By now, we’ve all seen the image of the ‘riot hipster’, taking a selfie in front of a bonfire, lit up by his fellow anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation protesters. The photo was taken in Hamburg, which hosted the G20 meeting last weekend.
Inside, the leaders of the 20 wealthiest countries in the world were trying to agree on a series of thorny issues, from global trade, to Brexit, to climate change. Outside, thousands of angry protesters were breaking things, starting fires and trying to get their voices heard, only to be met with water cannons and a generous dose of state violence.
For those who are aware of the state of international politics, this kind of turmoil comes as no surprise. The G20 are supposed to find solutions to a series of problems plaguing the world, most of them caused by the same system which allows them to be . . . well, G20. Previous meetings were sometimes held in more remote, secluded places, which made protesting trickier. Not this time. Hamburg has a tradition on leftist/radical activism, which made last weekend really predictable. Even the impressive choreography of the ‘zombie rally’ could be anticipated, in an era of flash mobs and DIY filmmaking.
But nobody was ready for the ‘riot hipster’; the well-groomed bearded young man, dressed in black, and taking a selfie with his phone raised an uproar – at least in the realm of social media. Of course, there is still some doubt regarding the authenticity of the photo – some say that the man was photoshopped against the fiery background. It doesn’t matter. Because the outrage was real. The image of a protester carrying a smartphone – an iPhone, no less – spurred a wave of comments condemning the mere possession of the device as hypocritical.
How is it possible for an anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation protester to be holding a symbol of capitalism, of consummerism, of profit, of cheap labour in Asian factories? Surely, the irony is not lost on him. This kind of criticism resonated deeply in Greece, where journalists described the anti-G20 riots as having an ‘essence of Exarchia’, which probably means that for the Greek media, leftist activism and anti-establishment protest is something that is part of the local colour of the Athenian neighbourhood, not something that responds to certain social, political and economic circumstances. The ‘smartphone’ argument proved to be very appealing for Greek pundits, pontificating that it is capitalism that created the smartphone they are using to document their rioting. This is not the first time in Greece that possession of a smartphone was deemed hypocritical.
A couple of years ago, when the first wave of refugees and migrants started arriving by boats on the Greek islands, many Greeks were suspicious of the devastated people carrying smartphones and argued that this is proof that they are not genuine refugees but financial migrants, if not altogether jihadi terrorists on a mission from ISIS.
This only proves how out of touch with reality those who endorse these views are. In their minds, a person worthy of sympathy and humane treatment should be raggedy, poor, desperate, dirty and illiterate. And an anti-establishment activist should be a luddite, rejecting technology altogether, a backwards person. Anyone thinking like that needs a reality check.
They should ask Refunite, one of the most significant non-government organisations that reconnect families of refugees, based on the fact that most of them have access to a mobile phone, or to broadband internet – which, in its turn, is considered a human right, but don’t tell this to the people in the centre-and-right part of the political spectrum. They are not ready to concede. They fail to understand that the world is not the same as it was in the early days of the 20th century: that we all have access to information, that we are all connected.
A smartphone is not a ‘symbol’; it is a tool, it’s a camera and a megaphone, a computer, a notebook and – yes, a telephone. It is something that allows communication, that allows users to motivate, to send messages, to call to action. Little matters whether it bears a bitten apple on it or not. The medium is not necessarily the message. And if it is, maybe we should think of what kind of message it is. If a smartphone is a symbol of globalisation, this should concern those voting on trade agreements which approve of low-paid workers making parts for the phones. It was these workers who ‘crafted’ the smartphones, them, not capitalism, people, not an idea.
No ‘-ism’ can produce things and services – it can only regulate who benefits and who profits. Anti-establishment protesters (and refugees before them) don’t fetishise smartphones, pretty much the way a builder does not fetishise shovels and a technician does not fetishise screwdrivers. They are just tools, which are used for a purpose. In fact, it is those who see smartphones as ‘symbols’ who are fetishising them, attributing some kind of magical power to them. They should look in the mirror and contemplate this distorted notion of things and people. And maybe take a selfie while they are at it.