sociology

Edward Snowden as the Avatar of the Free and Open Internet Movement

From Malcolm X…

I do some odd things as I approach middle age.  I watch C-Span for fun.  Browsing the online archives, I came across a video of Malcolm X being interviewed at UC – Berkeley.

There was Malcolm, lean and straight-backed, armed with conviction and a strident piercing voice, answering questions confidently.  He was being interviewed by a white professor and a black graduate student (see the interview here…it is a classic).  Both seemed taken aback by Malcolm.  The former because he was in the unfamiliar position of having this black ex-con matching him wit for wit, point for point.  The latter because he was witnessing his white professor being matched wit for wit, point for point, by this black ex-con.

I saw that interview about a month ago.  It was slowly migrating into the recesses of my mind.  But then, a few days ago I heard Malcolm X being described as the “avatar of the black power movement” on C-Span by Tufts University professor Peniel Joseph.

I like the term, especially for our digital age.  Thinking about the visuals I had seen from Malcolm X’s interview, it made total sense. An avatar is a symbol – a picture or image – that is meant to represent one’s self in the digital world.  The picture associated with one’s Twitter account is an avatar.

Being the avatar of a movement is a bit more than being the “face of” a movement.  An avatar is multidimensional, and can not only represent one’s physical self but one’s values and lifestyle.  Does one smile in their Twitter photo (hinting that one is jovial)?  Does one make the photo black and white (signifying artistic aspirations)?  Would a picture of Bart Simpson as my avatar be enough to show I am a prankster?  How can I show cosmopolitanism?  Allude to my hipster affiliations?  And so on.

The black power movement needed Malcolm.  That is, they needed him to be young, and to exhibit a lean hungriness.  They needed him to be powerful, but not naturally, genetically so.  He needed to have gained his strength through the overcoming of oppression.  It was absolutely essential that he be strident and direct – especially when talking to whites.  It was about black “power” after all.

Currently, a new movement is bubbling under the national radar (but not for long).  It is the Free and Open Internet Movement, and it needed Edward Snowden is its avatar.

…to Edward Snowden

I do even more odd things as I approach middle age.  I find myself more interested in documentary than blockbuster: detailed, factual accounts of everyday social and political events are more interesting than far flung fantasies in outerspace or middle earth.

Recently, I watched Citizen Four, the documentary by Laura Poitras about Edward Snowden.  The Citizen Four documentary was, for me, a companion piece to the book written by Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide.  Both chronicle their initial encounters with Snowden and the information he leaked about government spying.

Greenwald’s book is more detailed about what exactly the NSA had done and the extent to which it is collecting information about American citizens.  Whereas Poitras’ documentary – filled with claustrophobic close-ups of Snowden framed in white sheets – reveal more about the man behind the leak.  One watches a bespectacled young man speaking softly but with confident precision, smiling on occasion, often saying something and then laughing sheepishly.  Highly intelligent, but more in the “I know ten times more than you about this one topic and I can leverage this disparity to make you look stupid” style of Sheldon Cooper, than the “My intellect is so powerful and my knowledge so diverse that I can muster my brain power to understand this topic more thoroughly than you” style of Fraiser Crane.  Snowden is the man who can dominate with the piercing, cutting logic of computer code, but not with physical brute force or charisma and searing oratory: he is the nerd who gets the girl after all the other guys become pot-bellied and stuck in middle management.

His value system is binary.  While others may see government spying as compromising our values as Americans but fitting into that grey area where it is deemed “necessary”, Snowden sees no context that would make this incursion on civil liberties justifiable.  For Snowden, The NSA had to be ratted out because they had done wrong by violating our constitution, simple as that.

Malcolm X and Edward Snowden both embody the social movements they have championed.

Malcolm X and Edward Snowden both embody the social movements they have championed.

This is why he embodies the Free and Open Source Internet Movement.  It is a movement filled with people not willing to compromise their Internet freedom in the name of national security or combating terrorism.

They protest in ways that are acceptable by ginning up discontent on social media websites.  They protest in ways that are unacceptable by direct denial of service attacks (often undertaken by the hacktivist group Anonymous).  These protests are done in the digital environment, not the physical.  They may walk the streets holding signs on occasion, but they prefer to protest through computer networks.

As the Avatar Goes, the Movement Goes

The trajectory of some avatars parallels the trajectory of the movements they represent.

Malcolm X will forever be remembered in the tense glory of his youth.  Since his death the public’s understanding of him has morphed from one to be feared to one to be admired.  He became, especially in the 1990’s with Spike Lee’s biopic and the swarm of hats and t-shirts with sporting his likeness, a pop culture symbol of resistance.

Gloria Steinem, who may be considered the avatar of feminism – with her life, look, and values symbolizing that movement – is still a visible presence now in her eighth decade, changing and morphing with social and cultural trends.

And Snowden, unable to return physically to his home country, finds himself only able to advocate in the digital environment.  He is forced (or free, depending upon how you look at it) to communicate through online services like Skype and Google Chat.  Yet despite his exile, he is omnipresent, his visage duplicated, downloaded, and memed thoughout the digital environment.  Very fitting for the avatar of the free and open Internet movement.

The Iron Cage and Alienation – Applying Some Sociological Ideas to Success in the Digital Environment

Imagine two companies with competing products.

One company develops their product by employing the brightest minds from the nation’s best universities.  Millions are invested in marketing, advertising, and copyright protection.  Through the selling of licenses of their product the company is able to fund their enterprise and make a handsome profit.  Meanwhile a second company develops their product with minimal capital investment.  They make the product’s design openly available and let anyone use and modify it.  They do not charge for the use of their product.  Its free.

What company should produce the best product?  Obviously, if I am taking the time to write this, it must mean that the second company has counterintuitively produced the best product.

I’m talking about statistics programs (yawn).  The two competing ones are IBM’S SPSS (or Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) and the R Program for Statistical Computing.

I spent most of my PHD years learning SPSS.  The strength of SPSS is its ease of use.  It is incredibly user friendly and is ideal for someone like me who has to work hard to wrap my head around things like standard deviations and alpha scores.  But over the last few years, I have migrated over to R.  R is, by contrast, not as user friendly as SPSS.  But if one goes through the trouble of learning how to use the software, it becomes clear fairly early that it is far and away more powerful, more customizable, and more flexible than its counterpart.  It is simply a higher quality software.

What makes R so interesting is not that it is better, but how and why it is better.  Let me explain using the ideas of a few classical sociologists.  Max Weber and Karl Marx represent two-thirds of the Holy Sociological Trinity (the other being Emile Durkheim).  They formulated their ideas during a time when the social patterns of the world were changing rapidly, from rural and agrarian to urban and industrial – not coincidentally this was the time when sociology as a discipline was born.  I’m going to cherry-pick a few of their ideas to help me explain why R is beating SPSS.

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