1. Introduction: Setting the scene
  2. Tools of emancipation, or tools of alienation?
  3. My research approach
  4. Learning from our failures: Lessons from FairCoop
  5. Introducing the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF)
  6. The Diversity & Decolonising Circle
  7. The Research Team
  8. The DAF Landscape: Cultivating relationality
  9. Considering DAF from a decolonial perspective
  10. Radical collective change

Tools of emancipation, or tools of alienation?

(a summary)

Given the focus of my research, which aims to investigate to what extent online networks may become forces for radical collective change, people were often surprised to learn that I was not at all active on any major social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube. The fact is that I am extremely suspicious about these technologies! I certainly don’t think they are necessarily a force for generative change. In fact, there appears to be much more evidence to the contrary.

There is a lot to say on this topic, and it has all been discussed at length in many books and documentaries, so I will just summarise some of what I consider to be the most concerning aspects of information and communication technologies (ICT).

Impacts on human and other-than-human bodies

First of all, the physical impact of ICT on the biosphere and on human beings is vast, and increasing. In 2019, the use of ICT alone caused around 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and their energy footprint is increasing by around 9% per year. By 2025, the IT industry could use 20% of all electricity produced in the world, and emit up to 5.5% of global carbon emissions. And while Big Tech giants attempt to present themselves as environmentally conscious, they are not at all committed to reducing emissions originating from their value-chain, and generally only act to reduce a tiny part of their carbon footprint. Besides, increasingly sophisticated digital technologies require the use of metals with very specific properties, which are becoming increasingly rare and whose extraction is a cause of environmental disasters and egregious labour exploitation, often involving children.

These materials are also frequently impossible to reuse: less than 25% of the total mass of a standard smartphone or laptop computer can be recycled, and only about 5% is recycled at all – that is, when these devices are entrusted to a recycling program. But in 2019, only 17.4% of all e-waste in the world was actually collected and recycled, and it is estimated that the sheer mass of new e-waste generated per year will have doubled by 2030 compared to 2014. The toxic substances contained in this waste are very harmful to habitats, people, and wildlife, and also contribute directly to global heating. Finally, like minerals extraction, both the assembly and the recycling of ICT involve ruthless exploitation of labour.

Information overload, polarisation, and apathy

Besides, mainstream social media platforms, and the devices that enable them, also bring about many harmful social and political impacts, which seem to hinder social learning and generative change in the face of the global predicament.

Digital devices and social media are rendered increasingly addictive by their makers, in order to capture and extract the attention of their users, as a new form of resource, tapped into through targeted advertisement – which has been termed “attention capitalism.” This has devastating impacts on the health and cerebral development of youth.

Digital platforms and their revenue-maximising algorithms have also been decried for their impacts on public discourse, as they have encouraged political polarisation - which became frighteningly obvious during the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the key ways social media recommendation algorithms have found to keep users “hooked” has been to deliver increasingly edgier versions of whatever the user was reading or watching, regardless of the credibility of the content source, which has favoured the spread of conspiracy theories. A side-effect of this proliferation of narratives has been increased mistrust and doubt, which arguably weakens the capacity for collective sense-making and action, to the advantage of established power structures.

Furthermore, this ceaseless consumption of digital content appears to prevent many of us from nurturing meaningful connections with the world beyond our screens, and thus from truly experiencing the gravity of the global social and ecological catastrophe that is unfolding – likely an obstacle to any forms of radical collective change taking place.

According to the philosopher of technology L. M. Sacasas, the internet has generated a super-abundance of information which has contributed to widespread epistemic fragmentation. He suggests that digital media have brought an end to the “age of consensus” created by print and mass media, and introduced “digitized realms incapable by their nature and design of generating a broadly shared experience of reality.” Similarly, Zygmunt Bauman points to an “information deluge” as a key characteristic of “liquid modernity,” which leads people to seek to protect themselves from the overwhelming level of noise, thus leading to a fractured common sense. As a result, for Sharon Stein, “many people are increasingly encased within their own personalised knowledge bubbles… whether or not one agrees that consensus is a desirable goal, today it appears to be an increasingly impossible one.”

This is surely another issue with regards to the possibility of collectively addressing our global social and ecological predicament: Is there really a way for us to break through the personalised bubbles in which we increasingly find ourselves enclosed, and to identify enough common ground for meaningful dialogue to take place?

