The social impact of IT: Surveillance and resistance in present day conflicts

Christopher Kullenberg, Gothenburg University

Towards the end of the 20th century the rise of the Internet and digital technologies have forged new grounds for political activism, social networks and resistance practices on a global scale. However, in the same momentum new opportunities for surveillance and control have emerged in the hands of both states and corporations. Data-mining, digital CCTVs and computer surveillance have enabled efficient control over both territories and populations.

By studying the conflicts between political activists and authoritarian states, hackers and corporations, or even between everyday life and the growth of 'surveillance societies', it is possible to reveal how technological lineages and social diagrams evolve simultaneously.

During the 2007 uprising in Burma, a recent example, the uses of IP-based technologies became crucial for political activists. Internet cafés and mobile phones could provide the outside world with updates and promote swift mobilisation of protests. The government response was dramatic—a total blockade of access to the open Internet. Also today, in less turbulent events, there is a constant struggle between censorship and control on the one hand, and the struggles to circumvent these strategies on the other. To understand this phenomenon we must stress how global technologies are always actualised in local social settings, thus shaping the conditions for politics and human rights in many different ways.

In liberal democracies we see a different development. The perceived threat of terrorism and crime have instead shaped alliances between the private sector, the military, and state authorities for the exchange of information, which sometimes made manifest in regulations such as the US Patriot Act. However, the object of surveillance is rather the opposite compared authoritarian states: the single suspect precedes the population as a whole. This leads to urgent questions regarding privacy and the potential misuse of power, as well as how military, governmental, and civil applications both co–exist and sometimes oppose each other.

The aim of this presentation is to reflect upon the role of the engineer, and the impact of new technologies on social relations and politics. This way we can promote a democratic conversation and hopefully prevent the dangers arising when technology is viewed merely as a technical issue.
Christopher Kullenberg
Full text: FIfF Kommunikation 1/2009 p. 37—40

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