New School News

Hacking in Moscow–With an Urban Twist

Professor Nitin Sawhney leads a group discussion during his workshop at the Strelka Institute in Moscow this past July.

From the rise of the Bolsheviks to the trial and sentencing of Pussy Riot, Moscow has long been a site of political struggle. And as Russian society has evolved, so have its citizens’ methods of political action: from the cold war–era samizdat to cyber-dissidence to urban hacking, a movement in which Nitin Sawhney, assistant media studies professor at The New School for Public Engagement, is playing a leading role.

“Urban hacking combines virtual and physical action,” says Sawhney. “We are beginning to see activists using both public and online space as platforms for intervening in public discourse.” This union between the physical and virtual worlds represents a new phenomenon in social action—one involving activity ranging from political activism to community engagement—and the traditionally closed Russian society is beginning to feel its effects.

For ten days in late July, Sawhney and his research assistant, Christo de Klerk, (a MA candidate in media studies at The New School), led 12 design students from Moscow’s Strelka Institute in a series of workshops. Students from the school, in collaboration New School alumna Shriya Malhorta and artist MAKE/ Anton Polsky,  developed projects in which media and technology could be employed to help communities take direct action to improve their urban environment. Local residents identified everyday needs unmet by government agencies—such as crosswalks or public signage—and students worked with them to devise solutions.

Sawhney identifies these actions as a form of “urban tactics” in which citizens use both virtual and physical space to solve civic problems. Following this approach, workshop participants split into four teams to collaborate with local activists on projects in neighborhoods across Moscow. For instance, one of Sawhney’s groups set out to help residents share resources and exchange services in the neighborhood of Troparevo. The group created an online public forum and installed physical mailboxes in central locations in which residents without Internet access could physically submit questions to the forum.

Sawhney immediately noticed positive results. “Not only did we have people participating in the online community, but we saw direct action and interaction in the physical world. In just ten days, we witnessed the building of real relationships.”

A kind of barter system developed soon after the mailboxes and online forum were put into place. “We proposed a system where an individual could write a letter offering to exchange services or goods. For example, a babushka [Russian for “grandmother”] offered to cook in exchange for having something fixed in her home. She placed her letter in one of our mailboxes, and it was then published in the online forum,” said Sawhney. “It actually worked.” Sawhney and his teams hope that projects such as the resource-sharing initiative will lead to larger community management efforts.

Other projects were more directly political in nature. One group worked to organize protests against the building of a highway through a neighborhood, while another sought to positively influence a major real estate development that threatened a historic site.

In a political system in which public participation and organizing are heavily scrutinized, interventions such as the one in Troparevo offer new tools to facilitate community integration. To Sawhney, these efforts represent the first steps toward greater public involvement—and, potentially, to civic dissent. Exploring the interaction between virtual and physical worlds involved in the workshop projects serves another purpose, as well: It supports Sawhney’s research efforts to examine the evolution of civil disobedience and collective action.

“Activism in Russia right now is super gutsy,” Sawhney says, emphasizing the extreme limitations on open discourse in Russia. He notes that creating new systems of community engagement brings a special energy to the program: “I think this project would’ve been completely boring anywhere else.”

Pointing out that Russia generally lacks the kind of grassroots organization other established democracies take for granted, Sawhney embraced the opportunity to begin a project of civic activism from scratch. “Of course, the illicit nature of some of our work within the context of Russia, and my fears that we could be subject to arrest, added another level of excitement,” Sawhney says.

Cases like the Pussy Riot trial underscore the need for robust public discourse in the nation—a feature of healthy civil society that the workshop participants hope to help bring about, block by city block.

Learn more about the project here.

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