Call for essays on digital power for State of Power 2023

13 April 2022
Article

The Transnational Institute (TNI) is issuing an open call for essays, accessible papers, infographics and artistic collaborations on the theme of 'digital power' for its eleventh State of Power report to be launched in January 2023. (Deadline for pitch/proposal extended: 13 June 2022)

TNI’s annual State of Power reports have, since their launch in 2012, become a must-see reference point for citizens, activists and academics concerned with understanding the nature of power in our globalised world. With a mixture of compelling infographics and insightful essays, State of Power has examined dimensions of power (economic, political, social), exposed the key players who control power, and highlighted movements of counter-power seeking to transform our world. Recent State of Power reports have been widely praised for their inspiring essays and brilliant art.

Digital power

In 2004, two tech companies made up the ten richest and most powerful corporations on the planet. Today seven companies of the top ten are Big Tech (eight if you count Tesla). Tech giants such as Alphabet, Facebook, Meta, Tencent and Amazon have accrued vast wealth and also massive economic and political power. Their economic clout has stalled or stopped attempts to rein them in even amidst rising popular concern. They have built vast systems on data and AI that make it virtually impossible for other companies to compete, let alone public authorities to regulate them.

The power of Big Tech is not just economic or political, it is also psychological, even biological, as they have developed the capacities to surveil every aspect of our human lives. Their ambition also exceeds many of their corporate predecessors as they seek not just to dominate the market, but to become the market or public space where nearly all our interactions happen. In the process, they are not just dominating capitalism, but reshaping it and our society and culture as well.

At the same time, states are also using digitalisation to enhance their surveillance and coercive capacities, often with little regulation or transparency. Edward Snowden sounded the alarm, but did little more than temporarily disrupt the extraordinary new surveillance powers of the state enabled by digitalisation. Data has become the new gold with every corporation and the state obsessed with hoovering up as much data as possible to serve often inscrutable and unscrupulous ends. As NSA director, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, put it, there was no need to look for a single needle in a haystack, if you could ‘collect the whole haystack’.

In the last two years, COVID-19 has both deepened the profits and power of digital firms and enabled states to increase their surveillance under the guise of public health. But we have also witnessed the efforts of ordinary people everywhere in the world to confront and even win against the Goliath tech giants, such as the against-the-odds victory of the Amazon Labour Union in Staten Island in April 2022. Activists everywhere are using digital tools – both corporate-controlled and open source alternatives – to win significant victories against corporations and authoritarian states.

Despite its power, reach and transformative impacts, it is still difficult for everyday folk to grasp the full implications of this new era of digital power. This is true for activists in social movements, who need both to understand the implications but also work out how to harness digital technologies to challenge corporate and state power.

For its 2023 edition, TNI is therefore interested in proposals that explore digital power in creative ways that help deepen understanding, sharpen social movement strategies and help us envisage what desirable futures look like. We need to understand who has digital power, how it is used, how it is changing, how it impacts on society, how it can be challenged, and how we might harness digital power to advance social and environmental justice. We welcome reflections from different disciplinary fields to create as rounded a picture of digital power and counter-power as possible. We are also interested in producing some infographics or artwork that help unpack digital power.

In sum, our ultimate goal is not analysis for its own sake but rather to empower activists and movements to more successfully challenge, confront and overcome  entrenched digital power.

These are some questions – but by no means an exclusive list – that we are interested in exploring and understanding better. In every case, we are interested in how digitalisation relates to power:
 

  • How did people lose the emancipatory potential of the Internet to corporations and authoritarian states? What should we learn from this history?
  • Which companies, institutions and political forces are gaining power politically and socially due to digitalisation?
  • What is the global political economy of digital capitalism? How is digitalisation impacting on geopolitical power? In what ways does it fit into post-colonial and imperialist power relations and in what ways does it challenge power relations at a national and international level? Are we entering a world where cyber-war will determine power relations as much as other wars?
  • What is the nature of the power of Big Tech? How did they acquire it and how are they using it now? How are digital corporations different to their non-digital predecessors?
  • Is the power of GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) impregnable or can it be dismantled? What kind of action can states take individually or regionally to counterbalance the power of Big Tech?
  • Are there differences in the power of different Big Tech actors, eg between Apple and Amazon, that are critical to understand?
  • How are states using digital power? What has changed since Snowden’s revelations and what forms of surveillance and unaccountable power continue?
  • How is financialisation and the power of finance (see TNI’s 2019 State of Power report) shaping Big Tech or being shaped by it? Do cryptocurrencies challenge structural power or reinforce it?
  • How is digitalisation being used by other major corporate sectors (Oil, Finance, Cars, Big Ag etc) to entrench or advance their power?
  • How is the dark web shaping power relations and what are the implications for social movements?
  • How is digital disinformation being used and by who to shape power relations?
  • What is the impact of digitalisation on social, sexual and gender power relations?
  • How have activists successfully confronted, limited or rolled back corporate and state digital power? What can we learn from them? How are activists best harnessing digital power to resist and build just socities? How can activists and social movements navigate the tension between using corporate digital tools that enable outreach and can win significant victories without further strengthening Big Tech?
  • What power do tech workers have to challenge digital capitalism? What can we learn from the struggles of gig workers? What role is there for cyber-activism, hackers and others in confronting digital power and what can we learn from them?
  • What models, policies and systems do we need to reshape digital power in the public interest and to avoid environmental collapse?

