John Postill on his new book, The Rise of Nerd Politics

The Rise of Nerd Politics
Interview by Angela VandenBroek
Angela VandenBroek: The Rise of Nerd Politics is a captivating description and analysis of “techpol nerds” and their “clamping” (computing, law, art, media, and politics) skills. You have described the techpol nerds as related to but not the same as other kinds of nerd categories studied by anthropologists (such as Kelty and Coleman). What led you to this analytic decision and why do you think it is important for anthropology now?
John Postill: That’s right. While Chris Kelty and Gabriella Coleman – whose pioneering work has had a major influence on mine – and other scholars have focused on computer geeks and hackers, I include other specialists under my category of “nerd politics” – a term I borrowed from the Canadian sci-fi author Cory Doctorow.
The people I’m calling “techno-political nerds”, or simply “techpol nerds”, are a highly diverse lot. To be sure, among their ranks we find geeks and hackers, but we also find tech journalists, digital artists, copyright lawyers, Pirate politicians, and even anthropologists. What all these specialists have in common is a passionate devotion to working at the intersection of technology and politics, a pro-democracy stance, a profound dislike of authoritarianism, and the belief that the fate of the internet and of democracy are inextricably entwined. They translate this passion into a huge variety of initiatives in areas such as open data activism, digital rights, popular mobilisation, and electoral politics. It follows that I regard hacker politics to be a subclass of nerd, or “clamper”, politics.
As I argue in Chapter 2, not all forms of knowledge or skillsets are born equal in the world of nerd politics. Five forms in particular (computing, law, art, media and politics, or “clamp” for short) take pride of place within this world. Even accomplished computer nerds like the NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden must rely on the expertise of others to pursue their political goals. Snowden gathered around him a team of Guardian journalists, lawyers and tech people as well as a documentary filmmaker. Yet we tend to overlook this interdisciplinary teamwork in our fascination with this supposedly lone wolf and his technological wizardry.
I arrived at this analytic decision in a roundabout way, as tends to be the case in anthropology. I started fieldwork in Barcelona, Spain, in the summer of 2010 with the intention of studying whether social media were making any substantial difference to the work of activists in that part of the world. After surveying the terrain, I became interested in the small but rambunctious digital rights scene and soon realised that it wasn’t just geeks and hackers who were active within it. In 2014 and 2015 I did comparative research on similar scenes in Indonesia, as well as secondary research on other countries. Everywhere I looked I found heterogeneous teams of nerds – not just techies – “clamping up” on corruption, fraud, online censorship, and other perceived malaises of the digital era.
 
Angela VandenBroek: For this book you drew on a wide range of techpol nerds, including those in Spain, Indonesia, Iceland, Brazil, Tunisia, Taiwan, and the United States. But the 15M movement in Spain figured prominently throughout the text. What about this particular example made it such a fruitful resource for you analytically, especially in contrast to more popularly covered subjects, such as the Arab Spring uprisings or the Occupy movement?
John Postill: There was an element of sheer luck in my decision to work in Spain. In 2009, when I was still based in the UK, a friend in London sent me a link to an advert in The Economist. The Open University of Catalonia were offering a one-year fellowship to study social media and activism in Barcelona. I applied and got it. It helped that I was brought up in Spain and that my previous research was on internet activism (albeit in a very different setting: suburban Malaysia). Another stroke of luck was that in early 2011 the digital rights nerds I was working with decided to switch from internet politics to politics writ large when they helped to launch the 15M (indignados) movement, which called for “real democracy now” and led directly to the Occupy movement.
But the story doesn’t end here, as the very same Barcelona nerds, an activist group called Xnet, later launched a data activism campaign to put on trial those behind the collapse of one of Spain’s major banks, Bankia. They later wrote and performed a widely acclaimed “data theatre” play on the Bankia case, launched a nerdy political party named Partido X, and even got embroiled in the fraught data politics of the Catalan independence referendum of 2017. By retracing Xnet’s nomadic trajectory I was able to map the world of nerd politics in Spain and discern four main spaces, or “subworlds”, within it: digital rights, data activism, social protest and formal politics.
