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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.

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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.

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’


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