This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Active Digital Citizens Seeking New Community Paradigms pt. 2

Continuing from the last post, the third week of  The Active Citizen in a Digital Age course dealt first with why digital matters to democracy in two parts, the first on the nature of digital data itself and the nature of networks arising from the interaction of that data. We create a tremendous amount of digital data in our every day, the vast majority having nothing to do with our ideas of democracy. Fundamentally different and in addition to other types of physical based resources we need to be concerned with in engaging as active citizens, digital is still concerned with how are we going to use our time and money? Digital data is the instructor informs us, a non-rival and non-excludable good unlike the other two. “Basically that means that lots of people can use it at once and it's hard to keep others from using it.” 
The nature of the network, exchanging digital data over networks, mobile, wireless spectrum, cable or broadband, is made up of physical structures. One important feature being the vast quantity of information that can now be stored. Every digital action gets recorded and stored and that storage keeps growing, not necessarily accessible, intentionally or not but it does keep growing. There are entities, usually market-based companies involved with maintaining this digital infrastructure making such exchanges happen from app and software developers to equipment builders, to network providers creating access to the creators of digital products we are interacting with, be it social media companies or search engines. 

All of our mutual digital transactions also involve a third party, intermediary infrastructure providers. This matters because all of the data representing the information we are exchanging (information turned into 1s and 0s) is stored on their servers. The nature of digital means that there is a difference between what gets remembered, what gets shared, and what will last when action is taken in either the digital space or the analog space.  
More information and insight on this topic is available through the Digital Impact Toolkit from the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society which supports the ethical, safe, and effective use of digital data by civil society organizations.
The course recognizes in the second part of the lesson that the two components of the first part lead to the dangers of going digital. In part because digital democracy plays by a different set of rules than does analog democracy. How we participate in civil society is influenced, impacted, and defined based on the nature of both digital data and its network infrastructure.
The problem is that digital infrastructure is built by companies, usually for-profit and is monitored by governments. Therefore there is no individual, private space in the digital world so there is no real civil society in digital space. According to the course though, civil society needs to function as an independent space separate from markets and governments.

“Civil society is an institutional manifestation of our basic human rights to peaceable assembly, free expression and, privacy.”

Lucy Bernholz, Senior Research Scholar, Stanford University, PACS
Director, Digital Civil Society Lab (and course instructor) wrote her own perspective on this issue. She produces the Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint (2016), an annual industry forecast about the ways we use private resources for public benefit. Particular interest should be paid to pages 20 to 23. 

“Yes, we can use digital tools to expand free expression and assembly; yes, these tools can be used to expand the voices we hear and participation by many. But civil society actors - in the US specifically - are fooling themselves if they think that digital tools are innately and always democratizing.”

She points out that civil society actors - in the US this means nonprofits and foundations as well as social movements, protestors, and activists - must protect the right and capacity to organize online, to express oneself and assemble peaceably outside of government or corporate control in digital spaces, if we are to maintain that right and capacity offline.

The digital rights agenda is civil society's agenda.

The challenge then is how to reclaim and protect this loss of civil society? There are apps that are designed to protect privacy by encrypting communications for example. There still remains though the essential real world on-the-ground (analog world) steps of finding allies, working together, crafting a strategy and message which requires having a private space to come together. 

Open Society Foundations United States, an organization which works to build vibrant and tolerant societies whose governments are accountable and open to the participation of all people, video  Shrinking Civic Spaces discusses how and why governments across the world are shutting down spaces for civic engagement and how civil society can unite to prevent it.

"Solidarity between the online blogger and the gay rights activist, between the NGO that's getting shut down and the social movement that's turning out on the streets. Because although those actors might look and think that they're different from each other, what they have in common is they're all manifestations of our right to organize and mobilize..."
Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary General and CEO Civicus
           (4:45-5:08 of  Shrinking Civic Spaces)

The course also provides a link to an Oxfam video on some examples of civic tech projects. The video is a rather long webinar so here is the Google Doc of the presentation (23 slides) which has the advantage of making the associated links available. 

Our assignment for the third week was to create a team list of citizen actions that were digitally dependent, discuss the list as a team and list the team's responses to each of the following three prompts:

  1. How do digital tools allow us to participate more/better/at greater impact than before?
  2. The downsides of using digital tools for participation are significant. In what ways do you think digital tools should not be used for engagement in civil society (certain things, in certain ways)? Why?
  3.  What role do digital tools play in your team's action plan from Assignment #2?   
The team members each submitted their own lists and our team leader did a rather good job in organizing them into common themes.
  • Digital tools can take over for other forms of civil participation.
    • Digital tools make communication and organization faster and more possible.
    • Digital tools can make us more informed and expand our thinking.
    • Digital tools can spread false and misleading information very quickly and without check, as well as encourage superficial understanding of issues.
    • Digital tools can take over for other forms of civil participation.
    • Digital tools can lead to entrenched, narrow modes of thinking.
    As far as how do digital tools allowing us to participate more/better/at greater impact than before for myself, I cited access to the digitally available resources from different organizations in the NCP wiki, for example, Healthy Cities, Project for Public Spaces and Regional Governance and Policy. I also turned to new ways of thinking featured in the wiki, such as Systems Thinking Applications or Design Thinking or Community Arts or Asset Based Community Development. Then applying these to democratic processes involved concepts such as Governance through Community.

    The question of what are the significant downsides of using digital tools for participation and in what ways, (see Usman Haque) and when do you think digital tools should not be used for engagement in civil society have been dealt with before for some time?

    Digital democracy requires a level of individual digital literacy or fake news storytelling which can take over the community conversation. Tools like Big Data can be a two edged sword and used against the community interest. We often use digital technology in a superficial sense not drilling down into understanding the workings of the systems we wish to transform or the unintended consequences that could arise from our actions. I am also of the view that we can put ourselves into opposition or a role of permanent underdog rather than actually transforming governance. Instead of transforming a persistent deleterious entrenched system we merely enter into a subsidiary oscillating relationship with it.

    Part 3

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