A prevailing critique of most online activism—the sort of work that gets maligned as “clicktivism”—is that it is apathetic. It’s too easy to retweet #BlackLivesMatter, add a name to a Change.org petition, or share the latest spectacle of structural violence. None of these acts are inherently instances of political apathy. Just because you do some easy online activism doesn’t mean you’re not also committed to the hard work of social change. But there’s no doubt that the mode, ease, and pace of so-called clicktivist engagement is ripe for producing the sort of political activity that is low stakes, fleeting, easily forgotten, and readily ignored.
This is exactly what The New Inquiry, an online journal of criticism, is relying on to get people out of jail.
Last week, the magazine—where I have contributed essays and worked as an editor at large in the past—launched Bail Bloc, a computer application that allows you to raise money to pay the bail funds of low-income individuals while you do absolutely nothing. Bail Bloc is running on my laptop as I type (as are nine other open tabs, two messaging apps, and a British cult film quietly torrenting). Aside from a tiny icon in my screen’s upper-right corner, I can’t notice Bail Bloc at all. Slacktivism par excellence. But that’s the idea: to get thousands of users running Bail Bloc in the background of their digital lives. The tool does all the work and its success is not predicated on you caring to do any more than download and run an app.
Bail Bloc is a cryptocurrency “mining” tool, which means it utilizes your computer’s unused processing power to, as The New Inquiry explained, mine “a popular cryptocurrency called Monero, which is secure, private, and untraceable.” The publication will then exchange the cryptocurrency for US dollars at the end of each month and donate all proceeds to the Bronx Freedom Fund, a nonprofit that has bailed out more than 1,200 people over the last 10 years and has recently launched a national bail-fund network.
There’s a knowing irony to a project premised on using “fake” money to challenge a system that runs on money that doesn’t exist. Cryptocurrency is not government-fiat currency like the dollar, but it has real currency exchange value. The bail system in its current iteration relies on hundreds of thousands of individuals’ not having the money that the court asks for: It is an operation by which low-income individuals are fed into the mass-incarceration machine, because they can’t afford a few hundred dollars. Bail gives the lie to the right to a fair trial. As the Bronx Freedom Fund highlights, 96 percent of their clients who had bail posted returned for all their court dates. Meanwhile, 90 percent of people who cannot pay bail end up pleading guilty under the coercive weight of detention. Currently, the US prison system is holding over 450,000 people in pretrial detention, not yet tried or convicted of a crime.
It does not go too far to say that if this vast number of pleas could not be thus extracted—if bail were posted and those accused were to have their rightful day in court—the US criminal-justice system would crumble under the caseload. Money that doesn’t exist is a backbone of the world’s largest carceral state. As such, the irony in The New Inquiry’s techno-futurist offering is dead serious.
“Bail is a tool of coercion, predictive policing, and surveillance, but it is also a form of currency mining from low-income individuals and communities of color,” Maya Binyam, a member of the collective of Bail Bloc creators—The New Inquiry satellite initiative known as the Dark Inquiry—told me. “Bail Bloc allows you to offer your computer as the target for that mining in their stead.”
A number of early critics of the project on social media specifically challenged the application’s use of cryptocurrency mining, which is energy intensive and thus potentially damaging to the environment. In response, Binyam told me, “It is important to make the distinction, however, between Monero mining and Bitcoin mining. The latter has been in the news for its considerable environmental impact.” Unlike with some cryptocurrencies, mining Monero will not cost more in electricity than it donates toward posting bail, according to The New Inquiry. Binyam noted that, while Bail Bloc is set to use 10 to 25 percent more of your computer power, affecting your environmental impact accordingly, “Bail Bloc uses considerably less energy than playing a 3D computer game.”
