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Future Active: Media Activism and the Internet

Author: Graham Meikle
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2002
Review Published: November 2005

 REVIEW 1: Roberta Buiani
 REVIEW 2: Victor Pickard

Future Active, as Graham Meikle announces in his preface, is a book "about a particular kind of Net politics" (3). More specifically, Meikle looks at the political uses of the Net, drawing from Resnick's (1997)threefold distinction (politics within the Net, politics which impact the Net, and political uses of the Net).

However, providing a concise and comprehensive account of today's political uses of the Net is quite a hard enterprise. This is partially due to the incredible diversity and richness of phenomena that populate the Internet. It is also, and for the most part, due to the dynamic and continuous reconfigurations that shape each practice, and to the coexistence of contradictory components, which make all evaluative and classificatory efforts extremely difficult to carry out within one single parameter.

In other words, it seems almost impossible to represent the entire set of disseminated activist practices without making important exclusions or without making exceptions or clarifications. In this respect, Future Active is an admirable attempt to fill a void.

Meikle, a lecturer in the Media Department at Macquarie University in Sydney, seems to be well aware of the above difficulties. He uses well-known labels to identify and describe each practice (by naming alternative media and tactical media, and, within the latter, by distinguishing between culture jamming and Hacktivism). This choice, on the one hand, allows prospective readers to easily remember and quickly orient themselves within the complex constellation of the existing practices. On the other hand, though, it inevitably ends up producing a partial picture of the complex panorama that constitutes Internet activism.

Meikle tries, nonetheless, to avoid any simplistic account in a number of ways. In the introduction, he immediately admits that the book is an incomplete collection of what he deems representative approaches to online activism. This admission constitutes in itself a recognition of the openness of the field. Such disclaimer, then, is an invitation for the readers not only to avoid reading the cases discussed as if they were the ultimate contribution on the topic, but also eventually to encourage them to reflect upon and even question the thematic choices within the book itself. The well-documented and detailed notes that accompany the book both enrich and foster further research.

An important element that testifies to Meikle's awareness of, and propensity to, deal with a fairly slippery and increasingly complex subject matter is the structure elaborated to showcase and develop his arguments. Although he accepts a model of the Internet based on oppositions that have been largely discussed by a myriad of authors, he is unwilling to settle for such model without questioning the assumptions contained within it.

In Chapter 1, he proposes a twofold paradigm where two historical tendencies came to coexist within today's networks. These tendencies constitute respectively two phases of the development of the Web: "Internet version 1.0," when the new virtual space was mainly considered an open system for experimentation, is now threatened by the "Internet version 2.0," characterized by a consolidation of information technology at the center of the new economy. This second version, as representative of a widely spread commercialized, market driven, corporate industry, appears to triumph over and come into conflict with the earlier version. Here, a reader familiar with the literature on the Net might raise doubts about the novelty of the above two definitions. In fact, although Meikle employs different terms and a techno vocabulary adapted to this situation, one can immediately notice many similarities between his paradigm and the Deleuze-Guattarian coexistence/opposition of the categories of the smooth and the striated (showcased in Moulthrop 1994). At the same time, one can find parallels between Meikle's argument and what Barbrook (1998) has defined "antagonist symbiosis" between the market driven capitalist imperative and the libertarian gift economy.

In Chapter 2, however, Meikle seems to break with the traditional categorizations he had previously appeared to embrace. Here, he shows how notions that have characterized the enthusiasm originated with the Internet version 1.0 have been substantially re-interpreted with the rise of the Internet version 2.0 and conveniently adapted to serve the goals of the latter. In particular, he focuses on the notion of interactivity, which he analyzes in relation to the hype that has characterized and is still pervasive in the discourse on the Internet. Interactivity, Meikle explains, is now mostly interpreted through a "remote control angle" (28). Interactivity as open and horizontal participation and freedom to manipulate and modify information is only proper of the Internet version 1.0. This approach sharply contrasts with the option offered by the version 2.0, which has increasingly colonized the Internet and which today can be recognized in the mainstream media approach. In version 2.0, interactivity tends to limit the freedom of the participant with its misleading apparent flexibility. As both active (or version 1.0) and passive (version 2.0) interactivity coexist, Meikle calls for its reassessment and proposes a distinction between version 2.0 interactivity, employed by most commercial sites, online journals and political parties, and "intercreativity," a term he finds more appropriate to describe the type of participation fostered by alternative media and open publishing (although he admits there are some exceptions).

