Generative Justice: The Revolution Will Be Self-Organized

To the revolutionary protest movements of the 1980s, “demonization of technology—television as the opiate of the people—seemed indisputable,” writes Eglash. Today that view has changed, as a host of new technologies offers extraordinary opportunities for inspiring and energizing citizens. Credit: Creative Commons/Daniel Villar Onrubia.

In the 1980s I split my time between graduate school and getting arrested for civil disobedience in the anti-apartheid movement. Our anthem was Gil Scott-Heron’s song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” At the time this kind of demonization of technology—television as the opiate of the people—seemed indisputable. But today there are different technologies available, and many of them have an extraordinary potential for radicalizing and empowering citizens. In fact let me take that claim a step further: technologies are no longer just giving us better tools for organizing, as broadsheets and Xerox machines did in the past. They are now changing our ideas about the very forms of order that social justice requires. The revolution may not be televised, but it will be self-organized.

“Self-organization” was first observed in nature: flocks of birds swerve in beautiful patterns without a leader; termites build nests without a blueprint; even simple molecules of water can organize themselves into spectacular snowflakes. More recently we have started to think of self-organization as something people do with technology: the old top-down model of Encyclopedia Britannica, with its tweed jacket experts and expensive bindings has given way to Wikipedia, democratically “crowdsourced” and freely available to all. In one sense there is nothing new about linking the science and technology of self-organization with social justice. Peter Kropotkin, the nineteenth-century Russian prince turned anarchist, began his career as a scientist. In the opening paragraph of his best-known work, Mutual Aid, he writes that on his expedition to Eastern Siberia, he expected to see the increasingly harsh landscape provide increasingly vivid examples of the competitive struggle that was the motor for Darwinian evolution and Social Darwinists alike. But what he found was the opposite: nature was teeming with examples of cooperation, and the human inhabitants of these frigid lands were more likely to invite him into their yurt for a bowl of yak stew than attack him. Kropotkin’s simultaneous activism with international workers movements and scientific rebuttals to social Darwinists is a model often cited by the growing movement to bring together self-organization and social justice today: the movement for “generative justice.”

Marx was right about the delusion that money creates: you can’t take two dollar bills, put them in a closet, and expect them to give birth to a third. But while money is not a true source of value generation, nature and labor really do generate value. The Marxist vision of industry extracting value, and the state returning it to those who generate it, created a middle man who is often corrupt and always inefficient. There was more environmental damage and toxic pollution under Soviet socialism than there was under U.S. capitalism. That’s not to say the free market has done much better: extracting value and returning it via taxes might provide the “superfund” we apply to pollution disasters, but it doesn’t stop pollution from happening in the first place. Extracting value and distributing it later—whether by state ownership or taxes—is often referred to as “distributive justice.” The alternative is to allow those who generate value to keep it circulating through their own networks: hence the term “generative justice.”

An urban farm in Shenzhen City, China. The “Critical Growing” framework helps to explain how organic gardening techniques and food justice programs cut out the middle man and retain value for the local community. Credit: Creative Commons/dcmaster.

I owe much of my understanding of generative justice from the terrific graduate students I work with in the department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer. Dan Lyles has developed a framework he calls “critical growing”—a term that covers activities such as urban agriculture, seed saver programs, biodiversity projects, and other radical alternatives to corporate capitalism’s “green revolution.” Lyles points out that organic gardening techniques like composting are allowing “soil value” to stay in the local circulation of nature’s generative circuits; combine that with food justice programs that help to keep exchanges of labor in local circulation, and you have cut out the middle man: value is returned to the value-makers directly. Colin Garvey, another graduate student, investigates how large-scale industrial symbiosis—closed cycle networks in which companies use each other’s byproducts, made famous by the corporations of Kalundborg, Denmark—might serve as a model for mom-and-pop-scale entrepreneurs. David Banks, another young scholar, has begun to investigate how to build local generative capacity with digital technologies: my favorite example is a condom vending machine we have developed for West Africa that sends a text message to the vendor when it is empty.

Technologies of Self-Organization

Scholars such as Evgeny Morozov have ridiculed some of these ideas, and there are indeed plenty of foibles to be found. In To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism he rightly notes that attributing messianic powers to Facebook or Twitter, or expecting a “fix” to problems simply by “digitally quantifying, tracking, or gamifiying behavior” is worse than mere folly; these mechanisms cannot substitute for the fundamentally human role that concepts such as ethnics and citizenship need to play in guiding our own behavior. But let’s compare Facebook to a more profound techno-social system: the Open Source movement. Facebook is perhaps more liberating than the television technology despised by Scott-Heron, and a limited case could be made for role of Facebook, Twitter, and similar platforms in events like the Arab Spring (although I will dispute that shortly). But while at first glance Facebook may appear to be a digital version of Kropotkin’s communitarian vision, it actually operates more like a trip to the mall: a “public” space that feels so much like freedom that we don’t notice how regulated our behaviors become, and how extractive it becomes to our sources of value. Facebook offers shallow recursion: self-organizing media that limits generative capacity to a thin veneer.

