Mapping the Ecosystem of New Media and Environmental Activism
This is not the current EPA website. To navigate to the current EPA website, please go to www.epa.gov. This website is historical material reflecting the EPA website as it existed on January 19, 2017. This website is no longer updated and links to external websites and some internal pages may not work.
On January 19, 2017 the day before Trump took office, the Environmental Protection Agency posted a mirror of its website that captured the way it looked on January 19, 2017 with the disclaimer pasted above. Though to many this move to mirror the website seemed paranoid, only three days later on January 22nd, 2017 guerrilla archivists working through Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), noticed that the face of the EPA website had in fact been changed. This was only two days after Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States.
The first major difference between the live and the mirrored site was that the EPA page titled “Federal Partner Collaboration,” under the Obama administration was now changed to “EPA Adaptation Collaboration.” Four days later, researchers again spotted further changes to the climate and water and international cooperation pages. These changes shown in the removal of statements linking greenhouse gas emissions to climate change largely reflect a state of anthropogenic climate change denial by the current administration.
Environmental activism is as intertwined with the digital as much as the rest of our lives has become. Within the field of anthropology of new media there is room for development in the understanding of the function of new media in the production and consumption of knowledge and truth. This ethnography seeks to understand how new media shapes concepts of trust, knowledge, and resistance grounding these concepts within the context of new media environmental activism. Drawing on four months of fieldwork in online forums, WebEx meetings, and ethnographic interviews, my research attempts to unravel the activism infrastructures and the forms of resistance embodied by the guerilla archivists of US Government. I argue that this environmental activism looks towards data as the infrastructure of science and truth as well as a basis for action and resistance.
While my research focuses on the movement of environmental activists archiving the government webpages from the Obama administration, there is a history of climate change denialism by the previous Canadian administration that has informed the current activism. With the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, many environmentalist and climate scientists became concerned about the potential for climate data to be deleted. As a climate change denier, it has been clear by Trumps tweets and his nomination of Scott Pruitt to the EPA that he supports radical deregulation with regards to climate change. With this in mind, activists with a passion for environmental politics and a knack for data management and software skills volunteered to archive the Internet. The speed at which they were able to mobilize and the serious concern that was raised from the beginning however was highly informed by the actions of previous Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper (22nd Prime Minister 2006-2015).
The first archiving initiative of the American hosted climate change data was not actually in the US but instead was held at the University of Toronto. Their concern stemmed from a close-to-home experience of the Harper administration muzzling scientists and destroying environmental data. For example in 2006, the Harper government introduced heavy restrictions for how and when scientists were allowed to speak to the media ("Rescinded [2016-05-11] - Communications Policy of the Government of Canada." 2016). Then in 2012, Bill C-38 was passed which stripped away environmental protections and cut funding at research institutes around the country. Environmental data reports that had previously been published by Environment Canada also mysteriously went missing as well as all mention of the word ‘environmental’ on various government webpages such as the Navigable Waters Protection Act (Kingston 2015, par.5). Perhaps most shocking, especially in a circumstance where climate change is widely accepted as scientific truth, under the Harper administration, tax-funded environmental monitoring and protection was attacked. As a result, the Canadian population witnessed the closure of 200 scientific research institutions and libraries, many of which collected and monitored environmental data (Kingston 2015, par.10). This experience has left a concern towards the precarity of the digital world and digital data. It is arguable that the rapidity of the response to the Trump administration could be heavily informed by the Canadian experience and how Harper was able to slowly and quietly strip away so many protections for the environment. By the time people started putting the pieces together, budgets were being cut and data was literally disappearing. While the Trump administration is much more vocal about its intentions with regards to climate change science, it is fair to assume that the momentum that this movement has gained has been significantly informed by the Canadian experience.