While the examples in Chapter 2 largely illustrate various forms of interactivity, classified according to Jensen's (1999) four interactive typologies (transmissional, registrational, consultational and conversational), the following chapters are dedicated exclusively to "intercreative, unfinished" approaches to the Internet (87). Starting from chapter 3, Meikle embarks in a detailed description and discussion of Internet version 1.0 activist practices. This includes alternative media, independent media, the open source movement, and tactical media.

The copious amount of examples is definitely an asset of the book. To be more accurate, it is not the number of examples, but their variety and diversity that gradually reveal features and correlated problems within political uses of the Net. In addition, although each chapter reads separately, Meikle always pays a great deal of attention to identifying recurring properties that link together individual practices. These approaches eventually help to articulate the intricacies of an heterogeneous constellation of practices and lead to reconstruct a scattered-looking and often fragmentary scenario.

First, Meikle observes how all the practices mentioned are about "backing into the future" (24). Introduced at the very beginning of the book, this expression speaks to the fact that no matter its degree of innovation or its effectiveness, each online intervention tends to draw inspiration from already existing or already tested off-line campaigns and struggles for justice. For each practice, Meikle promptly provides a historical predecessor or a comparison with a pre-Internet intervention. While alternative media could be considered the online successors of the revolutionary pamphleteers of the American War of Independence, and Indymedia finds its roots in the tradition of fanzines productions, other practices such as electronic civil disobedience, virtual sit-ins, or online petitions all can count on very physical, offline counterparts.

A second element that contributes to link all online campaigns comes from the necessity to see the Internet as part of a "broader media environment" (4). It would be naïve, in fact, to think that online activism works independently and in isolation from the offline world. No online intervention, alone or based on the inherent properties of the medium, guarantees the functioning or the success of any Internet campaign. This is illustrated by Belgrade-based radio B92. When its traditionally broadcasted programs were interrupted and the radio was shut down by the Milosevic regime, B92 switched its broadcast to the Net, thanks to the assistance of the Dutch service provider XS4ALL. The case of B92, now a symbol for many independent media, clearly shows how a thick network of
solidarity, and not the Internet as such, was able to guarantee its survival. In addition, off-line conditions were crucial for the development and, later, the fate of the radio. B92 went online when its regular programming was interrupted. Moreover, it was no longer able to broadcast its programs during extreme social or political conditions, demonstrating that the Internet is rendered almost powerless in case of extreme censorship and war-time situations. As a consequence, given similarly structured campaigns and different offline contexts, it is very difficult to predict the outcomes of any political uses of the Net, or to establish general rules and laws to assess them.

Thirdly, Meikle opposes the assumption that employing tactics that involve network technologies to coordinate political protests and to spread information always leads to sure success. Even those tactics that have led protesters to temporary victories had to face criticisms and accusations. Successes and downsides, potentialities and dangers coexist within each practice. For example, a website such as MacSpotlight, with its function as precious source of counter-information, contributed to successfully and temporarily damage McDonald's. Its features, however, were promptly appropriated and diverted by, and in favor of, corporate media. The protesters in Seattle were able to successfully hijack the media agenda of the WTO meeting, and yet they also received heavy critiques from pro-globalization columnists who wrote that their resistance was useless, and accused them of economic luddism.

Beyond the perceived failures or the unexpected results, Meikle notes, all the Internet campaigns analyzed in the book have proved to succeed at least in catching the attention of a larger audience and, therefore, in raising awareness on issues usually not or poorly covered by the mainstream media. These major characteristics, Meikle argues, are shared by Internet activism in general. This can be clearly noticed not only in alternative media, but also in so-called tactical media and culture jamming practices.

Finally, Meikle refutes the assumption that Internet activism is exclusively left wing, anti-globalization, or in favor of human rights. Some anti-abortionists, white supremacy, and pro-pedophile websites, Meikle clarifies, can all be listed as examples of Free-speech activism. Although Meikle mentions a plethora of chilling but needed examples of the above, he tends to dedicate lengthier and sometimes celebratory descriptions to the first. Yet the recognition of the existence and the inclusion of non-left wing practices constitutes one of the most innovative features of Future Active.

