Digital Citizenship

There is a social construction online that we call a place to live and work, to be counted as its citizens, for lack of a better word. Karen Mossberg defines digital citizenship as “the ability to participate in society online.” The definition makes sense, but I need to make some qualifications. I will understand here not only a “society” but in the sense of participating also in a meta-society online. To participate means to have access and or Internet freedom for short. Ability means inclusion, (digital) human rights, and net neutrality.

But why speak of citizenship in reference to the Internet?  Cyberspace has become a part of our social lives, it is a component of it just as education, social security or civil rights are, and moreover, it “has the potential to benefit society as a whole, and facilitate the membership of individuals within society” (Mossberg). As a means of being able to have a wider participation it is a social right and a part of citizenship as a whole, a right of membership in society.  Digital citizenship puts the emphasis on the right of access to and skills for use of ICTs.

The basic idea of citizenship, the set of rights of membership in society, is to ensure that a people within a society has a legal framework for equality and justice. Citizenship is there to prevent exclusion in any of its forms: from political or civil rights, from voting rights or education. In the same manner, digital citizenship could be understood as a legal and regulatory framework to prevent digital exclusion: the fact that a large number of people are prevented from using ICTs because of economical, educational or social reasons. This is sometimes referred to as the “digital divide”.

“Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us”: Barlow proposes a Cyberspace where ethical self-regulation will guarantee a kind of freedom from government control.  But first of all, we will need the real-world laws and regulations that empower and give the people the rights within a society to be able to access this new world.

Then we can begin to explore what are the consequences of a digital citizenship for Barlow’s world.

“A political society is not, and cannot be, an association. We do not enter it voluntarily” (Rawls). We enter citizenship not by choice. It is a system of social cohesion and mandatory for all. Therefore we expect that the political framework of citizenship ensures equality, human rights, social cooperation and reduces exclusion.

Social cooperation is regarded as having the elements for regulating social conduct, ensuring the fair terms of cooperation and of rational advantage: “then we can say without pretense and fakery that citizens are indeed free and equal” (Rawls).

Mossberg asserts that “digital citizenship encourages […] social inclusion”. In the same way that citizenship is not a choice, digital citizenship should not be optional. It is not a “nice to have”. The social agent must be able to ensure his rational advantage and prevent being subject to digital exclusion.

The Internet and cyberspace has in many cases been understood just as a private business, as in e-commerce. Or as an elitist “world of the mind”, in the words of Barlow, that may be accessed only by the chosen few that are able to understand its uniqueness, and that is not subject government control. But this is not right. The Internet is a social tool and the lack of regulation creates exclusion, which in turn leads to an unjust society, the very opposite of all cyber-utopias, Barlow’s included.

Nature´s Metropolis

A book by William Cronon

Nature's metropolis : Chicago and the Great West

Nature’s metropolis : Chicago and the Great West

William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis is a history of Chicago. A city that emerged in the northern Midwest against considerable odds; but nevertheless achieved in a very short period of time a position of dominance in trade, in particular for lumber and agricultural products. Chicago revolutionized forever the way marketplaces (i.e. stock exchanges) worked. Later it also became a hub for the revolution in transportation and communication that marked the explosive industrial development of the 19th century. Chicago is a city created around a commercial idea, not out of any settlers’ necessity or government expansion project to the frontier land. It is a quintessential American city, as described by Whitman: “They shall fully enjoy materialism and the sight of products, they shall enjoy the sight of the beef, lumber, bread-stuffs, of Chicago the great city.”

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Steganography and Rhetoric in OSN

Steganography is the art to conceal a message in plain sight, a form of “security by obscurity.” It can be as simple as the “spy ink” that kids use, the hiding of information in digital pictures, up to the complex cultural messages hidden in images and texts. It is a method not only of cryptography; it is a cultural tradition used since the writers of sacred texts inserted hidden meanings so that only the initiated would understand.

Steganography has become a common practice in online social networks, used by teenagers to communicate with their peers using a medium that offers little or no privacy. An article by danah boyd shows how this works.