Infrastructures of activism
“Like the Women’s March on Washington we have these activism flash-mobs these days that die out so quickly…you know...they have no staying power. But that’s not what I saw at the archiving event. What struck me right from the beginning was how they’re so highly structured and organized, like no other hackathon I had ever been to…so that’s what I told my story on”
Storyteller February 2017
The first step in this ethnography was to map and understand the various groups entangled in this archiving project. These activists have come together under a number of different groups including: EDGI (an international network of academics and non-profits that believes in evidence-based policy making and public interest science), Data Refuge (also http://www.ppehlab.org/), End of Term Presidential Harvest (an archive hosting site), Project Archivists Responding to Climate Change (ARCC), and Climate Mirror (a mirror hosting site). They organize on platforms publicly available like Twitter (using hashtags like: #datarefuge, #datarescue, #protectclimatedata, #OurEnviroData, and #standwithscience), Facebook, public websites, Slack, Google Doc and Excels, WebEx, GitHub, and communicating via encrypted email hosted on servers in Switzerland. Project ARCC has been working since early 2015 as a space for environmental archivists to organize and communicate with each other. ARCC is now partnered closely with Data Refuge, which is linked with EDGI and both EDGI and Data Refuge are linked to Climate Mirror. Climate Mirror is a hosting site that operates via mirroring and backing up U.S. Federal Climate Data redundantly around the world. EDGI has a GitHub run by University of Toronto, which is also linked with the End of Term Presidential Harvest for seeding. It is interesting because The End of Term Presidential Harvest has a very clear and concise organizational structure with a focus on both broad and focused, in-depth crawls, what they call a dual-edged approach. On their website it clearly outlines: Harvest, curation/selection, curation tool development, storage, content analysis, and access with each being assigned to different institutions.
It became clear early in my observation on that this was a public movement that had a “decentralized character in which different groups can focus on policy areas and infrastructure priorities that fit their interests and skills” (Whitington 2017). Once deciding the target URL, which can be nominated by anyone on Climate Mirror, these groups organize themselves under responsibilities outlined by EDGI. The first step is to use what they call ‘crawlers’. This task is often for people with less experience or fewer software skills. A webcrawler is a program that visits a web page, stores a copy, then examines the page looking for links to other web pages, follows those links, and repeats the process for every new page found. The second and more difficult task is that of ‘seeding and sorting’. Since there are limitations to the software and not everything can be webcrawled, a human decides what can be webcrawled and what needs the more advance processes of getting ‘harvested’. Harvesting involves a talented hacker who has to figure out how to archive what the seeders and sorters deem un-crawlable. An example of this is how to store rich data from Environmental Protection Agency website which hosts hourly information collected from thousands of sites across the US on air quality and emissions. Out of curiosity I downloaded one of these Excel’s on one factory in Jefferson, Alabama, a file so big my computer could not even handle downloading the entire thing.
What has been most interesting is the overlap between organizations and fluidity of these groups. They organize publicly on Google Docs and Excel workflows and since you do not have to be an expert, nearly anyone can join and help. It appears as though Data Refuge and EDGI are involved most heavily in the organization but that the movement heavily depends on who volunteers and spurs a movement in their own city. EDGI decides what is important based on public input and establishes a public Google Doc with sub primers, background, software and programs that will be used (e.g. Python) as well as a risk assessment of each type of archiving they will be doing. ARCC has been archiving since 2015 and have come together with EDGI and Data Refuge. In fact, in WebEx meeting on January 14th, 2017 ARCC communications talked about Data Refuge and a woman named Margaret joined in the meeting for 15 minutes with an update on #DataRefuge update from University of Pennsylvania.
In mapping out the structures that create these networks, the theme of the infrastructures of contemporary environmental activism started to emerge. In an interview with a storyteller, I found that there was an emphasis on the temporality of the movements itself. He explained that activism has largely been boiled down to what he calls “activism flash mobs” which mobilize and diffuse extremely rapidly. This means they don’t have the longevity to establish an activism infrastructure. He goes on to explain how this is not what happened with Data Rescue folks. I thought this was interesting so to understand it better I tried to map out the infrastructure of the archiving events, which demonstrate the stability of these infrastructures to create the basis for the movement. In this map above we can see the ways in which the tightly coordinated yet fluid networks create the infrastructure that is simultaneously resilient yet adaptable with the capacity to engage people from around the globe with various skill sets who all believe in the fundamental value of science as truth.
