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[liberationtech] Solutions to surveillance, beyond tech & legal

Shava Nerad shava23 at
Wed Dec 18 10:23:57 PST 2013

On Wed, Dec 18, 2013 at 12:16 PM, Yosem Companys <companys at>wrote:

> Shouldn't there be a pillar of *political engagement* where people get off
>> the couch and out of their ergonomic chairs as a product of
>> normative/cognitive et al effects -- that is somewhat to the side of what
>> we generally think of as "legal/legislative" or "normative" effects but
>> belongs in its own category as social movement smudging into civil unrest
>> or asymmetrical actions?
> Many social scientists believe that what people can create when they get
> off the couch and out of their ergonomic chairs are institutions, which
> according to new institutional theory come in at least four varieties: 1)
> regulative (formal rules, sanctions & rewards, interests); 2) normative
> (informal rules, social norms); 3) cultural-cognitive (ideas); and 4)
> affective (emotions).
> While political scientists and economists view institutions as entities,
> psychologists and sociologists view them as any social agreement.  So, for
> example, a psychologist or sociologist may consider a handshake an
> (informal) institution because it's the result of a social norm that has
> evolved over centuries to have a concrete cultural meaning.  But they would
> also consider the NSA a (formal) institution, with its own regulative,
> normative, cultural-cognitive, and affective agreements that govern the
> organization.  Political scientists and economists, however, tend to focus
> on the formal variety.
> But the major recent theoretical developments have been on the focus of
> institutional construction, with Fligstein and McAdam's theory of strategic
> action fields particularly "hot" in sociology.  The theory emerges from the
> study of social movements, so it's based on power dynamics.  The theory is
> "concerned with the efforts of collective actors to vie for strategic
> advantage in and through interaction with other groups in what can be seen
> as meso-level social orders."  The theory employs the general consensus in
> social science on the influence of uncertainty on human behavior.  Humans
> tend to reproduce existing institutions in stable times; these institutions
> are often seen as the source of injustice.  But they tend to depart from
> existing institutions and seek to create new ones in times of uncertainty.
> Fligstein and McAdam's article and book can be found here:
> &
> Some free, more colloquial reviews of the theory are here:
> ,
> ,
>  &

Ah, I have reading to do...  Thanks!

"Institutions" sounds like insects in amber to a populist activist. ;)
 Earlier this year I was invited to an "activist" meeting which was
actually a meeting of lawyers intending to drink coffee and negotiate what
they could commit their "associations" on a short window to sign in terms
of a "strongly worded letter."  Amber.  I'm not sure it had any effect
other than getting the people at the meeting to the city in question on
their expense accounts for another conference later in the week, and we did
some awesome networking.  But the letter was not a great product, IMO.

There is a vital place for such INdirect actions, but they shouldn't be
confused with direct actions, which generally navigate a different populist

Where there shouldn't be antipathy between such contexts there often is
because the boundaries get smudged, and in the competition for resources,
the formal institutions nearly always are better at gaining the trust of
those who control money -- they "live" in the same space.  Eventually, the
casual dismissal of the formal institutions of the informal turns from rote
marketing into real contempt, and the walls go up, both ways.

I've also been painfully reminded in recent years that the informal
institutions are most often very naive about the (real)politics of formal
institutions, and tend to be outcompeted and taken advantage of on those
grounds badly, with good causes often led into fatal mistakes.  We need
open sourced "unspoken rules" schools and wikis for how politics, media,
civic activism and so on really work. (which is the premise of Blue Rose if
I ever get well enough to launch it).

With the modern conflation of liberal and left, conservative and right,
access to money by liberal causes (this being liber-ation tech) can be
stunted by the tendency of popular movements to be leftist and/or
anarchist, and access to capital to be influenced by conservative/right

Formal institutions tend to be more inherently conservative because they
are established over time, bought into an elite social structure and legal
formalisms, and the strictures of a particular holism of institutional
money -- to portray trust-signals to ever larger funders, you have to
signal status and institutional health by a sort of potlatch excess of
benefits and well-off executives, formal campuses and office buildings, and
so on.

Populist groups are not into such trappings and are often denigrated for
their lack of emphasis on sustainability (which is often a code word for
their lack of reserves, assets, fancy offices, people who would garner
trust from funders but not constituents -- if they are very fortunate they
can find a chameleon social engineer who can do both and not break trust
with either [looks in the mirror]).

This includes groups such as the SCLC which I grew up in, but of course
also the open source movement and suchlike.  I'll be interested to see how
your theorists embrace that.  Perhaps I'll report back. ;)


> As is true in most major political trainwrecks in DC, this is about power,
>> money and influence on a grand scale.
>> This is a game of thrones -- history doesn't end in history books.
>>  People are still motivated by power, money and influence.  They are not
>> "bad" people usually -- truly psychotic people are rarely stable enough to
>> hold positions of leadership.  But they are venal, greedy, power hungry,
>> and highly directed in their goals.
> That's exactly the paradigmatic view of the world with which the above
> theory starts.  The traditional theory of political action is that everyone
> has equal access and influence to the halls of power.  Fligstein and
> McAdam's theory starts with the assumption that power is unequally
> distributed, and people will tend to innovate new challenges to that power
> in times of uncertainty when there is an opportunity to do so and the
> conviction that these new forms of action are being widely adopted and thus
> have a chance to replace the existing social order.
> Of course, this is just one theory.  There are many other theories and
> lots of empirical evidence on various kinds of institutions in various
> settings playing different roles and on how these institutions are created,
> enacted, reproduced, changed, and even overthrown.
> --
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Shava Nerad
shava23 at
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