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.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Active Citizens in a Digital Age Embracing Organized Complexity

Week 5 of the Active Citizen in a Digital Age course sought to develop an understanding of how we can engage directly with our political systems using the Internet and digital tools so as to develop an understanding of the ways in which they are changing democracy. Part of this is understanding how to make sense of news in the digital age, so one can be informed and hopefully use credible information for political action.

The course is mostly concerned with advocacy in the support or opposition of government action and how civil society does this.  Civil society, according to the course, “…Can be thought of as the place where minorities are protected, galvanized, organized, and gain access to the systems of government.” This is put in contrast to the fundamental principle that democracies are run by majority opinions. 

The question arises though, if civil society is working to protect the democratic rights of minorities, then why does civil society have to work in opposition to the government in this aspect? Because certain portions of civil society support those actions of government. Does this mean that portion of civil society has the majority opinion and vote? No, it could be a matter of structural components of the system, e.g., Gerrymandering or situationally induced views that can change when circumstances change. One shouldn't think of majority as monolithic or opinions as concrete.

Even in the digital age, with so many ways of engaging it is still a matter of real world organizing, communicating, funding, campaigning and finally voting.  Some of which is done in person, much of which can now be done digitally. In some cases being simply digital versions of these basic activities. For example, Turbovote, which provides election reminders, gets people registered to vote and applications for absentee ballots and the already NCP wiki featured MapLight which provides information on political funding. On the NCP Kumu map, MapLight is directly related to Transparency and Open Data in Government, making it an important tool in ensuring credible information for political action but one that needs to be used in conjunction with other resources. 

It has long been held by this blog that governance is different from government.  The former being a social activity taken on by a community and the latter being the establishment of institutions to implement those activities. The course differentiates between the outside-in relationships of civil society with government institutions and the inside-out relationships of government institutions with civil society.  This configuration already sets up a biased relationship conceding a greater centrality and implied ascendancy of power to the government institution diminishing democratic intent. 

Outside-in functions by civil society to influence government, besides the more formal civic functions, include easy actions such as gathering signatures for petitions or the use of hashtags on social media content. Digital makes obtaining a large number of signatures or retweets on Twitter or likes on Facebook far more possible but let us keep in mind Zeynep Tufekci warning about Online social change: easy to organize, hard to win from the last blog post. 

Digital tools can go beyond this though. They can be used to organize people, help them communicate with each other and with the broader system in which they exist. This has been true for both sides of the political spectrum from the Tea Party in 2010 to progressives marching in the streets today. 

The political agenda may be different but the digital tools remain the same. Groups like Indivisible are featured in the newly created Advocacy For and By Community wiki page which is explained more fully here. The course cites Kathryn Schulz’s New York Times article reminding us that in our digitally driven world, one of the oldest ways and powerful medium to make your voices heard is to contact your elected representatives by calling them (actually phones have gone digital as well). Using digital tools can help your organization or group grow to a larger size much more quickly but it also lets those in opposition to you know what you are doing by the digital trails that you leave.

Inside out, government institutions provide public services to those in civil society but they don't necessarily do so equitably and can become entrenched over time. The means by which governments interact with its citizens has changed because of civic tech, technology in the civic space. This again differentiates between civil society and civic space as was discussed before but now with a digital component. 

The nature of these digital programs can depend upon from which perspective they are being created.  These changes are often not initiated by governments from the inside-out. Many arise in the civil society sector to make government more transparent and accessible like

“What Public Resources dot org is doing is literally making the public law public.”  

The OSET Foundation builds digital into the infrastructure of our democracy through open source election technology. It sets the standards for voting systems around the world to help re-establish trust in voting, our most basic democratic function. It is not a government institution but a nonprofit election technology research institute.

The course continued to warn about dangers inherent with using digital technology by examining the impact upon politics and democracy. Stating, it has the potential to empower the voiceless, actually a debatable statement. The course didn’t use potential as a modifier rather presuming the concept, empower can convey the sense that someone with power delegates to someone without power (more so in the UK) and it often isn’t a matter of the powerless being voiceless but the powerful being purposely deaf. Still, many who did not have access to making their voices heard now have multiple pathways that they can take but then so do all the other voices benign or malignant. 

The Internet makes increasingly obsolete what the course called the intermediaries, political parties, legacy media, and my addition institutions of government which created the barriers and therefore the power pockets of the pre-Internet world. Intermediaries are still necessary today but now they can make connections increasing the power of others.  This is a transition from scarcity to abundance, invoking one of NCP’s more controversial ideas. The course though may give the impression that this happens far more easily than happens in reality. One person having access to millions is one thing, one person among millions having access to millions is another thing. 

Other dangers arising from the Internet include lack of access to reliable information to make informed choices are examined in Can Democracy Survive the Internet.  This NPR Radio program features both the author of the original article, Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Stanford University and  Zeynep Tufekci discussing this more deeply. These dangers can be made worse with the excess virility of information including the creation of “fake news”. Even foreign governments have increased capacity to influence our elections by injecting “fake news” into the discourses. 

“One of the difficulties in defining “fake news” is that one person’s propaganda is another person’s persuasion.”

The other two concerns with the Internet were echo chambers and privacy. These may actually feed into each other. There is not only, no civil society space, on the Internet, there is also no individual privacy on the Internet as was also discussed previously. There is, therefore, no community on the Internet save what trust we place in other people. Allowing for the privacy of others because they allow for our privacy, we also trust in their authenticity as they trust in ours. A lack of authenticity or anonymity may disclose not only a lack of conviction but even a lack of humanity.

The course places the responsibility of this primarily on the individual, particularly the individuals taking the course. The course seemed to emphasize community joined efforts in the background readings but more individualistic endeavors in the videos and assignments. 

On an individual basis, efforts can only be aggregated as a statistical class. To allow for collaboration to create meaningful change requires some level of community. The transition from aggregated individuals to collaborative socialization moves the community from disorganized but predictable and manageable complexity to organized complexity, difficult to predict, less manageable but creative (see Science and Complexity - Warren Weaver). 

As the course states, people do need to be careful as to what actions they take on the Internet, whether directly through blog posts or the creation of apps or indirectly through retweets and Facebook likes. The problem is that the advice came across as a discouragement. The problem with that advice is that only those taking the course would be following it. Those creating or propagating fake new have no such stipulation. This cannot be effectively countered with only the cumulative efforts of individuals. This doesn’t mean not taking any actions. It requires community or as Jane Jacobs saw it a level of organized complexity. Jane Jacobs concept of eyes on the street could also be applied to the Internet. The more people see something or are made aware of it, the harder it is to purge from social consciousness and the more it can grow to create new paradigms for the community. 

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