Data as the infrastructure of science
“this stuff [data] they’re archiving they’re doing it because it’s what proves that climate change is real…People are here because they care about what happens to it and umm what happens if, or well, when, the new administration messes with the data”
Archivist February 2017
The undeniable realness of climate change is what drove the action behind the movement of the archiving events. The previous section mapped out the stability of the activism infrastructure and how it itself is constituted. This section consists of mapping out the various structures that come together at the archiving events to shape the accessibility and the stability of the data itself as the foundation of trustworthy science.
The fact of climate change and how science proves this was a common theme amongst all archivers (many of whom were scientists) at these events. The data creates what they understand evidence-based environmental governance and facilitated the archiving projects as a work of an international network of scientists, STS scholars, and archivists, who all bring together various perspectives to the archiving environmental data. There was no doubt for them that the data itself constitutes the very infrastructure of science. What gives science its form and its validity is in fact the data which now needs to be protected because of its digital precarity. To think through this theme of infrastructures, I read Karina Knorr Cetina who explains how science creates knowledge (represented in this case through data) and that these epistemic cultures or expert systems are the basis of knowledge society. In this context the mapping of these infrastructures is not concerned with the “construction of knowledge but rather in the construction of the machineries of knowledge construction” (Knorr-Cetina 2009, p.3). In other words, it is the infrastructures of expert scientific systems that create data as knowledge and truth. In the field of science and technology studies (STS) the understanding of the construction of knowledge show that it requires infrastructure, effort, and validation structures (Sismondo 2017, p.3). The archivists mobilized because they felt as though the current administration would put this data infrastructure at risk and destabilize the ‘machineries of knowledge construction’. Ulrich Beck also enhances this understanding through his theorizing on the politics and science and his depiction of the transformation of the political sphere through corporate bodies of scientists. In the context of data archiving, these electronic information structures of the data present a situation in which the political sphere has enormous influence over what happens in the scientific sphere and the basis of our society.
With these scholars in mind I mapped out the infrastructure of the movement. The first part of the activist infrastructure is the research frameworks from Data Refuge, Project Amber, and Guerilla Archiving, which create the basic framework of the projects. There are also the scholarly and activist networks such as EDGI, Project ARCC, and Guerilla Archiving, which create the networks of individuals taking part in the archiving. Beyond the abstract infrastructures, there are also the material infrastructures of these activist networks. These include things such as the secure and accessible archives discussed at the beginning of this section such as: Climate Mirror, End of Term Archive, as well as private storage spaces volunteered by activists. A core component of the archiving infrastructure is also the technological tools that facilitate the archiving. These include tools such as Azimuth which is a wireless channel emulators and wireless test equipment, Python, Project Amber which is smaller, productivity-oriented Java language, as well as open software libraries. There are also the very physical tools the archivists rely on such as the rooms they host events, the electricity required to run the computers, PowerPoint’s, the computers themselves to coordinate people over large distances, the facilities in place to get them to and from events. Through the mapping of these networks it became apparent that archival work is a form of political disruption in which the data itself constitutes the framework upon which science is created and regarded as truth.
Data Rescue and Trust
“Well I think it [the archiving] is going to respond to the threats…Um you know it’s one thing to sort of be on the ship that is slowly taking on water and you know throwing everything you know you can find frantically into a life boat and that’s sort of how this started.”
Storyteller February 2017
“I understood how important government data can be and you know one of the other things I worked on sort of in the activist mode was open data, the movement to get government entities to open up their data to the public.”
Archivist February 2017
According to Anthony Giddens, trust is confidence in the reliability of a person or system, regarding a set of outcomes or events where that confidence expresses a faith in the correctness of this technical knowledge. Rather than trust in the operations itself, it is rather in their functioning that modern trusts functions. He explains how modern trust rests on blind faith in impersonal abstract principles of which people are largely ignorant. It is founded on the acceptance that expert systems work, that regulatory agencies have the authority and through modern educational institutions an attitude of faith in such systems is reproduced (Giddens 1990: 29, 89).