Instead of examining the Independent Media Centers (IMC) phenomenon as part of the broader category of alternative media, Meikle groups them in a separate chapter (Chapter 5) along with the open source movement. Meikle's innovative choice is dictated by a rather tactical, inclusive, and broad understanding of activism. For him, Internet activism as resistance against the privatization and corporatization of the Internet and struggle for freedom of expression does not have to be necessarily declared, nor have its protagonists be overtly activists. Given this definition, the open source movement becomes a form of activism in itself. He claims: "Open source software is not only a powerful armory for activists -- it's an activist movement in itself" (107). In fact, open source exploits the 1.0 version of the Net. In addition, it is open source software that guarantees the survival of IMC on line. The reliance of IMC on open source naturally facilitates the link between the two. This newly established link allows Meikle to address some often underestimated ethical and practical issues concerning independent media use of proprietary software.

Meikle dedicates the last two chapters to tactical media. Tactical media can be defined as hit-and-run guerrilla tactics which exploit occasions or situations without apparently acting along the lines of any specific strategic or monolithic plan, as groups such as ®™ark demonstrate. However, tactical media can also relate to long-term strategic approaches. In Chapter 6, Meikle analyzes Hacktivism and the practice of electronic civil disobedience rendered possible online thanks to the software "Floodnet." He describes and discusses minutely this practice first introduced by the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT), drawing parallels to another example of on-line activism, realized by the definitely more playful collective Etoy. Although very different in goals, achievements, and attitude, Meikle strategically brings them together. Because of the different circumstances
that drew them to the action on line and the context in which they operate, the achievements of the two groups show "both [the] limits and possibilities" of electronic civil disobedience (155).

Here, Meikle is not merely interested in testing the effectiveness or the failure of EDT and Etoy. He is concerned with the consequences that the use of certain military terms and language (like e-bomb, toywar, infowar) have on the social imaginary. Meikle considers the use of military terminology misleading, since it automatically solicits an association of this form of Internet activism to the more traditional and dangerous practices of terrorism and it implicitly places it under a negative light, producing misunderstandings of the messages and the goals that these actions are trying to achieve. The use of aggressive terms such as infowar or e-bomb by the very activists themselves not only leads to the demonization of non-state actors, who become in this case the aggressors, in favor of state actors, but it also prevents the observer from distinguishing between humanitarian and conflicting forces, as the goals and the ideals that characterize the actions are overcome and supplanted by the means used.

In general, Future Active is an excellent resource for those people who want to familiarize themselves with the basics of internet activism. However, like the majority of recently published books on the field, it tends to maintain a focus exclusively on well-known practices that have been monitored, supported, or facilitated by a prevalently English speaking Internet community, with little or no attention to other forms of Internet activism. Whether this is due to a substantial shortage of translations available, or to unconscious dismissal, it constitutes an important critical gap.

As already mentioned, one of the major virtues of this book is the attempt to deal with the paradoxes and the hidden problems existing in all activist practices. However, the book misses on one point. Discrepancies between diverse perspectives as well as gate-keeping attitudes are only a few of the elements that often hinder, slow-down, and eventually bring to a paralysis many well-intentioned attempts by different groups that aim at opposing or transforming current mechanisms of power. Conflicts and power relations within activists groups are then major problems, which often make excellent ideas fail. Internet activists are not exonerated from these problem. Unfortunately, no space in the book is dedicated to these conflicts.

Barbrook, R. (1998). "The High Tech Gift Economy." First Monday, 3(12).

Jensen, J. F. (1999). "Interactivity: Tracking a New Concept in Media and Communication Studies." In P. A. Meyer (Ed.), Computer Media and Communication: A Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 160-187.

Moulthrop, S. (1994). "Rhizome and Resistance: Hypertext and the Dreams of a New Culture." In G. P. Landow (Ed.), Hyper/Text/Theory. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University, pp. 299-319.

Resnick, D. (1997). "Politics on the Internet: The Normalization of Cyberspace." New Political Science, 41-42, 47-67.

Roberta Buiani:
Roberta Buiani is a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate Programme in Communication and Culture at York University, in Toronto, balancing her research at the crossroad between art, science, and technology. She is engaged in questioning common assumptions and constructions about technologies, in analyzing their undisclosed and untold characteristics, and evaluating their potentials as unconventional tools. Her dissertation examines the relation between biological and computer viruses.  <robb@yorku.ca>

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