Digital Activism in Asia Reader

The digital turn might as well be marked as an Asian turn. From flash-mobs in Taiwan to feminist mobilisations in India, from hybrid media strategies of Syrian activists to cultural protests in Thailand, we see the emergence of political acts that transform the citizen from being a beneficiary of change to becoming an agent of change. In co-shaping these changes, what the digital shall be used for, and what its consequences will be, are both up for speculation and negotiation. Digital Activism in Asia marks a particular shift where these questions are no longer being refracted through the ICT4D logic, or the West’s attempts to save Asia from itself, but shaped by multiplicity, unevenness, and urgencies of digital sites and users in Asia. It is our great pleasure to present the Digital Activism in Asia Reader.
 Digital Activism in Asia Reader

Digital Activism in Asia Reader, Front Cover


The Book

The Reader took shape over two workshops with a diverse range of participants, including activists, change-makers, and scholars, organised by the Researchers at Work (RAW) programme in June 2014 and March 2015. During the first workshop, the participants identified the authors, topics, and writings that should be included/featured in the reader, based upon their relevance in the grounded practices of the participants, who came from various Asian countries. The second workshop involved open discussions regarding how the selected readings should be annotated, from key further questions to strategies of introducing them, followed by development of the annotations by the participants of the workshop. The full list of contributors, annotators, and editors is mentioned at the end of the book.

We are grateful to the Meson Press for its generous and patience support throughout the development process of the book.

Please download, read, and share this open-access book from the Meson Press website.

The Reader has been edited by Nishant Shah, P.P. Sneha, and Sumandro Chattapadhyay, with support from Anirudh Sridhar, Denisse Albornoz, and Verena Getahun.


Excerpt from the Foreword

Compiling this Reader on Digital Activism in Asia is fraught with compelling challenges, because each of the key terms in the formulation of the title is sub-ject to multiple interpretations and fierce contestations. The construction of ‘Asia’ as a region, has its historical roots in processes of colonial technologies of cartography and navigation. Asia was both, a measured entity, mapped for resources to be exploited, and also a measure of the world, promising anorientation to the Western World’s own turbulent encounters. As Chen Kuan-Hsing points out in his definitive history of the region, Asia gets re-imagined as­ a­ ‘method’ in cold-war conflicts, becoming the territory to be assimilated through exports of different ideologies and cultural purports. Asia does not have its own sense of being­ a­region. The transactions, interactions, flows and exchanges between different countries and regions in Asia have been so entirely mediated by powers of colonisation that the region remains divided and reticent in its imagination of itself. However, by the turn of the 21st century, Asia has seen­ a­ new awakening. It finds­ a­ regional identity, which, surprisingly did not emerge from its consolidating presence in global economics or in globalised structures of trade and commerce. Instead, it finds­ a­ presence, for itself, through a series of crises of governance, of social order, of political rights, and of cultural productions, that binds it together in unprecedented ways.

The digital turn might as well be marked as an Asian turn, because with the new networks of connectivity, with Asian countries marking themselves as informatics hubs, working through a circulated logic of migrant labour and dis-tributed resources, there came a sense of immediacy, proximity, and urgencythat continues to shape the Asian imagination in a new way. In the last decade or so, the rapid changes that have emerged, creating multiple registers of modernity, identity, and community in different parts of Asia, accelerated by a­ seamless exchange of ideas, commodities, cultures, and people have created a new sense of the region as emerging through co-presence rather than competition and conflict. Simultaneously, the emergence of global capitals of information, labour and cultural export, have created new reference points by which the region creates its identities and networks that are no longer subject to the tyranny of Western hegemony...

While the digital remains crucial to this shaping of contemporary Asia, both in sustaining the developmental agenda that most of the countries espouse, and in opening up an inward looking gaze of statecraft and social organisation, the digital itself remains an ineffable concept. Largely because the digital is like­ a­ blackbox that conflates multiple registers of meaning and layers of life, it becomes important to unengineer it and see what it enables and hides. The economic presence of the digital is perhaps the most visible in telling the story of Asia in the now. Beginning with the dramatic development of Singapore as the centre of informatics governance and the emergence of a range of cities from Shanghai to Manilla and Bangalore to Tehran, there has been an accelerated narrative of economic growth and accumulation of capital that is often the global face of the Asian turn. However, this economic reordering is not a practice in isolation. It brings with it, a range of social stirrings that seek to overthrow traditional structures of oppression, corruption, control, and injustice that have often remained hidden in the closed borders of Asian countries. However, the digital marks a particular shift where these questions are no longer being excavated by the ICT4D logic, of the West’s attempts to save Asia from itself. These are questions that emerge from the ground, as more people interact with progressive and liberal politics and aspire not only for higher purchase powers but a better quality of rights. The digital turn has opened up a range of social and political rights based discourses, practices, and movements, where populations are holding their governments and countries responsible, accountable, and culpable in the face of personal and collective loss and injustice...

In the face of this multiplicity of digital sites and usages that are reconfiguring Asia, it is obvious then, that the very nature of what constitutes activism is changing as well. Organised civil society presence in Asia has often had a strong role in shaping modern nation states, but more often than not these processes were defined in the same vocabulary as that of the powers that they were fighting against.­ Marked by­ a­ strong sense of developmentalism and often working in complement to the state rather than keeping a check on the state’s activities, traditional activism in Asia has often suffered from the incapacity to scale and the inability to find alternatives to the state-defined scripts of development, growth and progress. In countries where literacy rates have been low, these movements also suffer from being conceived in philosophical and linguistic sophistry that escapes the common citizen and remains the playground of the few who have privileges afforded to them by class and region. Digital Activism, however, seems to have broken this language barrier, both internally and externally, allowing for new visualities enabled by ubiquitous computing to bring various stakeholders into the fray... At the same time, the digital itself has introduced new problems and concerns that are often glossed over, in the enthralling tale of progress. Concerns around digital divide, invasive practices of personal data gathering, the nexus of markets and governments that install the citizen/consumer in precarious conditions, and the re-emergence of organised conservative politics are also a part of the digital turn. Activism has had to focus not only on digital as a tool, but digital also as a site of protest and resistance...

The Reader does not offer an index of the momentous emergence with the growth of the digital or a chronological account of how digital activism in Asia has grown and shaped the region. Instead, the Reader attempts a crowd-sourced compilation that presents critical tools, organisations, theoretical concepts, political analyses, illustrative case-studies and annotations, that an emerging network of changemakers in Asia have identified as important in their own practices within their own contexts.



Sumandro Chattapadhyay

As a Director at CIS, I co-lead the researchers@work programme, and engage with academic and policy research on data governance and digital economy. I can be reached at sumandro[at]cis-india[dot]org.