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The Internet is Not a Horseless Carriage: Talking Tech, Activism & Capacity Building With Zeynep Tufekci

BY Jessica McKenzie | Friday, June 6 2014

Zeynep Tufekci speaking at Personal Democracy Forum 2014 (photo: PDM)

Yesterday at Personal Democracy Forum, Zeynep Tufekci spoke in a session on “The Internet's Double-Edged Sword,” which covered the promise and potential of the Internet for both activists and regular citizens, and for authoritarian governments. Only Tufekci doesn't think that is the conversation we should be having—whether the Internet is good or bad, or better for citizens than government, or vice versa. When I asked whether she approaches a new social media movement with initial optimism or pessimism, she said neither.

“I'm a realist, a researcher and academic,” she said, although she admitted to “sympathiz[ing] with some [movements] but not others.”

As a sociologist, Tufekci studies movements exactly as she would have if they had taken place 30 years ago—asking how they are organizing and how are they managing power—only she looks for the ways in which technology has changed them.

Tufekci chose two examples to illustrate how regular people can leverage technology to pull off daunting tasks. She cited the four 20-somethings in Cairo who coordinated 10 field hospitals to care for those wounded during the 2011 Tahrir Square protests, using only Google spreadsheets, mobile phones and Twitter. She also cited three early 20somethings in Turkey who organized the citizen journalism platform @140journos, changing the way news breaks in Turkey, and even making mass media more hesitant to self-censor, knowing that what they don't publish, others will.

When asked why she chose those two examples, Tufekci said, “Because they are such striking examples of a couple of young people who have done amazing things...[it's] not the usual Internet bashing. The Internet is clearly powerful, clearly is allowing people to do things much easier...[we need to] move beyond the bashing.”

And yet the major point of her PDF talk was that “today's movements lack policy impact proportionate to their size, energy, and power.”

“The Internet is our Sherpa,” she told PDF attendees. Like mountain climbers who summit Mt. Everest on the backs of others, mainly the Sherpas who carry everything and place climbing ropes at the beginning of the season so that less experienced climbers have an easier time of it, activists use the Internet to start movements with relative ease.

“Abundance of easy is creating a lack of capacity building,” Tufekci explained.

Finally, I asked Tufekci to explain a metaphor she used in her talk but that I didn't fully understand: “We're still hand painting our books.”

Tufekci explained that when people first began printing books, they tried to imitate the elaborate illuminated manuscripts that preceded the printing press. When the car was first invented, it was called a horseless carriage, even though it's not a carriage—it's a car.

“We're using the Internet and these technologies to basically replicate what we used to do without it,” Tufekci said. “[We think to ourselves] 'we used to do street protests so now let's do them on the Internet'...We're using these new technologies with all this potential without realizing how they've changed.”

Perhaps when people start treating the Internet like a car, and not a horseless carriage, we will see more of the capacity building that activism currently lacks.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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