Hidden Hand

Excerpt from the Introduction to the book “The Hidden Hand

Almost everything about and around us is digital or digitalized. We are a square twenty years into the Internet Age. Not even a generation. There are now almost 3 billion Internet users worldwide, almost one mobile phone per living person on earth, and every day we create as much new digital information as the total information produced by the entire Western civilization from 3000 BC to 2000 AD. We have witnessed in the last two decades the dominance of the Personal Computer, the WWW, Wikipedia, the Smartphone, tablets, wearable devices and Web 2.0 among many other innovations. In the film 2001: A Space Odyssey released in 1968, image phones were part of an enlightened and elitist future; today we have Skype and Facetime for all, worldwide and for free. 2001 videophoneOur new century brought the start of the end of the traditional music and print industries. One US Company alone, Facebook, has over one billion users (more people than the entire population of the US and Europe combined). All over the world, companies large and small have been eager early adopters of online social networks, online advertising and customer engagement using web-based tools. Now, within that techno-social landscape, what comes to mind when you hear the term “digital activism”? Not the fact that people upload over one billion pictures to Facebook daily, or click the “like” button as many times. But almost certainly the uprising in Egypt in the Spring of 2010 will be remembered, a coup staged by an angry mob and Twitter activists, which ousted Hosni Mubarak in a matter of weeks; or maybe the small crowd of postmodern beatniks who occupied Zuccotti Park in New York, or Julian Assange, that geek from Australia who leaked important DOS documents and took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Maybe even the widely read New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell comes to mind, in which he argues that, Internet age notwithstanding, revolutions will never be tweeted. That is right; digital activism is all about real-world revolutions and bitter protest, laced with plain 140-character instant messages and micro-blogging. But the fact is that clicking the “like” button is really not that different than online mobilization. It is just an unusual way of engaging with global business organizations.

I readily admit that all the discussion about digital activism may seem like a parallel reality altogether, not at all the sort of topics that would interest neither business managers nor their shareholders. Business does not thrive on protest and does not look for an open social or political conflict. And we have a now complex decade behind us. As of writing the financial crisis of 2007 seems to be receding. The economy and business is back on track and beginning to grow, the financial system seems to be churning out winners, bonuses and derivatives again, as usual. Top performers might earn a big bonus this year, maybe a big promotion too. Maybe the new CEO of Mozilla got kicked out in an awkward kind of way. But why be bothered with all of this digital activism gibberish? Why can’t business just go on, right? Why, it is business after all, and not politics, for heaven’s sake! Let policy guys and scholars go and analyze and worry about digital activists, hash tags and re-tweeted revolutions.

However, here lies the crux of the issue. The common perception is that digital activism is only of concern for the academic realms of sociology, law or political science. And this is myopic, to say the least. There is a relationship between digital activism and business. In an early book about the Internet age, the Cluetrain Manifesto, it was argued that markets are digital conversations, and that only those companies that were able to learn how to participate would make the transition to the new markets and the new economy. Digital activism has been very much part of that conversation in the last two decades. Sometimes the conversation goes the wrong way, sputters and cools down; but many times it has had interesting and productive results: Political engagement is a pattern for customer engagement, and participation is the holy grail of every business that deals with real-life consumers and suppliers.

Companies’ stakeholders should be a part to this ongoing market in conversation. I think that businesses should be paying close attention to what is going on in the world of online engagement. Not only as a matter of public relations, risk management or new corporate communication strategies, but also in terms of collaboration and innovation, and in the process of designing new business models and creating strategies for reaching new markets and demographics.

While it is not an entirely obvious point that I am trying to advance, there are already a number of corporations that have assumed this new social and business landscape and have started designing strategies to leverage their positions, modify their governance practices and re-structure their online community standings. Those companies have found that the networked crowds they are now dealing with are not readily apparent or observable to the inexpert eye. They are much more like a “hidden hand” that will emerge abruptly, without much ado, from the thickets of the online world, and influence business operations in unexpected ways. I will go into more detail about this notion of the “Hidden Hand,” but first I will need to go a couple of decades back in time to understand its origins and configurations. Then I will talk more about different kinds of hands, capitalism, markets and crowds; and then finish this introduction with my main argument and the general plan for this book.

Some History

In 1968 Ma’ Bell was a monopoly operating a closed phone system that afforded its customers zero freedom and restricted the devices they could connect to it. Many found that perplexing and annoying. Most of all blind people, who had to rely on cumbersome devices to place calls. So, they created what is known as “phreaking,” several methods of using contraptions to fool the phone system, which was controlled by sounds and tones. One of the devices used by the phreakers was the Cap’n Crunch plastic whistle (the one that came for free in the cereal boxes). Computer geek John Draper learned from the phreakers that the whistle emitted a 2600-Hertz sound that the telephone system would instantly recognize as a trunk-code to make calls free of charge. Soon phreaking blue boxDraper would use this insight to develop his so-called “blue boxes” to manipulate the phone system, an innovation that landed him a conviction for toll fraud in 1972. The Cap’n Crunch hackers were among the first crowds to make use of technology to protest against and sabotage a corporate system. The tools they used may strike us as odd today, but the principle of activism
enabled by technology is the same: exploit the affordances of the system and use the channels of power opened by open communication. The phreakers were just part of a process of change in a closed and abusive industry. Soon the company’s stranglehold on the phone system would vanish.

