Digital Activism

Kairotic Digital Tools Forge a New Form of Digital Activism  

Key question

What do we call the branch of digital activism that builds the digital tools—not the people or collective, but the tools themselves? Interfaces are typically the target of criticism (they often constitute the hegemonic structures that limit us), but what if we saw them through an activist/hacktivist lens?

Abstract

To make the case for a new category of activism, this article examines Hypothes.is, a digital annotation interface, and argues that such tools should be categorized as an alternative form of digital activism. Hypothes.is meets the criteria of digital activism/hacktivism, with an agenda of challenging oppressive social conceptions of reader. In design, form and function, Hypothes.is empowers the reader as agentic in the reproduction of knowledge and the distribution of power and change.

Article in four moves

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Introduction

Activism exists all around us, in more forms than scholarship has accounted for. People are examining systems that do not work, or don’t work for all, and finding some way to hack those systems—whether individually or collectively. This paper examines activism that hacks traditional hierarchical disseminations of information and the informational codes of conduct that control knowledge, but does so by examining the form and function of the interface itself as an argument for a new category of digital activism.

When we think of digital activism, we often think of hackers as disenfranchised youth in basements surrounded by screens, seeking opportunities to cause destruction. When we think of hacktivism (coined in 1995, by Jason Sack), it’s easy to imagine groups of people working to disrupt or deface or embarrass some hegemonic, often State-sanctioned, force. But I contend that there are Internet-based tools that don’t fall clearly into the current categories of digital activism, tools that are powerful forms of constructive activism. This paper examines Hypothes.is, a digital

annotation interface that squarely aligns with the broader mission of digital activism, but doesn’t yet have its own designation. 

Foundations of digital activism

This section has been skipped for the sake of time,  but imagine here lots of smart stuff pulled from our readings this semester that have helped me develop a sense of the scholarship, especially as it pertains to alternative forms of digital activism (think: von Busch’s abstract hacktivism, Earl and Kimport’s fan activism, and Hackney’s craftivism).

Hacking literacy as a social oppressive force

Because activism rhetorically enters discourse at a place of exigence–typically a social force of oppression– this next section takes Woon’s advice and looks more closely at the sociopolitical and historical legacies that account for the oppressive context that is challenged by Hypothes.is. In this case, the legacy of oppression crafted via literacy is examined. Of course, the oppressive forces of literacy itself could make for a separate volume, but briefly here, I review the critique literacy has received as a heavily oppressive system perpetuated by dominant groups of people who aim to do what all systems of oppression do: maintain their dominance.

J. Elspeth Stuckey argues, in The Violence of Literacy, that literacy is a phenomenon that can only be understood in the context of the economic and social forces that perpetuate the class-based systems of power being enforced through literacy education. Stuckey would disagree with the widespread ideology that literacy serves to provide citizenry with freedom, knowledge and opportunity. Rather, she says that our current approaches “prevent freedom and limit opportunity” (vii). She borrows from Freire to help make her point that literacy is a process of the “mythicization” of reality that keeps literacy “opaque” and buried in “innumerable alienating words and phrases” (qtd. in Stuckey, 66).

While Stuckey’s critique of English education tends to center around writing, Neil Postman takes up the other dominant component of literacy: reading. Postman writes a scathing review of systems and teachers of reading situated in Western educational systems in his “The Politics of Reading” essay from 1970. He notes, rightly so, that teaching is a political act and, in this case, reading serves to realize what sort of subject a reader ought to be. Reading is a primary vehicle, Postman claims, to crafting students into the appropriate modes of thinking and behavior. “Reading… just about heads the list” of reinforced political biases and ideologies (2). And the biases and ideologies that Postman is concerned about include the message that static print invites students into one-sided dissemination of knowledge that looks more like “political and historical myths” and superstitions common to society (4), a weapon to standardize the myths that hegemonic powers most want burgeoning citizens to believe. Why? Because a “reading public is a responsible public, by which is meant that it believes most or all of these superstitions” which contributes to social and political stasis (4). Postman would argue that reading is simply the dissemination of cultural norms that serve the dominant group.

The forces of oppression via literacy is a product of the medium as well. Writing has historically been lauded to have the power to fix the ideas of great men. It’s no wonder that with that power comes a view of the printed text as a monument to great deeds and great men, likened to the immortality of an author and the fixed meaning imbued in the author’s text.

There is an ongoing struggle, as de Certeau puts it, for “possession of the text and for control over its meanings” (qtd. in von Busch, 43). This is the space to be hacked, to be re-conceptualized. Ultimately, Postman and Stuckey as well as Foucault, Foss, Griffin, and Ong call for this kind of reform, the kind of activistic change that digital tools like Hypothes.is seek to make.