The other problem with any such project is that it will feel like a stunt unless it works, but it relies on some element of stunt-production in order to gain the traction. And by work, I don’t mean the work of bringing public attention to the scourge of the bail system—if the broadly publicized story of Kalief Browder’s suicide-inducing pretrial detention was insufficient to bring a serious reckoning to the bail system, it’s perhaps time to realize the limits of (albeit necessary) awareness-raising, outrage-inducing narratives. Bail Bloc works if and only if it can get people out of pretrial detention. At present, The New Inquiry projects that each Bail Bloc user will generate $3 per month. Five days since the project’s launch, approximately 1,000 computers are using Bail Bloc at a given time. According to the publication’s projections, if 4,000 people ran the app for 12 months, $116,473 would be raised and 1,470 could be freed from pre-trial detention (given that in most cases bail is set at $1,000 or less and that bail rolls over—i.e., once someone who has posted bail turns up for court, the bail is returned and can be used by the bail fund for another client).
But if so much can be done with just $3 donated per month, why is a platform like The New Inquiry not focusing on simply raising money directly, without the cryptocurrency middle man?
It’s a valid critique, but one to aim at ourselves more than at the Bail Bloc creators. If we lived in a world of collective action and mutual aid, such that it had become common practice to put our resources into covering bail, then efforts like Bail Bloc wouldn’t have to exist. When protests lead to the arrests of leftist activists and anarchists, it’s a part and parcel of jail support to collect bail funds from friends and supporters. But amassing resources to post bail for the hundreds of thousands of low-income individuals incarcerated for the poverty is not standard practice.
With Bail Bloc, The New Inquiry is responding to the actual world, in which it’s easier said than done to raise money for and sustain public interest in the effort to thwart a practice that punishes the poor and marginalized and excludes them from the public sphere. “Liberalism has conditioned the unfortunate situation that Bail Bloc tries to weaponize,” Binyam explained. “Namely, that people who believe themselves shielded from state violence often need a techno-hook to undertake a political action. What Bail Bloc renders clear is that their devices have the will to undertake political action, even if they themselves don’t.” Another app aimed at ending cash bail—Appolition—functions on a similar premise. You download it and, using software initially designed for personal-savings apps, it collects your spare change from purchases and donates it to bail funds.
Judgment of this sort pf clicktivism should be contained in the framework of considering a diversity of tactics. It makes no more sense to ask whether it “works” per se than it makes sense to ask if voting “works.” We must really ask what these political actions work toward: What are they in service of? A reason a lot of online (and offline) collective political action doesn’t seem to “work” is that it aims to convince political leaders of something by showing mass support or dissent, while conflating abundance with force—we presume that the bigger the march, the fuller the petition, the more pressure we have exerted on the powers that be. But as technologist Zeynep Tufecki has noted, when technology makes traditional protest tactics easier to organize, such tactics understandably present as less of a threat of potential further force and action. “A single Facebook post can help launch a large march! Online tools make it easier to coordinate phone calls, and even automate them,” she noted (on Facebook) some months ago. “Legislators have figured this out; they are less likely to be spooked just by marches or phone calls (though those are good to do: their absence signals weakness).”
Bail Bloc and Appolition, like any single tactic, have their limitations, but more than most political actions—in digital or meat space—have a potential to work toward an unmitigated, nameable good (getting even one person out of pretrial detention and the attendant coercion to plea bargain out). Unlike many attempts to use online, collective action for political, social change, these apps are not about convincing political leaders or convincing any one person or party. “After Trump was elected it felt necessary to rethink political engagement on the Internet. Sharing and liking are siloed efforts,” Grayson Earle, one of Bail Bloc’s designers told me. “What large-scale, collectivized cryptocurrency mining achieves is enabling clicktivism to have a material effect on the world.”
Bail Bloc’s form—the use of “fake money” and slacktivism—can be said to serve as a rhetorical critique of both the bail system and our apathy, another way in which the tool can be said to work, but this is secondary and irrelevant if bail funds aren’t raised through its use. And it is here that the problems of slacktivism could hurt the project: 500 users downloaded the app in the first 24 hours after its launch, and 1,000 within the first week. In the battle for social-media attention, can an effort like Bail Bloc maintain enough traction over even a short amount of time to garner a significant number of users? No doubt, if it can offer proof of concept by bailing even one person out, more and more users will join; but more and more users are needed to fulfill this proof of concept. It’s a frustrating tautology that attends most every attempt at collective political action worth taking: If it works, it works.