Political Protest and the Digital Message

An article published in the NY Times last week that has been garnering a good deal of chatter and attention pulls together disparate incidents of public protest and revolt from around the world, and paints a global picture of discontent with politics and democracy. Followers of NDN’s work won’t be surprised by the argument: the world is changing rapidly, and precious few governments, political parties or elected officials are adapting adequately to the evolving conditions. Today’s youth make up the largest generation in history, and yet they feel woefully unrepresented by their governments. The world’s middle class has been growing, and yet they have suffered and regressed since the 2008 financial crisis. From New York to New Delhi, Berlin to Tel Aviv, in Spain, Greece, Egypt and Tunisia, people are turning out to protest their respective governments.

All these protests seem targeted less at the principles of democracy than at the institutions we have– the parties, unions, trade associations and other bodies that dominate politics in most democratic countries. In Berlin just a few weeks ago, the Pirate Party— yes, that same party founded in Sweden on a platform of radical copyright reform– surprised everyone (including themselves) by winning 15 seats in the city-state’s parliament. While it was tempting to cite the results as an indication that an increasingly young and tech-savvy electorate put data privacy, copyright reform, and internet policy at the top of their personal agendas, that probably wasn’t what was actually going on.  Rather, a vote for the Pirate Party was a protest vote, a ballot cast against Germany’s traditionally dominant parties, and in support of a burgeoning if inchoate faction that voiced a shared discontent with politics as it has been.

The policy demands of this growing global cohort may not be tech-focused (the impetus for revolt is the same as ever: high unemployment, low wages, prohibitive costs for food, housing, education, and everything in between…), but the mindset of the protesters– the way they think the world should be– is deeply informed by our internet age. Societies are increasingly networked through mobile phones and the internet in ways that are non-hierarchical and user-defined, and as a result, people around the world increasingly expect their government, party, and other representative institutions to be equally responsive to their demands. Needless to say, the current situation is frustrating, whether you’re a liberal in America, a working class family in Europe, or an activist in India. Continue reading “Political Protest and the Digital Message”

Mobile Tech for Social Capital in American Cities

Last week, I went in search of a few guidelines for using new network technologies– web-based and mobile-based– to help foster civic engagement and create social capital, and waded through a few pitfalls of these technologies as well. The two lessons I tried to distill out were: first, successful tools won’t simply offer an online environment, they will bridge the online world with offline communities and actions. Second, these tools will cross some of the cultural, political, class-based and interest-based boundaries that so often keep us in narrow information silos on the web.

In seeking to build social capital and bring people together not just online but offline, proximity is, of course, key. I don’t begrudge rural regions their elemental place in American society or question the importance of rebuilding social capital there, as well, but nowhere does new technology have greater potential to bring people together than in the city. Densely, diversely populated, well wired, and with a melange of public spaces, businesses and fora to bring people together– the city is the ideal environment to pursue these goals.

By bringing people together in cities over common concerns, the same tools can help make those cities more livable and more attractive. Of course, that’s good for people who already live there. What’s more, if city life is more appealing and less stressful, it could lure people back to cities. A trend toward urbanization would directly counteract the “sprawl and suburbanization” that Robert Putnam identified as contributing a full 10% toward the decline in social capital since the 1950s. And if that’s not enough for you, population density is, as David Roberts writes in a great series of blog posts over at Grist, “the sine qua non of sustainability.” That is, cities have, contrary to their sometimes sooty appearance, a smaller carbon footprint per capita than any village or town: the denser, the better. Continue reading “Mobile Tech for Social Capital in American Cities”

Challenges of Building Social Capital Online

Last week, I opined on the decay and potential renewal of “social capital” in America. As chronicled by Robert D. Putnam, tectonic shifts in American culture, society and the economy led to decreased participation in civic organizations and dissipated communities, which in turn weakened the social fabric that holds together American life. In that introductory post, I proposed the online sphere as an alternate “public space” to strengthen (not replace) offline communities, and to put forward a few questions, the first of which I’ll try to answer here: How can new technologies help foster civic engagement and create social capital, without detracting from the same?

I’m not blindly sanguine about the impact technology can and will have on human relationships and society. We can sit at a bus stop in New York and video chat with a friend in Morocco or Thailand– a phenomenon that by historical standards might fairly be considered a miracle– but that same act can make us blind to the world at our feet. A few months back, the New York times ran an article describing “parallel play” in the fully wired (er, wireless) American home. Perhaps you know the scene: a family is gathered together in the home for the evening, but the room is quiet, each individual gazing, grimacing, giggling at their respective device, headphones in. These scenes are creepy, and they should serve as a reminder that just as these tools have the potential to bring people together, so too can they divide us and make us distant from those right around us.