Writing in 1990 Giddens defines trust relation to risk, a term that only comes into being in the modern period and is largely applicable in our neoliberal state of individual risk and responsibility. The degree to which our lives are now mediated through Internet and new media infrastructures presents a new interpretation of this sort of trust that Giddens theorizes, especially in the case of guerilla archiving. While we live in an era of big data extraordinary amounts of information where the great majority of the world is tightly intertwined however relying on the Internet is still precarious. In both the Trump and Harper administrations, this precarity becomes extremely apparent. In the Canadian experience, the consolidation of information online from print material to digital copies has resulted in the disappearance of large quantities of data. Governments also now have the ability of to alter or delete vast amounts of information quickly and without any evidence. It is this precarity, in part, that the guerilla archivists are responding to.
Where Giddens’ theory falters in this application is with his assertion that there is a blind faith in expert systems and abstract principles. In a brief mapping of the networks it becomes extremely apparent that the data rescuers are not ignorant of the abstract principles through which data and science function. They do not approach these systems of knowledge as if they exist in a black box and instead many are highly knowledgeable about the inner workings of the creation of the data, how it is stored, why it is important etc. They are not simply trusting in the function but rather they know and understand the operation of scientific data. In addition, the guerilla archivists do not trust the regulatory agencies or the expert systems that Giddens says exists. They express a certain faith in the correctness of the technical knowledge however they do not have confidence in the expert systems that hold the data. In response, they are scraping data to host elsewhere. We can see how in this circumstance of the data archiving, it is not that they do not trust the institutions that create the information. They largely regard science as truth and as such a contradiction emerges in their feelings of trust. They have a blind faith in the truth and authority of science but this falters in the trust of government. It is in fact the other bodies of power that have influence over the data (not the science itself) where they have a fault in trust. Through their actions the archivists in some way reinforce traditional structures of power and science. Instead of changing or presenting an alternate version of history, the goal of data rescue archivists is to save and store the data created by government-funded scientists and hosted on government platforms. As opposed to reinterpreting or creating an alternative narrative of history, the goal of the archivists is to decentralize this information (Currie and Paris 2017, par.22).
The struggle for truth in a post-truth era
“it is ridiculous that this many people felt so threatened by the new administration that we need to archive the data that universally has been accepted as pointing to fact” (by fact meaning climate change)
Archivist February 2017
“Now they’re [the archivists] sort of thinking more long term and what does this mean, um you know you can’t just throw things willy nilly into the lifeboat if you’re thinking that way you have to be structured….and you know methodical, and you know you need to um find some way to you know validate the data, show that it’s not contaminated”
Storyteller February 2016
Questions of knowledge and public trust (or a lack there-of) were a central theme in both interviews as well as the archiving organizing platforms. There was a lack in trust of the incoming administration to take seriously what is widely regarded as fact in the scientific community. One archivist explained that it was ridiculous how threatened they felt by the incoming administration, so much so that they needed to archive climate change science, something that is regarded by many as scientific fact. In Power and Truth (1980), Foucault posits that every society has a unique regime of truth. He argues that there is a ‘general politics’ of truth or types of discourse that a society can accept and makes function as true. This in turn creates the mechanisms that enable one to distinguish true and false statements and in this way there is a battle for or at least around truth. He also explains how there are specific effects of power attached to the ‘true’. In the context of the US elections a new term, “post-truth” kept on cropping up in the news and it has been theorized that we are entering into a post-truth era (Sismondo 2017; Fuller 2016). This term that word of they year in the Oxford Dictionary in 2016 has been defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” ("Word of the Year 2016." Oxford Dictionary). The “post” in post-truth, does not mean “after,” but rather points to the disinterest or even disdain for what had once been accepted and valued as undisputed.
