Digital Technology and Active Citizenship – ICD Seminar 2011

From the 4th to the 9th January 2011, the ICD weeklong seminar took place in Berlin. The ICD is an international, interdisciplinary community organising seminars, doing networking and bringing together people interested in cultural diplomacy, politics, leadership and research. I participated in two days due to this year’s focus “Digital Technology, Active Citizenship and the Society of the Future”.

It is worth pointing out that the ICD is, to a large extent, organised and driven by international graduates (mostly having a background in politics, international relations or cultural exchange) doing an internship in Berlin for at least 3 months. Apart from that, participants came from a multitude of backgrounds. I was particularly impressed by participant’s motivation and discussion and the organisers’ friendliness – sometimes those not being paid for their work do an even better job than those who are (not to forget about the permanent ICD people though) 🙂

Apart from technical problems with the live video broadcasting, I am looking back to some well-organised conference days; here you’ll find some minutes from selected talks on digital communication and citizenship. Pictures are taken from the art exhibition on Germany in the ICD House of Arts and Culture.

Prof. Markus Egg (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin): Digital communication and citizenship participation

Egg’s background is both linguistics as well as practical ICT experience. The talk focused on digital communication and citizen participation and the potentials we face, but do not make use of yet. As an introduction, a definition of digital communication was given. Bringing citizenship to communication is what we refer to by digital citizenship, whilst cyberpolitics means citizen participation and empowerment through citizen collaboration.

What do computers and politics have in common? Even the start of the internet was a political move, but politics does not yet make much use of the possibilities of communication, despite many impacts on the printing press (some even say on the invention of writing) :). Typical adminstrative and political uses so far are information and services, electronic voting (e.g. the case of Switzerland) whilst digital communication in election campaigns is still rather rare.

The properties of digital communication

Digital communication is not always clearly defined (usually, we refer to communication between human beings with the help of computers). However, the instances of digital communication are well-known (email, www, chat). Natural language dialoge systems and information retrieval and extraction systems are less well known. The basic definition of communication is the transmission of information, which stands for the knowledge of facts as potentially subjective abstractions from experience.

In communication studies, the basic ingredients of communication are sender, receiver, message, signal, common code, channel or medium. Successful communication enhances the knowledge of the receiver with items from the sender’s knowledge. In a dialogue, the roles of sender and receiver switch constantly. Many models of communication have been state of the art so far: Shannon/Weaver, Lesswell, Osgood/Schramm, Gerbner or Maletzke.

Communication adds to individual and social identity

The medium restricts sender and receiver, as it’s subject to the interlocutor’s views (e.g. applying for a job via email, breaking up via text messagees –>connotations of the medium need to be considered). The medium also constrains the message (e.g. online texts are shorter than printed ones, no acoustic cues in email are expected). Digital communication obviates the need of human presence, is flexible, extremely cheap, fast and between spoken and written language. It is less intrusive but also taken less serioulsy (e.g. serious negotiations are still done face2face). Egg also went into definitions and the history of the internet, which I skip here as one can easily look that up elsewhere. What is important is the decentralised structure of the internet as a infrastructure made up of networks and carrying applications. The standards of the internetare set up by a consortium, a body consisting of interested parties, universities and companies; and therefore not hosted by state authorities.

The political consequences of the rise of digital communication

Digital communication must be conducted seriously and cannt be controlled easily, as the examples of states that try to censor it show. People always find a way around blockings and states have little influence on the digital development of the technical basis of the internet, which is extremely dynamic and thus assigns citizens and politicians a reactive role. The problem is that not everyone can keep up at this pace, which constrains the usage of digital communication in political discourse. Thus, digital communication is a challenge for political discourse and participation, but also holds potentials for the goals of cyberpolitics and digital citizenship.

