Columnists

Thomas Ponniah
Social movements in the age of information

| April 4, 2012
Photo: Steve Rhodes/Flickr

Contemporary social movements are characterized not only by their diverse commitments to building an emancipatory, egalitarian society but also by their innovative network composition. Both the form and content of the newest insurgencies embody essential aspects of our age of information. Their novelty opens up new possibilities for presence, mobilization and social change.

In The Rise of the Network Society, the sociologist Manuel Castells contends that we are witnessing a technological transformation analogous to that which occurred at the onset of the industrial age. The industrial revolution decisively shifted humanity from hand tools to machines. Automation required the development, generation and distribution of new sources of energy -- such as steam, electricity and fossil fuels. In the information age, the new factor of development is the action of knowledge upon knowledge, that is, the technology of idea generation, information processing, and symbol communication. Knowledge has become the most prominent source of economic productivity: the amplified emphasis on knowledge production, like that on mechanisms in the industrial age, is reshaping every aspect of society with an obvious example being labour: in the information age, corporations, governments and universities place a significant premium on the development of "knowledge workers."

The new emphasis on knowledge production brings with it not only a new content but also a novel form: as the rise of machines once transformed every aspect of life such as work, romance, and education, so too is contemporary informationalization altering every dimension of social reality. What is common in all of today's changes is that more and more aspects of society are coming to reflect complex, multi-faceted networks as opposed to closed systems. The current form of globalization, embodying the organization of information technology, may be most characterized by a logic that promotes horizontal decision-making, open-ended systems and flexibility. Start-ups, media outlets and armies are adopting network forms of co-ordination precisely because they are the most successful in a world that is being reconfigured by new communication technologies.

Following the above, one could argue that the most effective contemporary collective mobilizations from Anonymous to the Arab Spring -- embody, propel and consolidate some of the key aspects of the information age. Numerous social movements today are characterized by non-hierarchical decision-making, peer-to-peer diffusion of ideas and fluid social identifications. As well, mirroring the imperatives of informational capitalism the newest insurgencies also generate alternative knowledge as a key factor for propelling collective mobilization, with only a few examples being Wikileaks, Indymedia and the Italian Telestreet movement.

The strength of these new informational movements lies in their intuitive understanding that the network society is one in which the symbolic realm produced by information technology now constitutes an additional layer of social reality. The question of whether one exists, as an individual or collective mobilization, is not simply determined by the awareness that one cogitates but more significantly by one's digital presence: "I am online, therefore I am." Contemporary social movements' versatility lies in their ability to intervene on a terrain that has shifted from a struggle focused on the street versus the boardroom to a multi-dimensional form of conflict that now takes place on numerous material and digital platforms.

Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an Affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies.