Ars Electronica in Linz: The Public Square, Squared

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Ars Electronica Center

The Ars Electronica Center in Linz, Austria

Next month Isaac Mao and I are headed back to Linz, Austria for this year’s symposium, titled “The Public Square, Squared.” I’m thrilled with the list of speakers and can’t wait to learn from them. A lot has happened since the 2009 symposium on Cloud Intelligence. Here’s a short text I just posted on the conference blog:

Two years ago Isaac Mao and I curated the Ars Electronica Symposium on Cloud Intelligence. Among the many questions to which we sought answers: “Does online activism using server-based tools lead to offline social change, or to increased apathy?” Two of the day’s speakers — Xiao Qiang, a native of China, and Evgeny Morozov, a native of Belarus — offered their “dueling views of digital activism.”

Xiao Qiang called censorship “a form of violence agaist the human spirit” and offered the activism of Ai Weiwei as an example of the inherent resistance of networked, cloud-based activism. No matter how many times the Chinese government has tried to silence Ai Weiwei, his message inevitably re-appears elsewhere on the internet and his list of supporters continues to grow. Evgeny Morozov, on the other hand, claimed that the vast majority of so-called “digital activism” should actually be called “slacktivism” — activism for slackers. Rather than contribute to meaningful social change, we are distracted by campaigns that ask us to change the color of our Twitter avatar or join a dozen online “causes” without providing any substantial contribution.

In the two years following their remarks we have seen ample evidence to support both positions. Xiao Qiang can point to Tunisia where the anti-censorship movement was clearly instrumental in the successful citizen-led ouster of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. (This year we are fortunate to hear the story directly from Tunisian anti-censorship activist Lina Ben Mhenni.) But Evgeny Morozov can point to both Belarus and China as examples where authoritarian governments have been more successful at using Internet tools to surveil their citizens than activists have been at using “the cloud” to demand more rights and hold their leaders accountable.

This September 4th we will return to Ars Electronica with an all-star cast of activists and intellectuals in search of answers to two difficult questions. First, in those societies where major social uprisings have taken place this year (Tunisia, Egypt, Spain), what has been the impact and where are activists now focusing their energy? Second, in those societies that have proven resistant to proposed social change, despite the best efforts of activists (China, Singapore, Germany), how much longer should we expect to wait, and why?

We hope that you can make it to the festival to help us find answers to both difficult questions. Even if you’re not able to participate in person, the entire day’s discussions will be broadcast live on DORF TV and we’ll actively seek questions and comments via Twitter.

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