Digital Citizenship

The concept can be broken down into a number of subissues:

  • access: full participation
  • commerce: handling digital financial transactions
  • communication: dealing with tge wealth of digitally available information
  • education: knowledge about technology for digital comm
  • etiquette: standards of conduct and procedures
  • law: responsibility for digital actions and deeds
  • right: civil liberties online

Bridging the digital divide needs to consider social, geographical and economic barriers. In commerce, new commercial scenraios arise. In communication, handling the excess suplly of information and the selection and assessment of information (but also making oneself heard) is gaining importance. In education, computer literacy is indispensable in most workplaces. In etiquette, newly emerging conventions (e.g. taking the time for updates, choosing the right means of communication for a specific situation) can be observed.


Digital communication opens up new possibilities for citizen empowerment, the stock example being Obama’s election campaign in 2008. However and despite the enthusiastic commentators (“internet president”, the “Kennedy of the internet”…) dating from 2008 to 2010 the success could not be repeated in the 2010 midterm election. There is no concrete reason for this failure, at least those are difficult to assess. However, one of the key question that surfaced in the discussion of this failure was: Do politicians want to share power or tasks?

Egg furthermore differentiated between different models of politial digital communication (which he referred to as e-government): managerial communication (flow of information with focus in efficiency and services), consultative communication (online opinion polls and votes with no sharing of power) and participatory communication (participants exert political power, information flows in both direction). The empowering potential of digital communication depends on the model that is implemented. Politicians are extremely reluctant to share power, which is why the participatory model is not realistic in the first place. For the time being, digital communication can be used for limited political campaigns which often have an anti-government flavour but still contribute to citizen participation (e.g. the protests against the German rail project Stuttgart 21).

Integrating digital communication and gaining control

Digital communication in itself is probably neutral, the question is what we do with it. Statistically, people spend a lot of time watching TV, an amount that increased dramatically, like the one on the internet. Social networks are not just dangerous and disconnecting us from reality, but also a unifying force if we know how to use them. Thus we need education for the internet an integrate digital communication into a more general idea of communication, if we don’t want the restrictions of digital communication fire back on us. Furthermore, we need clear legal guidelines, e.g. the definition of free speech online. At the moment, we are experiencing the thin line between security and the freedom of displaying information (e.g. Wikileaks). Facebook creators have romantizised a dangerous image of the internet with four dimensions: home, workplace, meeting places and the virtual world (being mobile). Whether this is another way of controlling people depends on how much of it is compulsory and voluntary. And historically, new ways of distributing information always provoke the feeling of loose of control.

Ancuta-Grabriela Tarta: Clash of European Public Spheres: Offline vs. Online, Cultural vs. Political

Tarta is a Phd candidate from Copenhagen focusing on communicative spaces in the making in the context of the European Union.

For those who haven’t heard about Habermas’ concept of the public sphere, Tarta summed it up as a zone between the political sphere of the state’s institutions and the private sphere of the individual, defined by debate between the state’s institutions and citizens, a debate moderated by public opinion. There are three aspects of the concept: individuals, debate and public space (rational discourse). Other models of the public sphere included the liberal model (all points of view whould be taken into consideration as long as they are based on mutual respect) or the media model (the media as a constructor of the public sphere, where public opinion is aggregated). Media is still the most important source for political impact, but what does this mean when applied to the EU? The EU can then be defined as a system of communication where opinions are gatherd, debated and passed on. However, the public sphere of the EU remains highly national. People generally have a confused meaning of what the EU is.

Functions of the EU public sphere should therefore be *transparency: give visibility and voice to all individuals and groups; *legitimate the political institutions; *responsibility.

The dull EU: does cyberpolitics work on the EU topic?

There is an empirical disenchantment: In polls, people complain about the image of the EU they get from the media and TV still remains the main source of information for citizens (at the age of 20-50). EU news are considered as mainly negative, extremely boring, dull, unappealing, with no connection to citizen’s daily life, lacking pluralism and debate. The media remains highly national and there is a strong bond between national institutions and the media.

