By Joan Donovan
I am often asked, usually in a pejorative tone, “What has Occupy even accomplished?” As a sociologist though, these questions make me wonder “How do occupiers accomplish anything? How are projects made? How are they spread? Under what conditions are they successful? What do failed projects have in common?”
This has led me to study of very boring things, like infrastructure across multiple platforms. Here, I articulate how the Occupy movement communicates and coordinates action using the example of Occupy Sandy. I also introduce an idea that I am calling net work, i.e. the use of one’s free time in the service of a project involving multiple skills, knowledges, technologies, and people. It is concept closely related to Star’s work on infrastructure, where she describes infrastructure as a process and product where people ideas and technology are densely entangled. The concept of Net Work helps to better grasp how Occupiers organize without organizations. Important for Occupy, no one directs how the movement will unfold. Instead, people begin working on an idea, recruit some allies, and carry out action without knowing if another group is doing the same thing. The hacker ethos of “don’t propose, just do” helped Occupy become a multi-modal movement that melds online worlds and offline spaces. Focusing on how the communication infrastructure became formalized across occupy projects illustrates how occupiers as knowledge workers cull, assess, analyze, summarize, and distribute information in the service of the movement. I conclude with the example of Occupy Sandy to show how the forms of communication networks already used by occupiers were leveraged to provide direct aid to storm torn communities.
Those who participate in net work projects are often already employed as knowledge workers. Italian theorist Bifo Berardi describes them as the cognitariat, workers whose labor consists of spending a good deal of their time thinking about and moving knowledge from one place to another. They gather, analyze and assess data, facilitate collaboration and think critically about future directions. In the case of Occupy, the cognitariat remix the corporate space of social media for their own purposes, while also taking up public space or “privately owned public spaces” (POPS) as a way to challenge corporate rule. I argue that net work becomes possible because the main currency of the internet is keywords. A keyword like “occupy” can be used to move between online and offline groups and helps the user find similar communities of practice in ways that keywords like “social justice” simply can not.
Star stipulates that “Nobody is really in charge of infrastructure.” This is because infrastructure is layered overtime and involves not just different locales, but also generations of users with different skill sets and idiosyncrasies. Occupiers did not consciously make decisions early on about how to build a unified infrastructure, but rather, many infrastructures appeared with similar characteristics. For each occupation there was a facebook page, twitter account, webpage, general inquires email address, a google group, a donation page, phone number, a camp or public meeting space, as well as a set of committees.
Also, they all had KEYWORDS in common: #OccupyWallStreet is not an address, but an organizational schema that signals to the user to go on twitter and use that keyword to seek out like-minded people. When coupled with other keywords like “#OccupyOakland” or “#OccupyCleveland” localized groupings become possible.
Keywords also produce a kind of solidarity, if solidarity is thought about in the sense put forward by Emile Durkheim. Durkheim believed that solidarity refers to the interdependence of components within a social system which are held together by a set of similar values. The term “Occupy” became synonymous with another more potent phrase “We are the 99%,” where 99% refers to not just a proportion of the population, but a class position opposite the moneyed 1%. Becoming part of Occupy was more than just identifying with a subject position, it included finding a niche where you could use the skills that you have in order to start a new project or work on an existing one. For some, this could mean sleeping in parks, going to street actions, doing outreach, picking up garbage, or working on the group’s finances. But for the cognitariat it meant curating information, producing content, broadcasting livestreams, and administrating social media platforms. Each form of participation was integral for the whole system to operate. Without people using the internet to promote actions, they would be sparsely attended. Without actions to report on, live streams would be dull and social media stagnant. Without a finance team, there would be no porta-potties.
The ability to find one another as well as a place to plug into the Occupy movement is an effect of rhizomatic communication:
Communication across this global movement has no center or command post; instead, there is a sprawling organizational structure that leverages all points of connectivity to foster growth. It’s a rhizome, a nodal mass of roots that grows horizontally under the soil, such as a root of ginger. Like infrastructure, rhizomes rarely become visible and as such require some digging.
Occupy employs rhizomatic communication, wherein multiple channels are used to strengthen networked connections that spread ideas from one group to another. This model includes the simultaneous use of email groups, social networking sites, text loops, conference calling and face-to-face meetings to circulate information from many to many. This rhizomatic form, then, becomes a model for how to carry out direct actions themselves in distributed and redundant (while also coordinated) fashion.
Mobile communications such as smart phones and laptops with WIFI are technologies of social change that allow users to connect to the global network from anywhere with signal. Global movements against capitalism have creatively re-imagined the uses and constraints of social media’s capacity to network and broadcast. Castells calls this counter-power, where people use technology to build a sense of togetherness to combat state power. And this, I argue is where “net work” flourishes. Today, no single call to action is effective, but rather cognitarians, such as the one pictured here, push information through networks with the intention of networking networks. Posting, linking, liking, friending, inviting, sharing, tweeting, retweeting, following, instagramming, regramming, streaming, broadcating, commenting, blogging, emailing, texting, calling, watching, donating, recording, editing, documenting, note-taking, meeting, and finally, protesting are all forms of “GSD” within Occupy. GSD means “getting shit done” … In other words, labor or work.
