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16. A letter from Jakarta

March 21, 2015

Many years ago, in 1987, I left Madrid and came to Jakarta to become a journalist. For about a year, I was a trainee at Tempo magazine and a stringer with Spain’s national newsagency, EFE.

I lived with local host families and learned reasonably good Indonesian, but couldn’t quite figure out Indonesia. So I decided to become an anthropologist.

(I was also a lousy journalist, too laid-back, or so I gathered from one of my mentors, the poet and journalist Goenawan Mohamad).

After a long detour, I am back in Jakarta. This time as an anthropologist.

I am still trying to figure out Indonesia, only this time I have entered through a portal that didn’t exist back then: Indonesia’s internet activism scene.

I started off last year in the city of Yogyakarta, the cultural centre of Java, where I learned about Engage Media, Kampung Halaman, Lifepatch, Combine and other initiatives that are making interesting uses of the internet and digital media.

In Yogyakarta I also caught up with my former PhD student Kurniawan Saputro. His thesis is a brilliant  study of the uses of digital media in the wake of the 2006 eruption of Mount Merapi. We are now working on a piece about digital media and last year’s presidential election.

I have now relocated to Jakarta. At first I was reluctant to make this move because of Jakarta’s famed traffic jams, pollution, floods, crime, disease… (“Don’t go there, it’s far worse than in the 80s”, I was warned).

But I’m actually enjoying every minute of it. I live in a permanent state of Csikszentmihalyian ‘flow’. (This is not substance-related. In fact, I made the mistake of booking into a sharia hotel, for all my sins. It’s proving to be a sobering experience).

My flowy state may have to do with having acquired a good feel for the ethnographic game, or with the excitement of being in a megapolis again (I grew up in the countryside, with no roads or telephone), or with having been able to resuscitate my cryogenically preserved Indonesian after all these years – with considerable help from my Melbourne teachers Mas Onny and Pak Tata, to be sure.

For whatever reason, being in Jakarta makes a lot of sense.

I live in the central Menteng area, where I walk 6 miles a day along busy roads (I never leave without my mask and umbrella), stopping to chat to (ngobrol) local people as I go along. I also talk to hotel staff and taxi drivers, attend civil society events, interview people in cafes and offices, catch up with itinerant academics (most recently Ross Tapsell and Birgit Bräuchler), follow Twitter and Whatsapp conversations, read the press, and watch TV.

For relaxation I read Jo Nesbo crime novels.

The guiding principle of my Indonesian research is, as always in social anthropology: “If it matters to my research participants, then it matters to me”.

So what of sort of things matter to internet activists here? A short list would include corruption, freedom of expression (especially Indonesia’s Computer Crime Act, the controversial UU ITE), internet governance, media convergence and digitalisation, internet safety, child pornography and cybercrime.

I am also finding that civil society actors here – both tech-minded and others – are very interested in learning more about other countries. For instance, I have been asked to talk about Spain’s indignados and their digital media uses a number of times. Just yesterday, I gave a talk about this topic at Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), having been kindly invited by Pak Ade Irawan.

It’s too early to say where this research is going, but I hope it will be the preamble to a large collaborative research project with partners in Indonesia, Australia, UK/Europe and other countries in the region – perhaps a cross-national comparison of digital activism within Southeast Asia.

In this connection, tomorrow I am heading for Manila to attend RightsCon, an international conference that brings together freedom technologists from across the region and beyond, including Silicon Valley — where the event originated. I am hoping it will be a good place to meet prospective research partners and participants.

Back to the freedom technologists series…

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