The Technological Imaginaries of Social Movements: The Discursive Dimension of Communication Technology and the Fight for Social Justice

Elisabetta Ferrari, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

This dissertation examines how social movements envision technology in a political way. Building on constructivist, cultural theories of social movements, literature from media history, and insights from Science and Technology Studies, I offer a discursive approach to technology, based on the notion of “technological imaginaries”: sets of practice-based beliefs, individual and collective, implicit and explicit, about the role of technology in social life and social change. First, I identify a current dominant technological imaginary, arising from Silicon Valley, which is based on the equation of digital technologies with freedom and democracy, the reliance on technologies for the solution of social problems, and an alignment with neoliberalism. I then examine how three contemporary leftist social movements – the Hungarian internet tax protests of 2014, the Italian occupied social center LUMe, and the American Philly Socialists – construct their own technological imaginaries in response to Silicon Valley’s. I explore these three cases through semi-structured interviews and visual focus groups, an innovative method based on a collective drawing task. I propose a typology of social movements’ technological imaginaries, based on how they respond to Silicon Valley’s dominant imaginary. Imaginaries of appropriation, such as that of the Hungarian internet tax protests, accept both the dominant technological imaginary and the technologies of Silicon Valley. Imaginaries of negotiation, such as those of LUMe and the Philly Socialists, reject the dominant imaginary, but allow for the use of Silicon Valley’s technologies. Imaginaries of challenge reject both the imaginary and the technologies of Silicon Valley. I also argue that appropriation, negotiation, and challenge are shaped by three political factors: the ideology of the social movement, the political context, and the presence of other prominent technological imaginaries. I suggest that movements’ different technological imaginaries point to the existence of multiple, situated, political internets: even if activists all use the same digital technologies, these technologies hold different political meanings for them. This dissertation thus contributes to the literature by reconceptualizing the relationship between technology and social movements, providing a framework and an empirical qualitative approach to account for how movements are already imagining and experiencing technologies as political.

Subject Area

Communication|Web Studies

Recommended Citation

Ferrari, Elisabetta, "The Technological Imaginaries of Social Movements: The Discursive Dimension of Communication Technology and the Fight for Social Justice" (2019). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI22589533.
https://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI22589533

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