15M in MadridA more forceful form of steganography in online social media is found in the political discourse, in the rhetoric used with the aim to manipulate public opinion and truth. The activists in cyberspace have found new rhetorical ways that border on steganography.  Its form of the short message does not allow developing a structured explanation of facts and persuasion. The message in digital media works by making references to cultural images, events, urban myths and key persons. Some are the now well known “image-memes” that remix cultural references.

One has to be part of the new public discourse online to be able to decipher its meanings, and to be influenced by it. The activists are not the inventors of the form.  They are using a new way of communicating and conveying meaning that has grown around digital media and social networks.

To be able to influence the digital natives, political groups need to learn this code. And beyond that, they will need to create their own set of cultural references and new tropes, their own structure of meaning around pointers of signifiers. It is like creating a new set of metaphors to be used in the new political prose of the digital media. A new prose, that builds its rhetorical force around steganographic methods of concealment and the power of consensual meaning.

The New Sit-ins are a Hashtag

Egypt (anonymous photo from Reddit)

Egypt (anonymous photo from Reddit)

The recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have rekindled the discussion about the role of social networks, and triggered a speech by Secretary Clinton about Internet freedom. The speech emphasizes that it is the people who change regimes, but access to the Internet must be protected. Heedless governments continue to look for ways to restrict access and online anonymity, or even use the Internet as a weapon. Corporations look the other way when it comes to censorship.

Containment is a thorny issue. Where is the line that separates a protest, from a riot or a flash-mob, when they emerge in loosely coupled social networks and messaging systems, and spread rapidly? Who are those online activists, are they influenced by political groups unseen? What is legitimacy when identity is just a nickname in a Twitter account or an email?  The recent history of digital activism is patchy. Continue reading ‘The New Sit-ins are a Hashtag’

Taking the Square: Digital Activism in Spain

Nobody expects the #spanishrevolution. With this Python-inspired phrase and a V-mask a protester made the point that the Spanish political system is in turmoil. The construction bubble that sustained economic growth burst with the financial crisis of 2008. The result is a high level of public debt that may force Spain to request a humbling bailout from the EU and the IMF.

spanisrevolution

photo by @acampadasol via web

 Unemployment is a more protracted problem. It has long been argued that the social security system in Europe creates structural unemployment, which is not harmful. But the statistics in Spain reach today numbers beyond “structural”: a general unemployment rate of ca. 20% and a rate of 45% in the group of young people 25 or younger. Such dismal figures coupled with an ageing population and an expensive social system has created a political crisis.

 There are three contentious issues: a state regarded as subservient to the global financial forces and institutions and that does not represent national interests, an indirect democratic system that is not representative enough; and last but not least, the fact that a younger population must bear the burden of an older population that maintains its monopoly on political and economic power.  Hence a #spanishrevolution emerging from the “guts of the beast”: the young, bright, educated and unemployed.

Continue reading ‘Taking the Square: Digital Activism in Spain’

Democracy, Crowds and New Media

In Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), flocks have acquired some strange way of communicating and coordinating actions. The birds form swarms with a purpose: to challenge the peace of a small town.  Mrs. Bundy points out that they should not “have sufficient intelligence to launch a massed attack.” (The Birds

Alfred Hitchcock The Birds

AH´s The Birds Trailer...

Along the ensuing violence, the film has a political under-text: the birds are fighting against the ignorant tyrant “mankind” by transcending their non-existence as a group.  In the final scene the birds have taken over the place and rule absolutely and mindlessly.  The Birds was a film that matched the American political climate of the sixties, with references to the civil rights movement.

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Internet Freedom and Human Rights

In her recent speech in Washington DC, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton spoke of the Internet as the “new nervous system for our planet,” and about protecting its “basic freedoms.” She stopped short of advocating a human right to Internet freedom. Her idea was that “we need to synchronize our technological progress with our principles” (Clinton), the principles that engendered the UDHR.  She continued to expand the analogy to HR with the statement that “the freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace.” It is clear that the Internet plays a vital role in the pursuit of human rights and development. And yet, should Internet freedom be considered a human entitlement on its own, and what is its role in development?

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