Review by Craig A. Meyer, Texas A&M-Kingsville

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The Technology of Nonviolence: Social Media and Violence Prevention

Joseph G. Bock
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. 312. Non-Fiction.


Cover of The Technology of Nonviolence: Social Media and Violence Prevention

Joseph G. Bock’s text, The Technology of Nonviolence: Social Media and Violence Prevention, provides timely insight into the theory and praxis of technology and its effect on nonviolence. There has been a wave of ideas, information, and misunderstanding about detecting violence as it is occurring or after it has; yet, not enough has been done to understand the actions that lead up to the violence and what actions can be taken to stop it before it begins. Bock helps fill this void. At present, Bock serves at the University of Notre Dame as the Director of Program Development for the Eck Institute for Global Health. Since violence prevention is a sub-field of global health and with his more than a dozen years traveling across the globe to hot spots such as Pakistan and the West Bank, he is uniquely qualified to discuss violence from a first-person position. 

In twelve chapters, Bock provides background information, real-world examples that explain positives and negatives, and experiences that clarify the examples, while concluding with optimism and thoughtful caution. The two opening chapters do the customary lifting of proper context, definitions, and literature review. They also lay a foundation that Bock builds upon throughout by describing his own immersion in and around the regions he discusses. Readers learn quickly about his empathy and his powers of evidence gathering or observation, which enliven the prose with vivid descriptions. For example, he describes an event in Pakistan in 1997 where police officers threw a Bible to the ground and stepped on it, which offended a group of Christians (26). Most might report the conflict having occurred and some sparse details, perhaps the stepping on the Bible, and most authorities would end there. But Bock digs deeper to find the event or events that directly resulted in a reaction. It turns out in this case, that a group of Muslims were told (untruthfully) that a group of Christians had disgraced the Qur’an, and this set off a series of events that lead to the police confrontation.

 The next five chapters (3-7) are rich with Bock’s experience and a more thorough understanding of those experiences through his research. Each of these chapters provides a different example from across the globe that analyzes different levels of technology and their respective effectiveness or detriment at preventing violence. One might presume with this text that more technology means a more effective way to manage violent or potentially violent occurrences, but this idea is not necessarily the case, which Bock explains. Again, Bock’s observations here are critical, because he provides readers more precise and comprehensive details that some official report would most likely not be able to provide.

Chapter 8 takes the examples of the previous five chapters and compares the effectiveness of the various approaches and uses of technology. The obvious dictum that comes from this chapter is nonviolence and violence prevention must be recognized and understood through the local lens. In the example above, one might rush in and make a judgment, without realizing what locals know that provide indicators to why a confrontation took place. Chapter 9, while complex, suggests various options to address and preempt violence. It reinforces that each situation and locale is unique, so more research is needed to better understand and develop strategies in recognizing and managing situations where violence may break out. 

In the remainder of the text, Bock demonstrates caution, yet optimism, through a series of insights. One of these insights explores the distinctions between preparedness and response. Part of understanding these two is akin to seeing the former as training for an emergency and the latter as acting based on what is occurring, which might mean simply leaving the area. In essence, they open a series of balancing acts. For example, occasionally NGOs or other agencies come into an area to do good, but with a faulty understanding of the localized problems or “well-intentioned humanitarian hubris,” which he borrows from Casey Barrs (162). Another of these insights and balancing acts is the relationship between structural prevention and operational prevention and how directing resources to one likely means taking away from the other. Structural prevention rests in understanding and addressing aspects such as inequality or adequate housing. In other words, the systemic, cultural, or political problems that directly or indirectly impose various forms of control on the locales. Operational prevention, then, is more immediate, such as the insertion of a mediator to ease tensions between groups. Operational also refers to a stopgap that is put in place in hopes of controlling or ceasing violence. These measures are temporary and may influence systemic change. This understanding demonstrates the complexity of a singular solution and the reality of multi-faceted solutions.

Often in the closing section of a text, readers would get a set of solutions. Here, though, Bock resists that convention and offers another dose of wisdom by reviewing concerns that arise with utilizing technology and the science (and reality) of violence prevention. While technology seems a relevant accessory to address pre-violent tendencies, Bock provides more structure through his explanation of political and cultural leaders. He continues by providing clarity in the timing of events (from either side) that strongly suggest rebuttal violence will occur in response to some act from the “other” side. In effect, Bock gives a nod to the ongoing systemic and universal problems and how violence can become a series of exchanges that can escalate out of control.

The text also provides several layers of scholarly possibilities. While certainly useful for the interested layperson, Bock provides enough nuance for students and professionals to understand the effects of technology on violent behavior and its precursors. With about eighty pages of appendixes (five in all), a glossary, notes, and references, the scholarly apparatus will be useful when continuing related work. 

Bock has engaging storytelling abilities and I found myself wanting to learn more of his experiences and pick his brain about the intricacies of violence prevention across the globe. The easy reading of these sections (and most of the text) made me feel like we were chatting away at a local coffee shop. Nevertheless, his storytelling ability is important because it gets readers thinking about how they, too, might engage in activities to enhance nonviolence in creative and meaningful ways. 

Bock’s experience and knowledge, I hope, has been made clear, and I believe this work sets a waypoint for others to go farther to understand and curtail what seems to be increasing acts of violence. Certainly it is too soon to label this a foundational text, but I do think it sets readers in a direction to be mindful of what is possible if we can come to understand the differences that make us who we are without violently (over)reacting to what might amount to simple misunderstandings and miscommunications, while still working against the inequalities and injustices that lead to them.



Craig A. Meyer (PhD, Ohio University) is an Assistant Professor of English at Texas A&M-Kingsville. His research interests include the histories of rhetoric, disability studies, local histories, mobile technology, and creative nonfiction.


© 2015 Craig A. Meyer, used by permission

Technoculture Volume 5 (2015)