Networked Urban Politics

"Participation is war. Any form of participation is already a form of conflict", says architect and activist Markus Miessen, following Chantal Mouffe: "It is very important to envisage the task of democracy in terms of creating the institutions that will allow for conflicts between adversaries." Mouffe, a Belgian political theorist, has theorized on the notion of a "conflictual consensus", in which only a minimum common aim (democracy, equality, justice, etc.) needs to be settled and agreed upon within a society. The means for reaching this aim and even the meaning of the aim itself, on the other hand, can and should be disputable.

Miessen is more concerned with the spatial effects and possible materialization of these conflictual consensuses, particularly by way of everyday urbanisms: "When participation becomes conflict, conflict becomes space. Re-inserting friction and differences into both the scale of the institution and the city bears the potential of micro-political forces that render conflict as practice. In this context, participation becomes a form of non-physical, productive violence. Micro-political action can be as effective as traditional state political action."

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Technologies that enable participation have become a staple of contemporary life, overcoming distance, economic limitations and even political constraints. Teens in Ciudad Neza are glued to their cell-phones just like their counterparts in Midtown Manhattan (though they might be planning a stickup instead of a cocktail soiree). ICTs have become so important to the functioning of societies that mobile phones are being handed out by governments along with food stamps and the One Laptop Per Child project seems demure compared to the aggressive downward pricing spirals of the netbook market. Today, 24/7 global connectivity is closer to practical reality than to some outlandish fiction.

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From the nineteenth-century barricades to the revolts of 1968 to the social disruptions of the early 1990s, The Street was always an ideal escape valve for urban tensions and the preferred site of high profile (spectacular) political and social demonstrations. The Street was the perfect set for frictions. But if, as we’ve said before, The Street has systematically been loosing relevance, doesn't it make perfect sense that The Web take its place in this sense too?

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The political perceptions and consequences of The Web and networked urbanisms differ intensely according to specific geographical contexts.

Here in Spain — not quite the First World, but still — there is a bubbly enthusiasm over new technologies and the promise of what they might deliver: salvation from impending economic fallout, a new dawn of proactive citizenship, gaining a steadier foothold in the Developed Nations club (after the brick-setter, real-estate-speculator and tour-guide triad has been widely acknowledged to be a flop as far as development schemes go), etc. Lethargic institutions, burned-out public universities, covetous town halls and ailing private companies are all eager to jump on the digital bandwagon here. The government is lending money for laptops, funding mediateques and data centers, talking Citizenship 2.0, etc. Hopes are high and the atmosphere is cheery, but approaches remain largely superficial or are limited to insiders, specialists and bureaucrats.

This is not the case in the Third World.

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My browser is stuffed with Tehran bookmarks. Just like Cuban bloggers sneaking into Havana hotels to post their thoughts and opinions on the web or massive reactions to government corruption cases prompted by unofficial on-line reports in China, web activists and connected common-folk in Iran are opening channels for a new understanding of urban (networked) politics — proving at the same time that networked urban realities are far from being pretty or easy to grasp. The Street (Web) resistance that is shaking Iranian cities along with our reductive and jaundiced perception of Iran (Remember the days when thanks to George W. Bush — and to a lesser degree, Sally Field — Iran rarely evoked something other than a helplessly closed and traditional society?) is one of those events that change people’s gut perception of history in the making. But there is an additional element here. Like the Obama election or the global response to the Swine Flu affair, the unfolding of these fundamentally urban episodes and our reactions to them cannot be separated from the presence of digital technologies.

(Photos from Flickr user misterarasmus. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

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