As technology simultaneously shrinks and enlarges our worlds, political activism has evolved in the flux of connectivity and conflict. The impacts of communications technology on social movements has been demonstrated in the viral media that drove Occupy Wall Street and the online networks that fueled Arab Spring uprisings. But despite the ubiquity of the digital ether, the link between social media and activism is still a work in progress. Does having a “revolution” at our fingertips mean that twitter hashtags will start to displace street rallies, or Kony 2012-style insta-campaigns will overtake more involved, deliberate forms of advocacy, especially on touchy human rights issues that require more than a meme’s-worth of explication.
The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, is trying to make humanitarian crisis a little more user-friendly through a new app. Featuring orchestral music and Barbera-esque animations, the program helps the user imagine “My Life as a Refugee” by presenting life-or-death scenarios to help dramatize the trauma of mass violence and displacement–in a way that ostensibly offers more emotional depth than your average news headline. But are apps like this “humanizing” the issue of refugees for the public, or just hawking digital humanitarian porn?
Max Shmookler, an advocate for asylum seekers and author of a CultureStrike essay about narrative and the refugee experience, wonders about the optics and ethics of appropriating refugee stories:
Judging by the Youtube demo, the app features a litany of choose-your-own-adventure style questions set to a backdrop of tropical huts (really, UNHCR–don’t you read your own website?) and an interchangeable set of desperate looking refugees.
The economist and development critic Bill Easterly went to town on an earlier iteration of the same idea in 2009, when the UNHCR invited participants in an economic summit in Davos to a “VIP event” called Refugee Run. As the barbed wire framed invitation proclaims, Refugee Run would be an opportunity to experience the hardship and horrors of displacement “just five minutes” from the convention center.
I can think of about one million things the UNHCR could be doing with its time and money that are not designing a mediocre app. How about, as one friend suggested, an informative refugee news app, or a forensic catalogue of torture scars that physicians could use when evaluating asylum seekers, or a reference app for international refugee law for adjudicators and decision makers?
On the other hand, there may be concrete ways that social media and mobile communications can improve life for survivors of conflict and disaster. Mobile technology was used in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, for instance, to help track population movement after the disaster and aid relief efforts.
But what about mobile technology that fuses humanitarian relief and political dissent? Digital media has served as a tool for exposing police abuse as well as coordinating protests. But what about deploying mobile technology to aid people in crisis in more concrete ways?
A few years ago, a group of creative minds known as Electronic Disturbance Theater / b.a.n.g lab — a team of conceptual artists and University of California-San Diego professor Micha Cárdenas — created the Transborder Immigrant Tool, a “Mexico/U.S. Border Disturbance Art Project” designed to empower migrants both practically and spiritually as they make their journey across the great divide. It was a fairly humble contraption: a cheap mobile phone that would connect migrants to information for survival, including “custom navigational software and poetry, the latter of which, the creators say, contains both “sustenance for the spirit” and factual desert-survival skills,” as the San Diego City Beat described it. In the end, the ensuing media hype, right-wing backlash, and panic by the university administration, seemed to outweigh the applicability of the tool itself. But the initiative was an intriguing symbol of what technology makes possible, and how those possibilities are ultimately proscribed by the political and social tensions surrounding them. Moreover, the experience of traversing the border isn’t something that would ever be made easy by technology alone, any more than the increasing use of high-tech militarized surveillance to police the border would eliminate the gravitational pull of economic and demographic forces that drive migration.
The new global media mesh makes it easier to connect across language and national boundaries, mirroring and guiding the physical border crossings that people have been undertaking for ages. But in the quest to use digital communication to aid migrants and spread the news about their struggles, technology is isn’t a solution, it’s a medium. The exchange between the people at either end of that channel is what counts.