I then tested this four-cornered map in those other countries that you mention and, to my delight, it worked there, too. This enabled me to make comparisons across political cultures. For instance, while Spain’s nerds migrated en masse in 2011 from the space of digital rights to that of social protest to launch the 15M movement, their Brazilian counterparts remained fixated on a single digital-rights issue even at the height of the 2013 popular mobilisations. This paid off eventually as far as digital rights in Brazil are concerned, but arguably there was a missed opportunity for Brazilian nerds to help create something like Spain’s 15M movement and its formal political offshoots.
Spain has turned out to be an unlikely global leader in nerd politics, a massive laboratory of techno-politics and democracy. Today scores of town halls across Spain, including in major cities like Madrid and Barcelona, are in the hands of indignados, many of them steeped in nerd culture. Moreover, a party that borrowed heavily from Xnet’s techno-political tools, namely Podemos, is now Spain’s third political force and the main ally of the ruling Socialists.
Angela VandenBroek:  You have artfully debunked many perceptions of nerds in The Rise of Nerd Politics that are common both in popular media and within anthropology and related fields, including their politics, their demographics and geographic locations, their collaborations and organization, and their utopian and techno-solutionist inclinations. How do you think these prior perceptions may have hindered our understanding of techpol nerds and their movements? And, what do you think are the most important misconceptions you have identified for us to pay attention to going forward?
John Postill: The prior perceptions you refer to – about nerds being typically white, male, anglophone, geeky, techno-solutionist, and so on – originate largely in US popular culture and news media but are influential worldwide. The two paradigmatic examples are Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. These perceptions have clouded our understanding of the world of nerd politics in a number of ways, including a lack of attention to techpol nerds’ pragmatism; to their ethno-national, religious and gendered diversity; to their penchant for combining teamwork and crowdwork; to the fact that many of them work across civil society, government and the private sector divides, and so on.
Out of these misconceptions I would single out the popular fixation with hackers and their tech wizardry to the detriment of nerds from non-tech backgrounds (for example, journalism, art, humanities, politics) who are equally important to the rise of nerd politics and its increasing centrality to our political and cultural lives.
Don’t get me wrong: Assange, Snowden and other leading computer nerds have played hugely important roles, but so have lesser known individuals and groups around the globe (who may or may not possess advanced IT skills).
Angela VandenBroek: You end your book by saying, “For social scientists like me, and many readers of this book, there is also the issue of the current dominance of five kinds of knowledge (computing, law, art, media and politics) in this social world, which suggests that there is room for greater anthropological and sociological expertise in the nerd politics repertoire” (p. 254). How do you think anthropological knowledge could sit practically within the existing clamping suite? What are the tensions anthropologists may face in this space and how do you think we might overcome them through our work?
John Postill: Yes, that’s the book’s cliffhanger, a key unanswered question!
One significant contribution that anthropologists studying this topic could make to nerd politics is to continue to ask questions about who these techpol nerds (think they) are, what they have done so far, and with what actual and potential consequences. Whatever else we’re interested in, we anthropologists are always deeply interested in people, especially in our research participants. We are also interested, of course, in processes, systems, technologies, networks (whatever these are), actions and practices, but more than anything else we study people and their social relations, which these days are often digitally mediated.
Another potential contribution could be to interrogate the ontological status of some of the nerds’ favourite sociological notions. Do these notions have an empirical basis or are they simply cherished ideals and/or useful fictions? For example, when my research participants – some of them fellow researchers from other academic fields – get excited about the power of  connected multitudes or horizontal networks to bring about political change, I am among those whose job it is to sound a note of caution. What exactly is a horizontal network? Has anyone ever seen one? If so, where and when? By the same token, a team is a more tangible social entity than a so-called network, and yet the notion of team is conspicuously absent from many of the nerd narratives. These are the kinds of questions and blind spots that anthropologists are well placed to identify as the research and writing progresses. It follows that we should go about this task diplomatically (after all, we don’t necessarily want to antagonise people!).
Beyond these epistemological concerns, there is also the question of health and safety. As the world becomes more unruly, polarised, and unpredictable, anthropologists and their research participants working on nerd politics – and related topics – face greater legal and physical risks. One urgent task for anthropologists is to go beyond our liberal comfort zones and help bridge the current ideological rift between pro-democracy progressives and conservatives so that, together, we can take on the extremists and autocrats. We also need many more part-nerdships, that is, political initiatives that bring together nerds and non-nerds fighting for the social and economic rights of all citizens, including their digital rights – regardless of class, creed, or skin colour.

