News |Digital Activism

Conference and Workshops: Pocket Democracy

Berlin/Los Angeles on October 30, 2019

How can we use digital solutions to protect ourselves from fake news and discrimination? “Pocket Democracy”, a conference organized by the Thomas Mann House and Goethe Pop Up Seattle, interrogated that topic in a two-day format.

“We didn’t necessarily have a group of savvy folks who were very steeped in technology on our teams yet,” Opal Tometi, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter and keynote speaker of “Pocket Democracy” by the Thomas Mann House and Goethe Pop Up Seattle, told her audience. “We simply used the available technology—twitter, google forms, tools that were already available. And it worked. It wasn’t just about clicking or retweeting, it was about showing up, marching, protesting and showing the world that there was a real issue.”

Opal Tometi and her allies have been using digital tools since the heyday of Black Lives Matter to raise awareness for their cause. Over the past five years, this has led to continual mass protests against racist police violence and the discrimination of minorities. The political potentials as well as risks of digital media have multiplied since the inception of the social justice movement.


Rarely passes a day on which international media fails to report on fake news, digital echo chambers or new surveillance practices. Simultaneously, protestors connect in autocratic systems via smartphones to inform themselves about approaching security forces; initiatives work on revealing discriminating prejudices within algorithms and intelligent applications are increasingly able to warn autonomously of manipulated images and videos.

The two-day event “Pocket Democracy”, which consisted of multiple workshops and public debates in Seattle and Berlin, attempted to reveal how the political implications of new communication technologies can be limited and guided constructively. Especially participants in Seattle were reminded of an American virtue: “Turn problems into opportunities!” India-born author Ramesh Srinivasan encouraged the audience: “We can design technology according to our aspirations.” The designer who teaches at the University of California in Los Angeles listed numerous examples of how collectives from Uganda to Catalunya to the mountain ranges of Oaxaca, Mexico, are fighting for autonomy by establishing their own digital networks, by generating new use value from old pieces of hardware and who are thus unlocking the ability to take common decisions with digital means.


Communication theorist Alexander Sängerlaub, who was transmitted live to Seattle from the Berlin half of the “Pocket Democracy” conference, sounded more cautious. Sängerlaub added that digital media mostly increased our vulnerability for disinformation and political manipulation today. The disappearance of journalistic “gatekeepers”, who long served as a check on quality, represents a current overwhelming of democratic societies. This he saw expressed in a polarization of the political spectrum. It is hard to predict, how the medial public in Germany or the USA could be stabilized with democratic means. It was concluded thatthere is still a long way to go until the energies of digital outrage and protest could be transferred into real political participation and decision making. But there might be no other way than the long one.


„Pocket Democracy“ is an event by the Thomas Mann House in cooperation with Goethe Pop Up Seattle, the University of Washington and State Festival Berlin. „Pocket Democracy“ is part of „Wunderbar Together: Germany and the US“.

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