The idea of data as pointing to fact was another theme that came up repeatedly in my interviews. There was a major concern with what truth was and how the data itself actually was truth and that was something that the “fake news” and the new administration was going to change. The hackathon of archivists was not only about archiving itself but also about creating an active and participatory kind of Foucauldian politics of truth. Foucault explains how the primary political challenge today is changing the “political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth” in order to create a new “politics of truth” where truth modeled after scientific discourse (Foucault 1980, p.133). Because that data is the infrastructure of science (which I explained above), and science is considered by many to be the basis of truth in our society, these data archivists can be perceived as in the struggle for the preservation of truth in a post-truth era. In fact the goal of data rescues was not to challenge the science or the data itself, but rather to protect it from a “post-truth” mentality that makes climate change denial or even disinterest seem socially accepted. These activists were rallying against this disdain for data as the infrastructure of science and truth and for the preservation of this digital infrastructure. An interesting challenge arose in this project however with regards to how to prove the trustworthiness or legitimacy of the data they were archiving. This presented a fairly significant technical challenge because while data can easily be erased, proving that it has not been tampered with is quite challenging. To address these concerns, while the archivists store copies of climate datasets, they are simultaneously computing hash codes for both the original and the archived data to demonstrate the authenticity of the copy. While the entanglement with new media changes how guerilla archiving can be done and presents new challenges, it still is a way to resist dominant forms of power. In the context of Data Rescue, it is a way for them to resist the post-truth climate change denialism of the new administration in an era of information precarity.
New forms of resistance
“I think it’s important I mean the phrase that comes up again and again you hear, you know in the States these days there is resistance. Resistance to the Trump administration you know and resistance takes many forms. Um and this is a very sort of specific niche kind of resistance and I thought it was important to document it.”
Storyteller February 2017
Archiving of knowledge and cultures has been approached as a form of resistance of various political regimes. For example in Nazi-occupied Europe, archiving operations responded to a regime that wanted to erase the existence of any scholarly Jewish voices (Noack 2015). The Mazer Lesbian Archive acts as a historical record of the American lesbian community from the mid 1980’s ("Where Lesbians Live Forever” 2017). Documenting Ferguson is a digital archive that seeks to preserves and provides access to content relating to the events and experiences that transpired after the killing of Michael Brown run by librarians, faculty, and administrators at Washington University in St. Louis (Documenting Ferguson 2015). In these examples, the archiving often took the form of physical evidence (i.e. manuscripts, books, photographs, letters etc). In the case of the guerrilla archiving, the shift into an era of entwinement with new media shaped the forms of resistance that this activist infrastructure could take. The data itself was not something concrete that could be stored but rather is hosted on servers around the world. While this entanglement with new media and archiving was also seen in the Egyptian uprisings of 2011 where the archiving of the revolution was itself a form of resistance, they still were archiving photos and news documents. In the context of guerrilla archiving, it does act as a new form of resistance who’s digitality presents it with new challenges for authenticity.
While “Activist archives are often initiated to document specific issues, events, or groups—not merely as a celebration of uncontested identity or history but as an intentional disruption of the dominant historical narrative” (Sellie, Goldstein, Fair & Hoyer 2015, p.5) in the context of data rescue, they actually are not trying to resist or reshape dominant historical narratives. Rather they are resisting the contemporary narrative of what our reality is by archiving the historical environmental data. However similar to historical archival projects, guerrilla archiving as an “activist archives promote(s) community empowerment and social change” (Sellie, Goldstein, Fair & Hoyer 2015, p.5). The Internet itself is inherently precarious and through new media new forms of resistance through archiving was formed. In part the storytelling (like this ethnography) form a type of resistance in a new media age. By treating federal scientific data as a public utility, data rescues create an occasion for community and political resistance. In the ecosystem of contemporary environmental activism, the platform of new media provides new avenues for forms of resistance. One thing I started thinking about was that through this archiving they are also resisting the post-truth regime and the Trump administration. A general theme has was new media facilities these forms of resistance by its ability to travel its ability to include and the speed and ease and which it can mobilize people
Data rescue and the guerrilla archiving presents a reimagining of environmental activism in a time where our lives are tightly intertwined with technology. In the current political climate, public trust in government has been significantly eroded. The precariousness of the Internet and the ability for data to disappear without notice creates and environment in which the government is hard to keep accountable. Through this ethnography we examined how in response to this lack of trust has been to archive data, which is viewed by activists as the very infrastructures of science. For them, the data itself holds a truth and validity that is at risk of being denied by a post-truth government. The archiving of these websites is not a neutral act but instead presents a platform where individuals from around the world can collectively create a sphere of political resistance in a post-truth era.
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