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"Alternative and Activist New Media" Book review

Artemisa | 19.10.2015 18:56 | Analysis

In 2011 prof. Leah Lievrouw published this guide to the study of the alternative and activist new media. Four years later it is still one of the best books for academics, students and enthusiasts. This review has the aim to present the book's main key points as well as some sparks for future researches it suggests.

"We are declaring war against you, the terrorists."
Nine months ago, the 7th of January, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi shoot to death 12 Charlie’s Hebdo employees and almost killed other 11 people. It was an international mourning day and while people from all around the world organized spontaneous wakes, pacific protests or just sheltered around French embassies by means of the social media, Anonymous released this statement.

They started a new campaign called #OpIsis shutting down Isis websites and social media accounts. Some argue that the operation was more effective than the American ‘War on Terror’. Undoubtedly it was an interesting example of Alternative Computing, the so called ‘Hacktivism’.

Alternative Computing is one among the 5 main genres identified by Leah Lievrouw in his book “Alternative and Activist new Media”, published in 2011, by which new, alternative, oppositional points of view can express themselves.
Even if it treats such a quickly changing, and quite not defined topic, it is not obsolete. Not at all.
We continue to call “new”, media that are quite middle aged because it is not possible to clearly define them since they are perpetually transforming; it is not predictable what they are going to be once grown up, because they are governed and influenced and “remediated” and “reconfigured” (pg. 14, 15) by billions of individuals around the world. They rely on values that are not compatible with those of the capitalistic oriented classic media and have aims different than economic growth.
In the new media chaos, Lievrouw defines and theorises the ground were new media develop and evolve, and above all, where they become alternative and activist.

She embraces the idea of Lippard, Huges, Dickerman, among others, that the discontinuity and rupture of today’s digital culture finds its roots both in the Dada, and Situationism movements. In this fragmented and subjective postmodernism, political activism can be only small, rapid-response, episodic.
This new form of activism was observed and studied for the first time during the 60s and 70s protests. It was clear that the ideologically driven movements of the industrial age were insufficient to describe properly what was happening.
This new perspective on collective action was named NSM (New Social Movements) theory. The influence of the theory on the nowadays movement is clear since they are “depicted as heterogeneous, decentralized, and distributed social networks, and research focused on their fundamentally cultural and subjective qualities” (pg. 57).

New activist media inherit from Dadaism their outrageousness, the use of the absurd, of contradictions, and above all irony. Irony is far away from classic media, politics, and communication, and it is one of the hallmarks as well as common characteristic of all the five genres identified by Lievrouw:
Culture Jamming: uses mass media and mainstream forms to critique and subvert the meanings;
Alternative computing: has the aim to resist political or commercial restraints to the use of information technologies by building, hacking or reconfiguring systems;
Participatory journalism: creates a media space where everyone may contribute reflecting a commitment to freedom of speech and participation;
Mediated mobilization: promotes radical and participatory democracy where citizens are directly involved in political processes and governance;
Common Knowledge: provides an alternative to the institutionalized and expert driven process of knowledge creation.

Lievrouw’s book raises interesting consideration around a not clearly mentioned, although clearly identifiable topic: the public spheres, the publics and counterpublics.

Alternative and activist new media are by the name, democratically oriented to give voice to pluralities and to allow anyone to participate in the civil and political life. Nevertheless, the publics that mobilise the new media and use them to gather themselves around specific common concerns seems very distant from the Habermas concept of public and public sphere. They are countless and not one, they are small and interested to very specific issue, they are not necessarily politically involved, and they cannot be defined as clearly driven by mass media or face-to-face related.

Arendt’s vision of publics is more representative of the alternative and activist new media: she highlights the characteristic of plurality, for instance, rather than unity. Furthermore while Habermas predicts the decline of the public sphere, Arendt prefers to think of the possibility of reinvigorating it in the modern word.
She enhances the importance of participation regardless of social status, being open for everyone, which is, for sure, one of the main values of the new media activists.
Still Arendt insist on the importance of the public space as something dedicated to the political life that let outside the civil and private.
What’s happening in the new media era could be better described taking all the theorists’ perspective as complementary, not as opposing.
Nancy Fraser’s position on the multitude of publics with the special attention to women, Fine’s and Hurrington’s theory of small publics created in cliques or clubs, and even Ikegami with her view on the Tokugawa period, helps to describe an extremely complex yet indefinable dimension of publicness.

Lievrouw’s work is undoubtedly a cornerstone for the study of the alternative and activist new media, but she does not consider in sufficient detail the subject of the new activism: publics.
Throughout the book there is a fresh breeze of hope for a completely participatory democracy, for a space where every voice can be heard, for resources for every cause and for fully inclusive publics that can stand one’s ground against mass media and institutionalized powers.
Yet, her point of view does not consider the threat of this new alternative activist world: the hypothesis that it could be an illusory exaltation of democracy.

Digital divide, both as an economic issue and as lack of competencies, cuts out the greatest part of the world from the new media discourse. The historically excluded countries and communities risks to enhance their lack of representation in the global debate.
Elder people, disabled, minorities, weakest strips of the population risk to have their rights claimed by others, as always, in the other’s point of view but in the dangerous appearance of a democratic and real participation.

A second issue that requires an in-depth analysis is the one related to the shrinkage of publics. One can argue that the one, indivisible bourgeois public of Herbamassian mould is neither realistic, nor desirable, yet it embodies a fundamental characteristic of activism: power.
Ideological mass activism of the 60s and 70’s gained an enormous amount of followers with different perspectives and ideas, but with a common strategic objective. New media allow to create micro publics, physically dislocated around the world vested around very particular and specific interest. They are powerful in terms of plurality and minority’s representation, but if one splits the publics and major common interests in minor ones it becomes more difficult to impose different groups’ needs and, at the same time, much easier to control them.
“Divide et impera”, “Divide and rule”, in Philip II of Macedonia words.

The last issue is economic. All the alternative and activist new media have values that differ from the capitalist post-industrial world. They want to share instead of accumulate wealth, to produce together instead of exploiting, to give everyone the same resources instead of setting them aside for an elite.
Usually they share Marxist, left-oriented ideologies instead of right-oriented ones. There are numerous sectors, from high tech, to design, to printing that refuse to take up the capitalistic economy model: it is quite understandable and, some may argue, embraceable. The problem is that the old model is discarded without proposing a new one. Lievrouw cites the issue of Wikipedia survival and economic model as something that threatens the existence of common knowledge because their aim, and basic value, contrasts with their reality and needs. How to sustain a new possible world made of the alternative, activist, new media’s values?

Leah Lievrouw book is a terrific resource for communication scholars and academics in terms of analysis and theoretic definitions of the new media, and the alternative and activist new movements. It perfectly succeed in obtaining the claimed aim of “assessing the scope and scale of this changing environment” (pg. 215), leaving free space for further debates, opening interesting questions and issues on publics and public sphere definitions, power holding and new economic model.

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