Reimagining Myself

Can the subaltern code? - Thoughts on the digital subaltern

In a session at the Government 2.0 barcamp in Vienna, Sigi Maurer raised the question whether a digital subaltern exists and if how it can be engaged. This question for some reason stuck in my head. The term subaltern used to describe a military rank and was later used in post-colonial theory to describe actors outside of the hegemonic power structure. In contrary to the oppressed, the subaltern is not even heard in the political discourse.

So let’s look at the first question: Does a digital subaltern exist? To answer this we first have to get an idea of the hegemonic power structure of the Internet. What is power and how is it distributed and controlled? Here we get into trouble. There is more than one layer on the Internet and thus more than one power structure. We have technical layers, where number assignment, domain names and so on happen. Here we have several key structures (RIPE, ICANN etc.). We have the world wide web with it’s enormous number of web-pages. Here we have a totally different power structure - mainly dominated by search engines and a few social media sites. Then we have the media layer - which content is perceived. Here traditional media outlets are still strong, challenged by user-generated content and blogs. So to participate in the power structures several critical access gates exist: A technical-organizational gate to participate within the technical domain. A merely technical gate to participate in the world-wide web and a cultural gate to participate in content creation and discourse.

Who is outside the gates? I’d say the majority of the people. Looking at the technical-organizational structure: Few people do have enough stake and resources to participate. There are more who can participate in the world wide web, though participation does not mean your voice is heard (just you know how to speak). Nevertheless for the majority of people setting up a website with content or even running your own server is way out of scope. The media layer is the most open. And thus it is not surprising that the people present at the above barcamp were most only participating on this level. Most of the people who see themselves as digital natives are moving on this level. Nevertheless, there are a lot who do not. Including, but not limited to, everyone offline. There are people who use the Internet as main access to media but hardly ever create content. Those two groups would be the subaltern of digital media. But even if you create your own content and you do so on an exploiting platform (like the big social media sites) you are outside a certain gate. The problem of those people is not that they cannot speak, but that their speech is regulated and exploited. This includes a large part of the Internet users. Only a minority of them does possess the knowledge required to host their own content. But even for them, the technical and regulatory power structure beneath is out of reach. So discussing the digital subaltern we need to define which: the digital media subaltern (who does not create content online), the technical subaltern (who depends on others to host their content) or the regulatory subaltern (who is not heard within regulatory bodies).

I think the initial discussion was geared towards the digital media subaltern, as most of the people at the barcamp were digital media people. Nevertheless, I would extend the discussion to the technical subaltern, who depends on others to host their content. Since mostly commercial interests are behind companies willing to host your content, this usually is a relationship strongly exploiting the content-creator. Thus, the question to me is: how to teach the digital-media inhabitants more of what is happening. Since only the understanding of the technical details behind the screen, enable you to act as a qualified player.

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Wed, 07 Dec 2011
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