More widespread than we think

Today's social movements rely on tech collectives to organize safely. But few know the history of other technologies used by earlier liberation movements.

Image via Euranet on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

During the anti-globalization movement of the early 2000s, tech collectives such as Riseup and Autistici came into existence to provide autonomous, non-corporate communication tools and “How-Tos” for social movements to organize safely and securely with emerging new media. In South Africa, the Right2Know campaign was initiated in 2010 in response to the Protection of State Information Bill, which aimed at weakening the rights of journalists and whistleblowers to access information. As part of their work, R2K has published guides for activists to protect themselves digitally.

To heighten my own digital defense practice, I recently took a virtual workshop offered by the New York-based Tech Learning Collective. This collective provides technology education for radical organizers and revolutionary communities with special attention to underserved groups. These groups, which design tools and training for activists, are not a new occurrence. They have an interesting history across varying political cultures dating back, at the very least, to the national liberation struggles of the 20th century. Let’s take two of these, both armed struggles.

The first was the work of the section technique (technical branch) within the Front de Libération Nationale, the movement at the head of the Algerian struggle against French colonialism. In his essay, “Ici la voix d’Algérie” (“This Is the Voice of Algeria”), Frantz Fanon describes the section technique’s secret, mobile shortwave radio, whose transmitter was mounted on a moving truck that broadcast revolutionary messages from inside Algeria. The broadcast included information on the fighting, the history of the Algerian people, political and military commentaries, patriotic songs, and religious sermons encouraging commitment to the country’s freedom and independence. To listen to the revolutionary broadcast, most Algerians had to get their hands on radio sets designed by Algerian radio technicians, who had started opening shops for the sale of secondhand radio sets. The technicians had innovated in producing battery-powered radio in a country that, for the most part, lacked electrification. Fanon suggests that the purchase of these radio sets did not mean “the adoption of a modern technique for getting news, but the obtaining of access to the only means of entering into communication with the Revolution, of living with it.” In other words, Algerians were not simply listening to the broadcast or adopting an information technology for narrow instrumental purposes; rather, something changed in their disposition as a result of their participation in the broadcasts as listeners.

When French authorities understood the power of the Voice of Algeria as a force coming from outside the disciplinary mechanism of the colonial state, they passed a series of laws to prohibit the sale of radio sets to Algerians in order to restrict their access to the broadcasts. Further, as French forces were unable to take hold of the transmitter—they tried to bomb the truck that carried it, with no success—the only way to silence this revolutionary voice was to try to jam the airwaves. But even with French jamming attempts, the existence of the revolutionary broadcast was sometimes more important symbolically than being able to grasp its every word and sentence. Every evening, “Algerians would imagine not only words, but concrete battles,” Fanon says, thereby strengthening the national consciousness. The Voice of Algeria became a tool for the revolution not only through its technical branch—that is, its broadcast content—but also performatively, as the mere technical possibility of the broadcasts, against all odds and attempts to suppress, confirmed that the revolution was alive.

The second example comes from the technical committee that supported the South African national liberation struggle. From the late 1950s until the early 1990s, a technical committee developed technical artifacts and trained freedom fighters and their foreign comrades on how to use these tools to support the struggle. The technical committee’s approach to science and technology was influenced by major Cold War events such as the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957. It was not only state actors, such as the American government, that were influenced by Sputnik 1, sparking an ambitious scientific and technological research program that would lead to the creation of the Internet. The launch would also influence the scientific and technological orientation of a national liberation movement.

After it was forced into exile, the technical committee and its members continued to operate in the United Kingdom. They designed tools for the people such as “leaflet bombs,” harmless leaflet launchers which would explode in crowded areas and facilitate the mass distribution of handouts. The first scene from the 2020 film, Escape from Pretoria, is a good representation of how leaflet bombs worked and how white South Africans and foreigners especially could use their white privilege for the struggle as they easily navigated white areas. The committee also created small boxes containing audio amplifiers connected to tape recorders which would be left in crowded areas, often in townships, by freedom fighters. Thanks to a timing device, these boxes would then play a short, five-minute message once the operative was away.

Probably the most sophisticated project of the technical committee was an encrypted communication system that allowed freedom fighters to communicate secretly and transnationally between South Africa, Zambia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Canada in the late 1980s. Over almost a decade, the technical committee experimented with newly available technologies of the time such as telematics (combining computers and telephones), computer programming, and encryption, while at the same time training freedom fighters and their comrades to operate such systems. These communication systems later came to be included in Operation Vula in the mid-1980s, an operation that aimed to launch a people’s war.

These two examples show how contemporary tech collectives are rooted in a wider history of technical skills, tools, and groups supporting past and current struggles. In fact, the practical investment of national liberation struggles with science, technology, and communication are practices that might be more widespread than we think. Only by digging further into these radical science and technology traditions across varying political cultures will we have access to a different set of materials and ideas to think about what revolutionary science, technology, and communications can do.

Further Reading