Accounting for digital tools of activism rhetorically

Even modestly speaking, new technologies like Hypothes.is can become agents of social change (McCaughey and Ayers), but how do we account for these new spaces rhetorically? It is Herndl and Licona’s work on agency that rhetorically describes this form of activism best—as a place of Kairos. Herndl and Licona argue primarily for a theory of postmodernist agency. To participate in social discourse, rhetorical agency has to emerge beyond the agentic properties of the author/speaker themselves. Herndl and Licona define agency as “the conjunction of a set of social and subjective relationships that constitute the possibility of action” (135). Borrowing from Susan Bordo, they argue that agency is “in fact not ‘held’ at all,” despite pedagogical efforts to teach otherwise; “rather, people and groups are positioned differentially within” agency (1107). Bordo, in turn, pulls heavily from Foucault as she describes agency as the “multiple processes, of different origin and scattered location,” placing power into action that harnesses a set of relations. As Herndl and Licona put it, “agency exists at the intersection of a network of semiotic, material and intentional elements and relational practices” (137). Kairos, as Herndl and Licona describe it, points to that space or opportunity for acting (135). This postmodern agency involves the way social subjects enact agency through “ambiguous, even contradictory” social functions (135). I contend that Hypothes.is is one such digital tool that provides the space for this Kairotic conjunction to occur among the complex network of authors, readers and texts.

Technologies are often examined for their oppressive qualities, but this paper contends that Hypothes.is realizes this Kairotic intersection, which is inherently a unique activistic form of social movement. According to Fuchs’ criteria of social movement, Hypothes.is addresses a societal problem (oppressive forces of literacy), negates dominant values (puts the reader into a position of active agent), shares and forms collective identities (puts readers in dialogue with one another), offers a compass of social change (makes for Kairotic space for reader) through collective actions (collects disparate voices) (Fuchs). Yet, this form of constructive digital activism (or hacktivism) hasn’t yet been categorized so clearly.

Hypothes.is as a Kairotic tool for digital activism (in design)

As previously mentioned, Hypothes.is is a digital annotation tool that broadly falls under the heading of digital activism as it seeks to hack the oppressive forces of literacy, though cataloguing this tool is not as simple as that. To help examine how Hypothes.is is indeed a form of digital activism, this section looks closely at the tool’s development and how its design functions in a way common to activism– as a re-envisioning of the original intent of the Internet.

The landing page for this digital annotation tool states three simple goals: enabling layers of conversation, “building an open platform that works everywhere, based on open-sourced technology and interoperable standards,” and being part of a global community that advances human understanding for public good (Hypothes.is home page).

While there are many digital annotation tools, Hypothes.is is an interface with a social mission. The platform is rooted in principles of free, open, neutral, controlled by users not owners, and lasting and their work is rooted in recommendations made by the W3C Web Annotation Working Group. Their site “About” page, in fact, includes an animated video that walks viewers through the history of text. It begins with: First, we spoke. Then, we wrote. Then there was the printing press and “in just 60 years, over 20 million copies of books and textbooks were produced” (“Introduction to Hypothes.is”). The creators detail the journey of annotated software through Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina who developed the first collaborative annotation interface called Mosaic (in 1993) to launch a discussion of content on every internet page. Since 1993, more than 50 projects tried to reimagine the vision of Andreessen and Bina, but were unsuccessful due to many factors (“Introduction to Hypothes.is”). The background music of this video mimics the drum line of Revolutionary era soldiers, fighting for freedom and access to a more participative world. Their mission is not purely technological; it’s ideological as well, espousing a world of social collective intelligence, record of processes of thinking, and ubiquitous collaboration.

The first reference to digital annotation comes from the premise that “reasoning together is the best antidote” to our tendencies to be blind to evidence that doesn’t fit into our pre-existent vision of the world (Whaley). This collaborative reasoning lays out the vision for the web, including collaborative meaning-making as a goal (Bush). The Internet was theorized in the 1960s among Stanford scholars working for the US Defense Department. The goal was to design a network that could not be controlled from any center. In fact, Stewart Brand argues, in “We Owe it All to the Hippies,” that the philosophical foundations of a decentralized Internet were a direct outcropping of the counterculturalist movements of the 60s. Brand imagined the Internet (and the personal computer) as a tool that could be the driving social force needed to make democratic systems truly functional (Markoff). “Only a handful of people know that the big missing feature from the web browser—the feature that was supposed to be in from the start but didn’t make it—is the ability to annotate any page on the internet with commentary and additional information” (Whaley). According to the creators, Hypothes.is is an interface that creates the web as it was originally intended—a collaborative space for users to make and share ever-shifting meaning, managing to fit squarely in the anti-Microsoft camp of the open-source movement, committed to a free and open method of information sharing and building.

