Graduation Project Proposal Draft 3 – November 1st 2018
What do you want to make?
I am interested in exploring the ways netizenship and citizenship inform each other in present-day Indonesia. As a writer and a designer I have always been fascinated by the culture and the sociality of the internet – what habits are we designing? What relationships are we sustaining? And who is ‘we’?
When it comes to the context of Indonesia, social media in particular has become inseparable from youth culture. Millenials like me use it as a space to share ideas, perform their identities, and engage in alternative political discourse. I am interested in the exploring the challenges and opportunities connected to the latter, especially as the country struggles with widening political divides. What can I reveal about the censorship mechanisms that play out on these platforms? How do the self-censorship habits we have offline, manifest themselves online – and how does it consider gender? Can we experiment with these tendencies, or build tools to break them?
Ultimately my aim with this project is to research the limits of political and religious expression on Indonesian social media, and propose tactics / design platforms to challenge them.
Why do you want to make it?
Being born and raised in Indonesia, my motivations for this project are both personal and political. After 8 years living and working here in the Netherlands, I plan to return to Indonesia next year to set up my publishing practice there. But in the last few years, I’ve noticed a worrying trend in the public culture: while the number of media platforms seem to be growing, the scope of expression and discussion seem to be shrinking. New, stringent laws on issues like pornography, blasphemy and defamation, combined with rising religious intolerance in society, has created a hostile environment for freedom of speech in Indonesia. In fact, according to a recent index on democracy and media freedom, “Indonesia was the worst-performing country in 2017, falling by 20 places in the global rankings from 48th to 68th position.” (The Economist, 2017) As a publisher (and a non-muslim, biracial Indonesian woman), my instinct is to resist these mechanisms of suppression, and to carve out spaces for more open conversations between young people in the country.
Relation to larger context
Today, Indonesia is at an interesting crossroads in its political and cultural evolution. In 1998, the authoritarian regime led by President Suharto finally collapsed, after 31 years in power. The simultaneous arrival of networked media and Internet culture played an important role during this time. Mobile phone and internet usage skyrocketed, alternative media sources proliferated, and so did the consumption of pop culture (Heryanto, 2017). As a result, the first few years of the new millenium felt like a moment of opening up, and of substantial advances in freedom of expression, and freedom of connection.
However, these extended freedoms are proving difficult to sustain. Though we now have more access to knowledge, other forces continue to impede meaningful political discourse. A low level of media literacy outside of urban centres is one factor. Corruption in mainstream media industries is another. But one of the most influential cultural forces in contemporary Indonesian society, is the rise of political and religious extremism. Twenty years on, the pluralist, secular democracy we fought so hard to achieve feels uneven at best, and deceptive at worst.
For me, one of the most acute symptoms of this volatile political climate is the spread of (self)-censorship. Throughout the last ten years, the state has intensified its censorship activities, drawing up legislations which inhibit freedom of speech and religion. According to Freedom House, under the current administration of President Joko Widodo, “religious and other minorities face ongoing harassment and intimidation, often with the tacit approval of local governments and security forces”. In addition, women and LGBT people remain subject to discriminatory local bylaws regulating dress and behavior.
These processes play out both offline and online, with social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram becoming some of the most heated battlegrounds. What concerns me and intrigues me the most, is seeing these mechanisms become internalized by the people. Netizens are self-policing, creating an atmosphere of fear and a mob mentality. In this way, several subjects have become taboo, including the public expression of minor faiths, of female sexuality and agency, or Indonesian history and culture before the arrival of Islam.
This is where I would like to intervene. Thanks to its velocity, its polyvocal and participatory nature, social media offers valuable spaces for young Indonesians to engage in alternative political discourse. However, free and open discussion on these platforms need to be actively maintained – and defended. What if we could we troll the trollers, weaponize the silent majority, empower the ‘almost-speakers’? In a country where free speech is becoming a risk more than a right, we need more tools to and safe spaces to discuss, disagree and deconstruct what it means to be a modern Indonesian citizen.
I think this topic is also timely and relevant beyond the context of Indonesia, as politics becomes more polarised across the globe, and social media proves to be a vital force in public culture.
How do you plan to make it?
I would start by conducting a close-reading of the current digital media landscape in Indonesia. In particular, I want to analyse the way young Indonesians on both sides of the political spectrum are using social media in their interest. How does it contrast to the way traditional media is produced and consumed? Where are the opportunities and barriers when it comes to (self-)censorship, literacy and access? Then, I will research how other groups / artists / publishers have tackled this issue in other countries, specifically in similar South-East Asia contexts.
During this time I want to continue last trimester’s experiments of prototyping software that would allow for a) reading information and b) sharing information. For example, could I write a programme which helps me analyse the indicators of self-censorship in comments sections? Something like Politwoops – using Selenium and html5lib – that scrapes Instagram comments periodically and saves those that have been subsequently deleted? What about a bot that intervenes in a back and forth discussion between commenters?
Finally, I plan to learn more about web and mobile application frameworks like Django and Flask, so that I could prototype platforms or instances of local networks which allow for the open expression of its members. These could be hybrids of existing concepts like chat rooms, temporal social media apps like Snapchat, political blogs, or even forums like 4chan.
What is your timetable?
September - October: research and make an analysis of the current use of social media in Indonesia, find where the gaps are, specify what is really needed and where I could intervene. Contact relevant figures in Indonesia. Research existing media tactics, platforms and services which play in the same context.
November: Prototype / make sketches of possible outcomes. What kind of structure would it have technically? Who is the end user? What is my role – editor, facilitator, gatekeeper? Continue to develop my position while touching base with relevant figures in Indonesia.
December - March: Develop prototypes, define scope of the project (technically and theoretically). Will it be a series or tools or one platform? How will I present it in the final exhibition? Sketch this out and start organising the materials and help I’ll need. Complete thesis.
April - June: Finish practical project, prepare final presentation.
Who can help you and how?
Clara Balaguer, for her experience running an alternative publishing platform in the Philippines. Amy Wu, for her knowledge on censorship in China and the political use of new digital media (memes, social media etc.) Artist and WDKA tutor Reinaart Vanhoe, for his work with Indonesian institution RuangRupa. Other Indonesian designers / artists / publishing spaces currently working in the intersection of media, technology and culture, such as Forum Lenteng, Lifepatch, Taman Baca Kesiman and Magdalene Indonesia.
Relation to previous practice
Similar questions explored during the Poortgebouw project: What are the politics of representation and of erasure? The idea of the artist as an archivist (and vice versa). How to tell stories and create communities in precarious contexts?
Similar questions explored during the OuNuPo project: Technology is not a neutral practice. What cultures do we reproduce when we write programmes? How can we design platforms or tools with an attitude? Who is included / excluded in the process of knowledge production?
Similar questions explored during the XPPL / Interfacing the Law project: How do you engage with unstable information? Can we design reading / searching interfaces that are able to represent uncertainty, locate outsides, explore agonisms? How can we intervene during the process of ‘downloading’ and ‘uploading’ information? Where are the grey areas when it comes to accessing and distributing knowledge?