Importantly, many cognitarians brought skills from their daily lives to bear on occupy projects, while also poaching much of their paid work hours to conduct mundane tasks for Occupy projects, like answer email, write press releases, admin social media accounts all from their workplaces. Being able to plug into the network from both inside and outside the camps was critical for building solidarity and coordinating massive direct actions, like the west coast port shutdown in December 2011.
In my opinion, Occupy Sandy is the most sophisticated project to come out of the Occupy camps. Responding to the devastating superstorm, occupiers leveraged all existing platforms around a set of keywords in order to organize donations and volunteers. Instead of adopting a ridged bureaucratic structure that requires compliance to a set of rules (Think red cross), networks that use rhizomatic communication leverage aspects of bureaucratic communication, including reliance on documentation and skill building, while removing the hierarchical process of approval for taking action. “Don’t propose, just do!” became the ethos after the storm. With 40K new yorkers without power, water, or access to public transit, already-existing Occupy social media accounts began using the keywords #sandyvolunteer to query needs and link people to social services and web resources. However, this quickly became an overwhelming and ineffective way to organize. The demand for information and resources far surpassed the people-power managing those accounts. Moreover, occupiers on the ground in Rockaway, Red Hook, and Staten Island were also experiencing a myriad of communication glitches from lack of electricity to cell services.
Enter InterOccupy.net, a small group of “network nerds” based in locations all over America. IO began in October 2011 during the height of the encampments, as a project to link different occupations together and provide conference calls, email lists, and documentation tools for those who wanted to spread ideas or coordinate actions nationwide. Importantly, by the time Sandy hit NY, IO had some practice dealing with ecological crisis as some worked on a campaign after hurricane Isaac hit New Orleans. Moreover, IO and OWS volunteers also were able to rapidly set up internal and external email lists, a website, and social media accounts with nearly 30 administrators from all over the USA. Sharing the burden of communication and information management to those outside of the crisis area allowed for other forms of work, like databasing volunteers, routing donations, and answering emails, to get done more quickly.
The name #occupysandy was adopted later because one occupier who worked on finances for the camp in Manhattan already set up a donation page bearing the name. Moreover, in tweets inquirers were re-using occupy-related keywords and overlapping them with #sandyvolunteer. Many of the people volunteering in the emerging network were opposed to an occupy related organization, but were powerless to stop it’s momentum.
In order to remain cohesive around the Occupy Sandy keywords, a facebook page, twitter, and email account were set up to drive people to the website, donation pages, and volunteer locations.
On the back end a series of conference calls, email lists, text loops, chat boxes, google docs, maps, phone calls, carpools, a volunteer database, newsletters, and wifi equipped volunteer locations, held the network together, albeit by a thread. Because Verizon held the lone cell towers in badly damaged areas, some were unable to reach the cell network and began using google voice numbers through their wifi as a way to patch holes in the comms system.
Interestingly, while InterOccupy always envisioned themselves as a network that circulated ideas, it did not occur to any of us that we could also distribute goods. This fact though was obvious when the movement had camps; as occupiers were able to feed, clothe, and provide medical services to many on a daily basis. But after the raids the question remained: how could Occupy enliven a spirit of public service akin to the one felt in the camps? Occupy Sandy shows that whatever networks move information, can also move goods and people. Yet, the conditions of the crisis still matter.
A hashtag like “mutual aid” would not have produced the kind of solidarity needed to respond to hurricane sandy. However, mutual aid is the basis for projects that use “net work” to meet community needs. In the case of Occupy Sandy, a group running the social media accounts might never speak to the person transporting 1000 flashlights, but all of the work is significant for making Occupy Sandy successful because actions are animated by mutual aid.
The anarchist zoologist, Peter Kropotkin, describes the benefits of mutual aid in his study of bees, “These small insects by working in common, multiply their individual forces; by resorting to a temporary division of labor combined with the capacity of each bee to perform every kind of work when required, they attain such a degree of well-being and safety as no isolated animal can ever expect to achieve, however strong or well-armed it may be. In their combinations, they are often more successful than man, when he neglects to take advantage of a well-planned mutual assistance. Thus, when a new swarm is going to leave the hive in search of a new abode, a number of bees will make a preliminary exploration of the neighborhood, and if they discover a convenient dwelling-place-say, an old basket- they will take possession of it, clean it and guard it, some-times for a whole week, until the swarm comes to settle therein. But how many human settlers will perish in new countries, simply for not having understood the necessity of combining their efforts.”
Here, the combined efforts of Occupiers acting as cognitarians to leverage the networks built during the days of the encampments, while also scaling-up the technologies of communications that occupiers are already accustomed to using, led to direct aid in the most devastated areas. In the words of the NYT, “Where FEMA Fell Short, Occupy Sandy Was There.”