Hypothes.is as a Kairotic tool for digital activism (in function)

Walter Ong reminds us that “of all forms of …communication, the use of writing and print is in many ways the most deeply interiorizing” (qtd. in Stuckey, 73), a form of textual exchange that now seems ideologically invisible to many, especially novice readers. Still, theorists have fought against this trend to help reveal discursive practice as more than its medium. We’re witnessing a time period where the attitudes of static meaning formed by the printed book have been challenged, at least among scholars. Contemporary scholars describe text as an instantiation of a discourse—a “fluid, contested, contingent” force rooted in a “local situation” (Johnson-Eilola & Selber, 383). Barthes, in fact, describes theories of text as iterative, “made up of multiple meanings [and] entering into multiple relations of dialogue” with a multiplicity that is focused on the reader, not the author (148). The text no longer seeks for mere consumption, but activity, play, production, requiring active collaboration.

The function or purpose of Hypothes.is is notable in its ability to challenge the oppressive forces of literacy, certainly, but also to proactively move towards Barthes’ vision of honoring multiple meanings and dialogue. To participate in a dialogue, or to be someone who can affect change, a subject must first be recognized (Herndl and Licona, 134) and rendered able to enter that discussion. Historically, the reader has been pretty actively excluded from the meaning-making of text and Hypothes.is subtly offers an extended invitation to the reader in their dedication to the overlay of layers that can be added to any publicly available web page. Readers make meaning, publicly and socially, anywhere on the Internet.

Hypothes.is seeks to hack the “socially damaging institutions” (Beck, 11) of conceptualizing the reader as isolated and passive and promotes social change without breaking or disrupting current digital spaces. Rather, they take a proactive resistance that seeks to build a new attitude, to open discourse, to redistribute people in digital space (in relationship to one another and to text) and to challenge the oppressive forces of literacy as controlling meaning and effectively erasing agency. 

Hypothes.is imbues agentic qualities to a non-dominant group—the reader—where there is no longer such a strict emphasis placed on the authorial “center” of meaning-making, providing a site of resistance in distinctly hacktivist ways. Further, Hypothes.is’s function is inherently hacktivistic, as Wade describes it,  relying “on freedom of speech and expression frameworks that empower the masses” (qtd. in Beck, 10). 

It is the digital interface itself that shakes us from the lull of seeing and teaching meaning as static, fixed, unquestioned and the tool overtly decenters the author-centric concept of text that we current work under. These transmission dynamics are challenged (or hacked) by tools such as Hypothes.is in the shifting actions made available to readers, helping to “disrupt the largely transactional—rather than discursive and more equitable—relationship[s]” (Kalir & Dean) between composers and consumers. Doing the work of digital annotation allows scholars and teachers to locate the collaborative space of meaning-making and position the reader as part of agentic assemblage of the complex textual network together—defined by one another’s existence, constructing new social frameworks rather than disrupting existing ones. 

Hypothes.is as a Kairotic tool for digital activism (in form)

While scholars argue that sometimes digital activism “merely plays out online new forms of allegiance to values that fit into liberal forms of social organization” (Sorell, 406), Hypothes.is proves that the digital space can do something more; it can expand boundaries of social organization in ways that can’t be easily re-created in physical spaces.

The form of the Hypothes.is interface, in fact, is notable in multiple ways. It is a space where the ethical deployment of technology is realized. This effort doesn’t seek to use anonymity as a method (the troubling qualities of digital activism for many critics). There is no goal of deception, no aim to undermine existing systems, but instead to productively alter them. Likewise, there is nothing opaque about the organization as a business. In fact, their projects and progress are fully available as well as their tax returns. Transparency is key to generating and sustaining the trust of users and the trust is key to this unrecognized form of digital activism.

In the shift from activism around central principles to activism that celebrates difference (Jordan) and plurality, the tool of activism becomes central to the cause itself. In this way, the Kairos or location for collecting disparate opinions and voices (such as this public digital annotation software) proves to be paramount. Hypothes.is embraces multiplicity at its core, both in mission and in the aesthetics of the interface, and puts the plurality of meaning making on center stage.

Hypothes.is is also a space where the smooth elements of digital environments are made central, where text draws together disparate voices, particularly the voices that have traditionally been silenced by static, fixed, printed media—that is, readers. It is truly rhizomatic as it makes overt otherwise isolated entities, objects and concepts, allowing for a “constantly changing, fluctuating, redefining, and morphing” (qtd. in Beck, 2) meaning, according to Deleuze and Guattari, based on need in a variety of contexts among disparate readers. Hypothes.is provides for that smooth space, where the traditional voices of power are muted (even if just a bit) and the disparate voices take center stage.