AT&T was forced to update its relaying technology, at a considerable cost, to block phreaking and avoid losses due to unbilled calls. In 1982 the government would move to bust AT&T’s monopoly and declare the phone system a common carrier allowing any device to be connected to it. That change made it possible for ground-breaking companies to develop modems and hook them up to existing phone lines (even using some of Draper’s phreak-innovations, who was now under contract by none other than Apple Computer), so that any phone user could be connected from home to a remote computer. It was the early 90s: a very young and dynamic Bill Clinton was about to be elected President, and the era of the global Internet, digital revolutionaries, the tech-bubble, and irrational exuberance was just around the corner.

On January 1st 1994 in the Mexican state of Chiapas a small army of rebels came down from the jungle and occupied the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Their demands were no less than the resignation of the Mexican government en masse and the immediate repeal of the NAFTA accords, signed recently by the USA, Mexico and Canada, i.e. very much following the anti-globalization agenda of the time. The group styled itself as an army, by the name of Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional or EZLN, which was an obscure and peculiarly organized movement with a central command group constituted by poor Maya peasants that covered their faces with woven cloth masks, and a ragged group of guerrillas without much training, some using only their machetes as weapons. But against all odds, it became an instant worldwide happening.

The possibilities afforded by a then just emerging digital network called the Internet, its rapid adoption by consumers, not the least because of the free access to copper-wires brought about by Draper and the phreakers, changed their history forever. The new network allowed for a rapid spread of information and images unlike that of the traditional news agencies and media outlets. The network’s users reporting on site (mainly tourists and journalists) and the users in remote places (mainly university students and urban activists) that received and relayed the information served as nodes for distribution, creating a “viral propagation” of the news all over the world.

Today such virality would not even be news anymore, but back in 1993 only a handful of large companies used the electronic mail; Internet users were just a group of geeks and goofs with numeric CompuServe accounts that gathered around The Well and read the Whole Earth Catalogue. There existed no commercial “browsers” as yet or for that matter a “World Wide Web” as we know it today. Not surprisingly, the unintended international visibility protected the EZLN from a violent (and hushed) crackdown by a Mexican administration that was everything but accommodating in such predicaments. But even more fateful for the EZLN, its leadership understood that their revolution was not to be carried out with arms, but instead with words, images, rhetoric; and digital technology. The rebels released San Cristóbal after five days, retreated to the Lacandona jungle and have been waging a successful digital and media war ever since. Its leader, the Subcomandante Marcos, has become a public and literary celebrity of sorts, his writings and personal pathos even compared to Ché Guevara’s. The EZLN itself was hailed as an example of the new political activism: the first true revolution for the 21st century, a mash-up of social movement, melodrama, media and technology.

The EZLN was one of the first social movement organizations (SMO) to leverage the Internet, its wired activists, and online followers around the world to support its strategy of contention. As the Internet itself grew with every year, support for the EZLN increased and peaked around 2004. Social movements and political organizations took notice and started connecting with activists and supporters in new ways, and rethinking the imperative need of a formal and centralized top-down organization.

It was the early morning of May 15, 2011 and indie filmmaker Stèphane Grueso happened to be on-site when a popular protest against the Spanish government took over and occupied Madrid’s central square. At the start it was just a non-violent flash-mob and cacerolada, but just about to become one of the pivotal popular mobilizations of that election year. The Puerta del Sol Square was to remain occupied uninterruptedly for over a month, while an on-site community of protest and support was organized from scratch, including an organic garden, a general assembly to discuss political strategy and a cooperative to look after children during the day.yeswecamp2

Mr. Grueso recognized then and there that something important was happening. He started recording the events and sending out messages using his phone and his Twitter handle (@fanetin), which became within weeks one of the most important information hubs and reference points of a country-wide movement that engendered protests and campsites in 50 cities in Spain and 400 cities around the world.

Mr. Grueso was a digital activist as much Draper was in 1968 and Marcos was in 1994. They are part of the rising “micro-powers” that are increasingly able to stand up and hold their ground against traditional power. Micro-powers are small agents formed by sometimes even only one person, that acquire a big relative power vis à vis established organizations by way of leveraging the affordances of new communications technologies. In a more advanced stage of organization, those micro-powers may coalesce into ephemeral and non-hierarchical crowds, thus the hidden hand mentioned before, to potentiate their capacity for action and are able to challenge powerful governments and corporations in pursue of their shared political, commercial and social goals.