In contrast, the Open Source movement has the ability to create its own generative capacity; it has recursive depth. If I create software and ground its legal ownership in something called the “Creative Commons,” others can take that same source code and modify it, creating better versions, new functionality, and even—I hear Marx rolling in his grave—new commodities. But that is not merely an invitation for corporate capitalism. In the realm of “social entrepreneurship,” Open Source distributions such as Kilimo Salama, a weather micro-insurance system for small-holder agriculture in Kenya, have supported the pursuit of a Jeffersonian vision of independent farmers and small-scale autonomous enterprise.

In contrast to Facebook, which “limits generative capacity to a thin veneer,” digital networks utilized in the Arab Spring’s Tunisian Revolution encouraged activists to generate novel and redeveloped platforms of dissent. Credit: Creative Commons/Maciej Dakowicz.

That is why it is so important to recognize the deep recursion of events like the Arab spring. The digital networks involved date back to 1998 when a small group of Tunisians began a website called Takriz. Their demands for open Internet access brought the wrath of dictator Ben Ali. Later participants in this network incorporated “creative misuse” of information technologies: for example, patiently searching plane-spotter sites to create an exposé of the dictator’s wife Leila using the presidential jet to go shopping, and layering videos of human rights testimony with charts of Tunisia’s prisons onto Google Earth. Other developments included Nawaat, an early Tunisian citizen journalism website; Academy of Change, an Arabic online group promoting nonviolent civil disobedience with an Open Source game (built on an earlier Egyptian version); and El Général, a middle-class Tunisian rapper who streamed “soundtracks for the revolution.” It is this creative layering that offers recursive depth. Contrary to the misleading portraits of a revolution empowered by a spontaneous “viral” spread through the shallow recursion of tweets and Facebook, it was a decades-old build-up of deeper generative capacity.

Generative Justice

Ellen Foster, another grad student at Rensselaer, has investigated the potential for generative justice in the physical version of Open Source: the Maker Movement. Michael Lerner is probably right that the U.S. Left has been “hamstrung by its failure to understand the psychological and spiritual needs of the American public.” But while youth attendance today is declining in churches, synagogues, and mosques, youth are increasingly showing up in the neighborhood Maker Space, learning 3-D printing and Arduino circuits, and using Citizen Sensing through radical groups such as the Public Lab for Open Technologies (PLOTS), which takes on pollution issues ranging from hydrofracking to oil spills.

While Kropotkin unfortunately felt that violence was sometimes justified, it was the ethical basis for his anarchism that made his ideas attractive to his colleagues such as Tolstoy, and as we know, Tolstoy passed on a vision for nonviolent generative justice to the young editor of a South African newspaper, Indian Opinion, in 1909. That editor, Mohandas Gandhi, used these very concepts of self-organization—in his translation to Hindi, Swaraj—to liberate India from the British; later becoming an inspiration to another young activist, Martin Luther King Jr.

The Open Source movement allows for constant modification and improvement—paving the way for generative justice. Credit: Creative Commons/Timothy Appnel.

Generative justice is not a movement for “technological solutionism.” Indeed some of its solutions might be mistaken for Luddite rejections of technology. In an engineering conference I recently attended, one of the papers proposed a waste disposal system that replaced the city landfill with a motley assortment of recycling activities ranging from artistic repurposing of objects to local garden composing. When one of the engineers asked about the efficiencies that would be lost by abandoning “economies of scale” from the larger enterprise, the presenter seemed at a loss to explain. From my point of view, it was not a step backward away from industrial modernity, but rather a step forward—toward a future governed by generative justice.

While our engineering vision may seem befuddled by the challenge to reconceive more “organic” life-ways as more sophisticated technologies, our political savvy can be equally myopic by generative justice’s high-tech counterparts. For example, a recent cover of Wired magazine featured Kevin Kelly’s article on Open Source, mistakenly titled “The New Socialism.” Kelly was reaching for a phrase he did not have: Open Source is no more a socialist movement than a capitalist one. What the Civil Rights movement did for legal citizenship, generative justice will do for developing a new conception of technological citizenship. We are a nation of nerds.

(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Spring 2014 print issue: Does America Need a Left? Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit to read the other articles published so far in this series—we will continue to update that page as new articles come out.)


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