Sarah Shulist on her new book, Transforming Indigeneity

Transforming Indigeneity
Interview by Shannon Ward
Shannon Ward: Your book demonstrates how children in São Gabriel actively respond to discourse that frames Indigeneity as performance, by acting out Indigeneity as a set of symbols distinct from the realm of everyday life. You also explain that youth, facing the realities of urban poverty, substance abuse, and violence, often look to non-Indigenous symbols of material wealth for aspiration. Do you see any hope for mobilizing the resources necessary to give children and youth space for building their own meaningful cultural practices, as part of a shared identity as urban Indigenous youth?
Sarah Shulist: I absolutely see hope for youth to find creative ways to build “meaningful cultural practices”, and I think they definitely are doing so already. I should note that the story about “performing” Indigeneity really highlights more about what the little girl’s parents thought than what she herself was doing (because she herself was very young), which illustrates that even the adults have a complicated relationship to the balance between the symbolic form of Indigeneity and a more “lived in” one. I found that older teens and young people in their 20s were very committed to their vision of themselves as urban Indigenous people, however, and really resisted the discourses of rigid cultural “purity” that some powerful people advocated. They were creating theatre groups, developing radio programs, and starting hip-hop dance/song workshops, and in all of these they really wanted to use Indigenous stories and themes in ways that resonated with their “modern” views of themselves. This was also situated as a way of ensuring that kids would have sources of social strength that would help prevent them from becoming involved in drug trafficking and other risks. One of the most passionate young women I knew when I was there is now in her early 30s, and has become the head of a newly created municipal youth council, so her energy is being transferred forward in that context.

Shannon Ward: Your book shows the challenges of cultural and linguistic transmission in a city, when concerns about Indigeneity are often framed through discussions of land rights and when Indigenous language practices are deeply tied to the realities of everyday agricultural life. How could the generally effective political mobilization of Indigenous peoples for rural land rights (pg. 41, for example) be replicated in urban spaces?
Sarah Shulist: I think that one way to mobilize around language in urban areas would involve mobilizing more directly around language in and of itself, rather than as an extension of other rights – specifically, in this case, the right to ‘differentiated education.’ A lot of activism that has taken place around language has strategically looked for the openings provided within the legal structure of the Brazilian constitution, which makes perfect sense, but which has left the urban areas out. Now, with the recent election of a government that has promised to erase Indigenous land reserves, the risks associated with having all rights tied to these land recognitions become even more starkly clear. Language efforts can become ways of solidifying and strengthening community networks in urban areas, or across urban/rural movements, and so on. Language exists (or can exist) wherever speakers and potential speakers exist, so I have often seen the crux of urban language revitalization as based in the notion that “the community” needs to be created, rather than presumed to already be in a given place. At the same time, an aspect of Indigenous mobilization that’s happening here in Canada, and that I think is also important elsewhere, is a reminder that these cities are also built on colonized land, and that the Indigenous people living in them have a claim to ways of moving through those spaces that are often erased by separating out what “counts” as Indigenous lands as only referring to what we call “reserves” here, and “demarcated territories” there. It’s striking to look at a map of the municipality of São Gabriel and remember that the ‘seat’ of governance is the only part of it that is not considered to be Indigenous territory – this tiny island of non-Indigenous space from which everything is supposed to emanate – when of course the reasoning behind that is a purely colonial logic.
Shannon Ward: In chapter 4, your discussion of Indigenous language pedagogy, specifically, Nheengatú classes that valorize literacy over other linguistic skills, seems relevant to discussions not only of language revitalization, but of language and literacy learning more broadly. What do you think the case of Nheengatú classes in São Gabriel can tell us more generally about the acquisition of literacy, and the challenges of implementing immersion-based learning in communities that may not value linguistic diversity as an element of everyday practice?
