Stories of Digital Radicals

A Preface by Guobin Yang 

When we issued our first call for stories of digital radicals in the summer of 2019we made the choice to be vague about what we meant by digital radicals or radicalism. Our hope was — and still is — to discover the diverse meanings of being radical in the digital age from the stories we receive. 

As we start publishing these stories, and in the spirit of inviting more submissions, we want to offer our observations about two types of digital radicals we have uncovered thus far: those that are socially engaged, and those that are personally engaged 

Two Types of Digital Radicals

The Socially-Engaged Radical

A socially-engaged digital radical aims to effect social change, often via digital media. Hackers are digital radicals in this sense, and so are whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. Other examples may include people who use social media to launch a protest or start a civic organization.  

A socially-engaged digital radical does not have to be using digital media, however. A fierce critic of digital media can be a digital radical. Mobilizing people to boycott social media may also be a form of digital radicalism, perhaps even more so than mobilizing people to do things with social media.

The Personally-Engaged Radical

Personally-engaged digital radicals pursue activities oriented to personal change in everyday digital living. The arena of their radicalism is in the mundane matters of everyday life. They may include sophisticated and purposeful use of social media or practices of deliberate disengagement. Examples may include individuals who practice a strict daily regimen of when to use or not use social media. Or people who conscientiously and skillfully use encryption in daily online communication to protect their privacy. 

What they have in common is a particular attitude toward digital media. We might call it an attitude of watchfulness. 

Everyday digital radicals carefully watch their digital behavior and take a self-consciously ethical and methodical approach to personal digital practices. They are the stoics, puritans, and neo-Confucians of the digital age.  

Every one of us is potentially an everyday digital radical. Or rather, the daily risks and vulnerabilities of our digital existence compel us all to be everyday digital radicals, of sorts. 

Everyday digital radicals watch their digital practices because digital living is full of risks and vulnerabilities. It is only by being watchful over oneself can people manage these potential harms.  

A random list of digital risks might include: digital surveillance by corporate and political entities, privacy invasion, cyber-terrorism, computer virus attacks, digital exploitation of human labor, hidden algorithmic gender and racial bias, spam, hate speech, racism, phishing, hacking, child pornography, and varieties of online harassment such as cyberbullying, trolling, and offensive speech.  

Despite all the risks and vulnerabilities, we spend a tremendous amount of time on the screens of our phones or computers, often to the extent of being overly dependent. Pew Research Center’s surveys in early 2019 show that about 3 in 10 Americans are almost constantly online. In China, the average internet user spends 27.9 hours online each week and China has 854 million people online. 

Disadvantaged populations in unconnected or poorly connected regions of the world are affected by our digital lives in different ways. Some are among the labor force producing digital technologies. Others live in natural environment whose degradation is linked to our consumption of digital technologies. They are the victims of a kind of slow violence, such as land pollution by electronic waste, inflicted by transnational corporations manufacturing and operating digital technologies. 

Taking Action

The digital risks and vulnerabilities facing us and the world compel action. Of course, there is plenty of social and political action. There are organized political struggles for net neutrality, calls to break the Facebook monopoly, and organized protest about overly long work hours by programmers. These collective efforts aim at social, institutional, and political change.  

Some of the stories we will publish will reflect such collective struggles. Others will be accounts of personal experiences. We hope they will serve as a lively resource for public discussion as we explore and seek to transform our ways of living with digital technologies.  

We certainly hope you will enjoy reading them. And to make this into a truly collective project, please send us your own stories 

Before closing, I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to all the current and future authors of stories of digital radicals for sharing their experiences and visions. I would like to thank members of our splendid editorial team: Rosemary Clark-Parsons, Jasmine Erdener, and Elisabetta Ferrari. Digital radicals in their own unique and inspiring ways, they have worked tirelessly as readers, critics, editors, and copy-editors. I would also like to thank the Communications Office of the Annenberg School, especially Julie Sloane, Emma Fleming, and Ashton Yount, for designing our website in such a short time. Last but not least, I would like to thank Dean John Jackson and Associate Dean for Research Barbie Zelizer of the Annenberg School for Communication, Dean Steven Fluharty and Associate Dean Emily Hannum of the School of Arts and Sciences, and the current and former chairpersons of the Department of Sociology Irmo Elo and Emilio Parrado, for their support in the process of launching the Center on Digital Culture and Society. 

Guobin Yang (guobin.yang@asc.upenn.edu) is the Director of the Center on Digital Culture and Society and the Grace Lee Boggs Professor of Communication and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.