Not only do social media hamper meaningful dialogue from taking place between groups with different visions of reality – they appear to encourage animosity and group loyalty manifesting as sectarianism. Indeed, social media platforms amplify ongoing “culture wars,” as every user is primed to always want to be seen as playing for the right “team” – or at least, will fear being perceived as playing for the wrong one. This favours the expression of hate speech and toxic communication... In Myanmar, Amnesty International has found damning evidence pointing to Facebook's role in “amplif[ying] and promot[ing] content which incited violence, hatred, and discrimination against the Rohingya,” thus fueling the ethnic cleansing campaign that was taking place.

The revolution will not be tweeted

Finally, although the internet and online social networks have been hailed as tools enhancing people’s ability to take part in collective action within social movements, their actual role in creating political change is very uncertain. Studies have found that social media may be “less useful as a mobilizing tool than a marketing tool.” More worrying, research has shown that these tools are also extremely effective in the hands of authoritarian regimes, who can use them to suppress free speech, hone their surveillance techniques, and disseminate propaganda.

Indeed, the spread of digital devices into every space of people’s daily lives has been accompanied with a corresponding increase in big data collection, storage, and analysis, on behalf of private companies as well as public bureaucracies, which establish partnerships for purposes of surveillance and communications censorship, without barely any democratic oversight. We now live in an age of “digital authoritarianism,” in which governments are successfully preventing social movements from achieving a critical mass of support by sowing doubt, division, or detached cynicism within their ranks. Perhaps as a result, the usefulness of protest appears to have decreased as a means of political change. And within democracies, social media have played a critical role in the rise to power of several nationalist regimes and right-wing populist figures, from Italy to Brazil, India, or the Philippines, and of course in the United States.

To top it off, Western tech corporations have been shown to use their technology to exert political, economic, and social domination around the world, particularly in the Global South, through digital colonialism – by keeping other countries in a state of dependency through ownership of digital infrastructure, the knowledge and control of the means of computation, or controlling business relationships across the commodity chain. Famously, companies like Facebook or projects like Chat GPT also outsource the horrendous labour of flagging and filtering inappropriate content on their platforms to “sweatshops” in countries with cheaper labour costs and more lenient labour laws, such as Kenya or India, where many workers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to their thankless work. US-based companies are the main culprits in this domain. However, while other countries – such as France, the UK, or Germany – are challenging the dominance of Silicon-Valley Big Tech and pushing for the adoption of antitrust laws, they are simultaneously building their own tech giants.

So, why don't we just burn all these diabolical devices?

First, because it would obviously stink and create lots of ugly melted plastic.

But it's a fair question: ICT in many ways appear to play an instrumental role as part of the social, political and ecological woes of our time. Far from paving the way to a more sustainable, caring, and democratic society, they are destructive, exploitative, addictive, and divisive, as well as primary tools of control and repression.

So considering the above, I was not surprised to face incredulity in many people, upon mentioning my interest in the emancipatory potential of online networks: “Do you really believe that these technologies can make the world a better place?” And yet, had I not been trusting in the existence of this potential, I would not have undertaken this PhD research. What kept me going?

A simple answer is that I consider it a grave mistake to reduce the internet – and ICT as a whole – to the socially and ecologically harmful tools provided by the mega-corporations referred to above. Indeed, thousands of “hacktivists” worldwide have long been developing and promoting free and open-source software that offers powerful alternatives to mainstream social media, and which are often oriented towards radical collective change. For instance, decentralised social media gathered in the "Fediverse," such as Mastodon, do not turn their users into objects of surveillance and value extraction. For example, I love the platform Mobilizon, which was built by the French non-profit Framasoft, stalwarts of the free and open-source movement. They describe Mobilizon as an “emancipatory tool” that provides an “ethical alternative to Facebook events, groups and pages,” allowing people to “gather, organise and mobilise” for social change.

Such platforms bring together fewer users, largely due to the difficulty of competing against the financial capabilities of commercial platforms, which can afford to hire thousands of designers to make their products more attractive and addictive. Yet these alternatives do exist. And in spite of the dominance of exploitative Big Tech, and the alliances they forge with repressive state actors, I trust that “hacktivists” will always find ways of using means of online communications to federate the energy and intentions of rebellious minds and hearts around the world.

For better or worse, digital devices and platforms have become part of our everyday lives. I believe that it is possible for humans to build meaningful relationships using these tools, to turn them into the decentralised "educational webs" that Ivan Illich envisioned, and to wield them as a force for generative social change. However, this certainly requires us to relinquish naivety, to keep honing our tech literacy and critical discernment, and to fully acknowledge and address the many harmful aspects that are embodied in the very material infrastructure of the internet. The aim of my research has been to investigate this possibility.

In the following post, I will say a few more words about how I went about doing that. Then, I'll present some key results from my research.