As well as analysis, TNI would also be interested in specific case-studies that draw out general lessons as well as stories and artwork and films that help us understand digital power in creative and imaginative ways.

TNI has a small number of grants of 250-500 euros – to be prioritized for contributors with low-incomes and/or working in the Global South. Please mention in your submission if you wish to apply for this grant which will be awarded if your essay is published in the main report.

Format and Style

TNI produces its essays in the format of a long-read, illustrated by international artists. We also try to syndicate the pieces to other online magazines to maximise readership and have also produced a podcast and a webinar based on the series. We are therefore looking for pieces written as journalistic long-reads that make information accessible and that can be pitched to other media.

For both essays and podcasts, the following are important for communication:

  • stories
  • concrete examples
  • metaphors
  • journalistic techniques

We also welcome suggestions of photos, videos, artwork, songs and other ways to illustrate essays. You can see examples of this here. We discourage the overuse of academic jargon literature analysis and academic debates that mean little to the public.

While essays are the main focus of the report, TNI is also open to proposals for artistic explorations that examine the same themes that could accompany and complement the essays. The process will be different for these, so please just email stateofpower AT tni.org with any proposals or suggestions.


Eligibility

While TNI is proud of our high standard of scholarship, this call does not require any specific academic qualifications. Contributors to earlier editions of State of Power have included students, professors, well-known authors, journalists, activists and artists - all at different stages of their careers and lives. TNI particularly welcomes submissions by women, young scholars/artists and people based in the Global South.

Process

The final report will be made up of a mixture of essays from this open call and a number of pre-commissioned essays, which will also be packaged into a podcast and webinar(s). We have designed a process to feature what we consider the best essays in the main report. The decision on which papers are featured will be decided by the editors, Nick Buxton and Sofia Scasserra from TNI, with the support of TNI’s copyeditor Deborah Eade and staff at IT for Change (India) and Fuhem Ecosocial (Spain). The selection process will follow three stages:

1. In the first stage, researchers will be asked to send in a
a) pitch for your long-read essay
b) a short bio and
c) some links to previous work. It will help your application if your previous work is not just limited to academic texts but includes some more accessible journalistic pieces.

Pitches should include:

  • the main argument you are trying to make
  • how it relates to and helps us understand digital power
  • the key points you would include
  • stories or examples that illustrate it  

The pitch can be based on existing papers or be provisional ideas of what you hope to  explore. If you would like to apply for the grant – available to low-income participants –please indicate this at this stage.

Email the pitch to stateofpower AT tni.org

2. Those whose pitches are chosen will be asked to submit an essay. The top 4-5 essays will be selected for the report by the Editorial Panel.

3. The selected essays will go through a final round of revisions based on feedback by the Editorial Panel, and subject to final copyedit.

4. Essays that do not make the final listing – and are considered good essays by the Editorial Panel - will be available as downloadable PDFs linked from the main report. Grants unfortunately will generally not be available though for the essays that don’t appear in the main report.

Submission requirements

  • Pitches and essays can be written in English, Spanish or French.
  • Pitches must be a maximum of 800 words. They do not need to be of continuous prose but must capture the main arguments of the essay and can be expanded outlines or a series of bullet points. Bios should be 200 words or less.
  • They should be sent to stateofpower AT tni.org
  • Final Essay length: 3000-5000 words. The upper word limit is strictly applied.
  • Style: TNI has five basic criteria for its research and publications that will also be used to assess the pitches and essays:
    -Credible: Well researched and evidence-based
    -Accessible: Readable by a broad non-specialist audience (in other words please avoid too much academic jargon) and try to use stories, examples Additional: Adds depth, new insights or detail t existing knowledge/research
    - Radical: Tackles the structural roots of critical issues Propositional: Does not just critique, but also puts forward just alternatives where relevant
    - TNI's styleguide can be found here in English and here in Spanish
  • Do not include references in brackets within the text eg (Abramson, 2011) in the academic style. As we first publish online and then as a printable book and ebook, please hyperlink the text pointing to the reference AND provide an endnote with the full reference in Harvard style. You may also provide a bibliography at end of essay instead.
  • Please do not overdo it on the endnotes (no more than 40 for each essay) – use it mainly for referring to facts/evidence that may be surprising, questioned or challenged.
  • Please send as .doc file or .docx file or Open/Libre Office equivalent for written texts, pdf for artistic submissions
  • The decision of the Editorial Panel is final. If your pitch or essay is chosen, please be ready to respond to peer reviews and copy editing comments based on the timeline below.

Timeline

8 June        Submission of pitches
20 June    Pitches approved for submission of full essay
23 September    Submission of full essay
30 September    Decision on whether essay approved for final report or published as PDF
October/Nov    Review, second draft, final copyedits
16 Dec        Final draft
Jan        Preparation of promotion, syndication etc
End Jan    Publication of essays