Sarah Shulist: This is a great question, and it covers a lot of ground. I think the example of the Nheengatú classes fits within a much larger pattern of classroom-based views of ‘language’ that really emphasize not only literacy, but very particular forms of literacy. The diversity of literacy practices beyond schooled literacy have, of course, become an important topic within linguistic anthropology, and this research is part of what helped me to recognize the strength of that pull towards writing-centric ideologies in the Nheengatú classrooms. I think what I learned from the challenges facing Nheengatú language teachers was to be careful about dismissing the meaning and power behind teaching literacy. As someone trained in linguistics, I’ve definitely been influenced by the emphasis on orality, and I do think there is an important need, in language revitalization efforts, to orient toward supporting language in practice, rather than as an abstract grammatical system.  But at the same time, I think there is a lot of meaning behind the literacy practices that we can sometimes dismiss too easily. While feelings about the inferiority of Indigenous languages are obviously rooted in internalizations of colonial logics, that doesn’t make them any less real or worth challenging, and having or learning writing in the language seems to have a lot of power to challenge those beliefs. The biggest challenge of implementing immersion schools in São Gabriel, I think, is less about a devaluation of multilingualism per se and more about a strong attachment to a specific view of what formal education is for, which is to learn how to move and succeed within a non-Indigenous world. Given that, I think the potential for immersion-based learning that is happening outside of schools is important to cultivate, and there are plenty of great examples of these types of strategies from around the world that could be applied in the Amazonian context.
Shannon Ward: In chapter 7, you explain that cross-border migration is changing the linguistic ecology of São Gabriel  How might cross-border alliances of Indigenous peoples in this region develop? How could such alliances mobilize Indigenous people to hold greater agency in urban places of habitation?
Sarah Shulist: The question of cross-border migration within São Gabriel remains an ever-changing concern, and I think even in the year or so since I did the final read through of the book proofs, the dynamics of changed. Colombia has become more stable, while Venezuela’s economic and political crisis has deepened, and the results of the Brazilian election will also reshape the implications of being Indigenous in each of these three countries. I think the degree of unrest and the shifting dynamics make cross-border alliances and transnational advocacy groups into vital elements in this discussion, but in ways that I don’t think are predictable at this point.
Shannon Ward:  Brazil has recently faced several tragedies covered by international media, including the destruction of archives of Indigenous endangered languages at Brazil’s National Museum. How might this tragedy factor into future decisions surrounding the methods of language documentation and linguistic revitalization in São Gabriel?
Sarah: I think working on language revitalization requires a degree of hopefulness – an imagination about a future social world in which Indigenous peoples have the space, both metaphorical and literal, to use their languages and live in ways that are holistically their own. I have, personally, found it difficult to maintain that hopeful vision given the recent tragic losses of the museum fire, as well as the election of Bolsonaro, who has said some truly frightening things about his desire to do away with even the most basic of Indigenous land protections. I think these events call us, as academic allies, to really rethink what our goals are with respect to language revitalization. Documentation and “preservation”, as in the museum, have long been recognized as incomplete, and also, in many ways, as products of an extractive colonial ideology that puts the language down on paper and takes it away from the community in which it is used (I wrote a post about this on my own blog in the immediate aftermath of the fire: https://anthropologyas.wordpress.com/2018/09/12/on-what-was-really-lost-in-the-fire/ ).
Schools, likewise, are very expensive projects whose maintenance and value depend on constant reinvestment and buy-in from the colonial state, and the political whims of the moment really demonstrate how precarious it is to lay our hopes on this kind of a foundation. That’s my somewhat long-way-around introduction to saying that I think a lot of language documentation and revitalization, in São Gabriel in particular but also elsewhere, needs to really listen to Indigenous voices who are emphasizing radical re-imagining of what ‘language’ is and what it means to support its continued presence in their lives.  I’m thinking of Indigenous scholars like Wesley Leonard and Jenny Davis, among others, here). A lot of academics are recognizing that any authentic desire to support Indigenous languages requires us to support Indigenous people, and not shy away from the messy human realities that entails. The museum fire was somewhat less devastating to languages in the Northwest Amazon region than it was to other areas, because most of them are still spoken by at least a small number of people, and good, recent documentation exists of many of them that was not housed in the Museu Nacional. I still hope that it will be taken as a powerful reminder that we need to refocus on language as inherently embedded in its social context, and on protecting the lifeways of the people who use it.