumblr stream featuring people delivering Occupy-related messages. High-tech, right? But what I find most interesting is that these online photos are of hand-written messages on physical paper. Any one of these photos make the paradigmatic example of technology and Occupy: the meshing of the power of electronics to give oneself voice with an appreciation of the potency of personal low-tech.
Other examples of this implosion are easy to find. Solar panels and this bike-powered electricity generator are preferable ways to generate electricity at occupation camps.
So, why does Occupy embrace low-tech?
It’s not simply necessity. That does little to explain why those on Tumblr are hand-writing signs. It does not explain why I was told “we don’t need electricity!” by many folks at Zuccotti Park. The People’s Microphone is used even when electronic microphones are nearby (as I saw when observing an Occupy Toronto General Assembly). More than a clever workaround to a lack of electricity, the people’s microphone becomes a powerful form of solidarity, it is a spectacle that gets the attention of the Occupy Tourists and it comes to stand for the resistance of the movement itself.
The contemporary logic in modern capitalism is a fixation on the high-tech: more, better, faster, smaller, cooler. In the name of consumer capitalism and corporate profits Apple has mistreated workers in China, dangerous e-waste from the West piles up in the developing world, Google gobbles up and often misuses our private data and Facebook continues its insidious march into our private lives, potentially burrowing into our consciousness.
Occupy does not completely abandon any of these occasionally problematic technologies. But embracing low-tech does serve as an implicit, and sometimes explicit, critique of the logic of high-tech consumer global capitalism. My own sense is that the mood at various occupations is that humans are the most important technology and that we have collectively created a culture that places humans as subservient to new technologies rather than the other way around.
Many worry that we are becoming a society addicted to gadgets, disconnected from our surroundings on phones and trading real contact in favor of Facebook “friends.” Instead, Occupy serves as a reminder that people are not giving up the offline and the physical for the online and the digital. New technologies are being woven into our lives, sometimes awkwardly and painfully, in ways that suit our needs. The generation devouring mp3’s has also brought a new life to vinyl as a format. Those with their faces buried in the Facebook screen are also interacting more face-to-face. Questions about whether the Web promotes revolution or repression often miss the point: high/low-tech and on/offline all augment each other, utilized side-by-side rather than through displacement.”