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.