Hypothes.is is, furthermore, a space where Kairos is realized, that is “social subjects realizing the contextualized opportunities for action” at the intersection of agency and regulatory power of authority (Herndl and Licona, 133). This Kairotic space, according to Speer, is a “place on the internet [that] unifies people from various points in the world,” crafting spatial depth (qtd. in Beck, 4) or a cartography of knowledge making. The purpose– in design, form and function– is clearly activist, though with an eye on crafting new systems rather than subverting old ones.

Making more space for Kairotic digital technologies as constructive hacktivism

We’ve got several progressive definitions of hacktivism to narrow in on the place of digital activism where tools like Hypothes.is live. Ruffin tells us that hacktivism is about constructing a “more perfect system” (qtd. in Jordan & Taylor, 98), often described as the freedom and openness of information sharing online.  Likewise, von Busch redefines hacking by claiming that “hacking can also be used in the meaning of reclaiming authorship (or co-authorship)…by supporting transparency and unanticipated use” (30). The counterculturalists of the 60s certainly weren’t advocating in perfect unison, but many would say that “better tools can lead to social progress” (Markoff, 4). Stewart Brand— a man who sought “understanding the link between windmills, bees and computers” (Kirk)—  had an optimistic view of technologies to help solve many of the problems we’ve otherwise created.

I think Hypothes.is gets us closer to the imagined Internet of all these major players—the counterculturalists, Deleuze and Guattari, von Busch, and of Ruffin—by making the reader an overt part of the agentic assemblage of making and distributing meaning. But it does so in a way currently unaccounted for in the scholarship on hacking specifically and digital activism more broadly.

Jordan and Taylor, in their book Hacktivism and Cyberwars: Rebels with a Cause?, come close to naming the sentiment expressed here with their chapter on “Digitally Correct Hacktivism.” What’s similar is the discussion of the infrastructure being key to activism itself. Yet, their digitally correct hacktivism is different from the category proposed in this article. For example, digitally correct hacktivism still identifies an external enemy, most often the State (100). This form of hacktivism is still marked by “guerrilla or resistance technologies” against that State. Rather, Hypothes.is is less guerrilla, less focused on subverting or exploiting the efforts of some common enemy; instead, Hypothes.is seeks to build a better way rather than resist the current ways. Rather than there being a targeted enemy, there is a recognition of an unhealthy concept and the effort to move forward in healthier ways.

What’s not commonly seen in the scholarship is a recognition that digital tools provide the Kairotic space to empower silenced voices and shift social patterns of oppression. Much like Hypothes.is decenters the concept of fixed, authoritative meaning and grants agency to a historically unempowered group (i.e., readers), digital tools can constructively free information and open avenues of discourse. This sort of function is inherently activistic, though not commonly recognized as such.

What we can take from this closer examination of Hypothes.is and its hack of the traditional forces of literacy is an attempt to extend our concept of digital activism to those technological interfaces which seek to disrupt hegemonic forces. But rather than seeking to subvert, dismantle, or deface any person or persons who “own” this problem, some technologies seek to shift our consciousness to a new way of imagining possibilities. That’s still activism. That’s still a form of abstract hacking. But it’s not something that has been clearly named.

Oxblood Ruffin states his objections to traditional hacking eloquently: “No rationale, even in the service of higher ideals, makes them anything than what they are—illegal, unethical, and uncivil. One does not make a better point in a public forum by shouting down one’s opponent” (qtd. in Jordan & Taylor, 115). Rather than embracing the “uncivil” hacktivism of defacement, disruption, and subversion, might there be a branch of hacktivism that builds interfaces that open new possibilities, challenge social and political norms by making a better way forward—of building new futures, evolving rather than breaking existing systems? Hypothes.is answers that call loudly. It helps realize more fully the call to action set forth by von Busch, Wark, Ruffin and so many more to build rather than break; to open access to equitable discourse; to imagine new possibilities; to hack imaginatively and “break control” by empowering those that have been silenced. While that category of digital activism hasn’t yet been named, it clearly exists.  McKenzie Wark’s A Hackers Manifesto tells us that we are the hackers of abstraction. We produce new concepts, new perceptions, new sensations.” Makers of digital interfaces, like Hypothes.is, are forging this new category of digital activism. And, if indeed, the technological mechanisms that we engage with each day help form (and are formed by) our technologies (as Michel Serres argues), then perhaps digital tools like Hypothes.is will help craft additional Kairotic spaces for new possibilities in digital and analog spaces.

Acknowledging limitations

I am also skipping this section for the sake of time, but I discuss my attempt to avoid technological determinism, as well as avoid the conflation of information with empowerment, and the fact that no technology is ideology free.