“Go online to get offline” is a catchy phrase (and has been adopted by sites like Meetup.com and dating site HowAboutWe to describe their approach), but it’s perhaps the most concise summation of the social potential I see in network– and especially mobile– technologies. I’m not interested in online qua online. Purely online activities can have their value, but they’re unlikely to build social capital. An online protest never threatened any existing power structure. An online church service isn’t going to build a strong community. And I tend to find that even online conversation can only sustain a personal relationship, rarely build one. Rather, I see potential where online human networks intersect with offline, “real world” communities. Continue reading “Challenges of Building Social Capital Online”

Building Social Capital in America

In this and my next several blog posts, I’m going to try to draw out a few ideas, and pull together several disparate strands of thought around what I see as the great promise (and, to some degree, a great threat) of network technologies– including social media, the internet and, most of all, the mobile phone. The ideas I’ll be discussing are not new; rather, they’ve been described and detailed carefully by men and women much cleverer than I. But I hope to pull some of these strands together in a fresh discourse that will drive toward some kind of an agenda.

This first post will be largely an introduction of the problem, drawing largely on one particularly piece of sociological research… I’ve been re-reading portions of Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam’s seminal sociological chronicle of the decline of “social capital” in America in the past several half-century (up to the book’s 2000 copyright date). For the uninitiated, Putnam describes social capital this way:

By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital– tools and training that enhance individual productivity– the core idea of social capital theory is that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups.

Continue reading “Building Social Capital in America”

Politics & Internet Freedom in Thailand

This is following up on (and only somewhat redundant to) an earlier post that went up in advance of the Thai election. This was originally posted at NDN.org.

Thai ElectionAs you might have heard, there was an election here last weekend, and it was truly a watershed transition in the political history of this country. A bit of history: Five years ago, Thaksin Shinawatra was tossed from the Prime Minister’s office by a military coup. Thaksin had been elected in 2001, and reelected (a first in Thai history) in 2005 riding a populist wave of support from the poor, rural majority of Thailand. He was widely disliked, however, by the established elite of the country– the upper and middle classes, the courts the “Privy Council” that surrounds and advises the monarchy, and the military, who saw to his removal.

After the coup, the military ruled for over a year, until another election in early 2008, which yielded victory for another member of Thaksin’s political party. He served for the better part of a year, before the constitutional court removed him from office on account of hosting a cooking show on TV while serving as Prime Minister. He was replaced by Thaksin’s brother-in-law, who lasted two months before another court ruling sent him packing, and in stepped Abhisit Vejjajiva, a member of the opposition party, who served as Prime Minister until last week. Continue reading “Politics & Internet Freedom in Thailand”

NYT on Internet Freedom

The New York Times has lately been doing an admirable job wrestling with the impact of social media, mobile phones and the internet on democracy movements and activism around the world.  Perhaps partly thanks to a certain ambivalence about social media among the paper’s top brass, the NYT has managed to avoid getting too caught up in the “Twitter Revolution!” zeitgeist, and has managed to present both the positive and the negative effects these new tools are having on the global prospects for democracy.

On Wednesday, Neil MacFarquhar had a piece on how activists in Saudi Arabia are taking to the public sphere of the internet for lack of the ability to convene in any real, physical space. Money quote:

Social media, which helped drive protests across the Arab world, seems tailor-made for Saudi Arabia, where public gatherings are illegal, women are strictly forbidden to mix with unrelated men and people seldom mingle outside their family.

Virtually any issue that contradicts official Saudi policy now pops up online, including the status of prisoners being held without trial or a call to boycott municipal elections this September.

Louai A. Koufiah, a Twitter enthusiast, quipped: “Saudis cannot go out to demonstrate, so they retweet!”

And last weekend, James Glanz and John Markoff covered the State Department’s growing and increasingly broad approach to supporting democracy activists using new technology, with a particular focus on constructing mobile networks in places like Afghanistan and North Africa that are entirely separate from the state-run apparatus and thus more (but, note, not entirely) secure.  From that story:

The Obama administration’s initiative is in one sense a new front in a longstanding diplomatic push to defend free speech and nurture democracy. For decades, the United States has sent radio broadcasts into autocratic countries through Voice of America and other means. More recently, Washington has supported the development of software that preserves the anonymity of users in places like China, and training for citizens who want to pass information along the government-owned Internet without getting caught.

But the latest initiative depends on creating entirely separate pathways for communication. It has brought together an improbable alliance of diplomats and military engineers, young programmers and dissidents from at least a dozen countries, many of whom variously describe the new approach as more audacious and clever and, yes, cooler.

Particularly glad to see them put in that historical context.  We’ve always supported democracy. The “internet freedom” push is simply an effort to defend our values in a modern context.