Could the public sphre online close the gap between EU institutions and citizens? It seems that cyberpolitics does not really work on topics like the EU. However, if we consider the cultural public sphre concept as an articulation of politics through aesthetic and emotional (affective) modes of communication emerging from cultural sources rather than political ones or a rational discourse, it would be articulated through the private purpose of individual life and leisure activity (this is where web 2.0 comes in). We might not fulfil Jean Monet’s dream of inclusiveness immediately :). However, the advantages of online social networks are the freedom of participation, connecting and establishing relations, raising awareness and promoting intercultural communication. At the moment, the EU is on social networks and trying to reach out (“Europe and you” on YouTube), which could be seen as a first step in enhancing this public sphere and to make EU topics accessable to citizens in a different language. At the moment, these topics are perceived as too sophisticated, even by journalists. Other efforts focus on the translation of topics into different realities, like serious gaming projects taking on EU topics and scenarios.

The influx project was presented by Max Kalis. It’s goal is to promote the values of the UN and a better referree via ICT (“Napster for the UN”…), counting on the number of people that register for the platform devided by people using banking online in the different nations. This lead to a national influx rating. The enthusiastic project wants to overcome some of the UN problems like lack of the political will, trust and legitimacy issues. The verification of solutions by citizens should overcome the diplomatic deficit and bureaucracy, as national self interest is not the language of global interest.

Feedback on the project is appreciated:

Prof. Sven Prueser: Will social media lead to a new level of citizenship

The main subject of research of Prueser is the impact of social media and cloud computing on society, but also webcieties and the relation of social media and citizenship. When understanding the relation of citizenship and social media, one has to look at citizenship as a bundle of rights: The right to vote, to receive protection from the community (cp. Virginia Leary (2000): Citizenship). One of the biggest obligations is defending the right to vote, defending the freedom of choice as well as the freedom of speech and press. In this context, Amercans fighting against Wikileaks should make us worry. But citizenship also means using these rights (e.g. voter turnouts).

As social media is such a complex and fast developing phenomenon, there is hardly a fixed definition, but elements can be defined.

  • The internet is the technological base
  • media enables users to publish content to specific target groups or all users (theoretically) by not having any kind of (monetary) costs
  • media provides the chance to contribute to other’s content and to communicate with others.

Hopes and curiosities

Prueser referred to many international examples like “We want democracy” (Iran opposition, organised via FB), the blogging of Twitter and Facebook of the PR China or the Iran elections and asked in which way these technologies affect citizenship in any way. The presidential elections with 2.2 million more young people voting than usually (68% voting for Obama) are evidence of substantial changes. On the other hand and looking back in history there are reasons to doubt. E. Kant hoped that the scientific progress (especially the enlightement) will lead to free thinking citizens, or A. Einstein hoped that radio broadcast will bring people together and ensure peace in 1930. On the other hand, freedom movements always found a way to publish and communicate. Social media as a technology for information publishing and communicating (possibly nothing more and nothing less) can empower freedom movements by creating the desire for freedom. If people know that there is a different way of living or that they are mistreated (transparency), the desire for freedom appears. However, there must be some basis in the people already. Setting the foundation for this basis is a task of education and culture.

False information and stupid content on the rise?

The discussion revolved around curiosities due to the spread of misinformation on the internet, the issue of intellectual property and anonymity vs. responsibility of citizens online. The problem of false information is not really new. Popular fairytales included people walking through streets spreading false information or false information in the Vietnam war spread by journalists looking for interesting story. What is new though is the speed of spreading information and the global focus. On the other side, the correction of information spreads fast as well and is, in Prueser’s opinion, now better than ever. Likewise, the proportion of interesting content is increasing as well, although with view to the quality question, a traditional content producing industry is still needed. New battles evolve between the internet or “democratic press” and traditional content producers (although this is not a new issue in it’s core, see the lemon market phenomenon in economy) or around the issues of “online pollution” or “social murder” and blocking as racism.

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