Coming back from the wonderful workshop “Citizenship in the Digital Republic” in a most wonderful city I just wanted to highlight some of the concepts we were touching in the course. There’s too much content to be described in detail here, but maybe some thoughts can be useful for those interested in the relation of new media and citizenship.
Citizenship as democratic participation
The course brought together four thematic threads with a common focus on the concept of citizenship in a society characterized by the thorough penetration of digital information and communication technologies in all spheres of life. Citizenship, broadly defined, includes any form of democratic participation in social systems – political, technological and expert. The digital republic, for its part, is understood as a political community defined by the governance of the people. How is such governance possible in a digital society? What opportunities for involvement do citizens have in a densely mediated polis? Can technological development itself be democratically steered?
The goal of the course was to critically explore the new forms of democratic participation that the pervasive presence of digital media in contemporary societies affords and requires. The concept of citizenship was taken up in four contexts:
• public participation in technological development, design and policy
• digital media technologies and civic engagement
• digital media and citizenship in everyday life
• digital media and cultural institutions
Elite ideals and market dynamics
As Peter Dahlgren highlighted in his talk, we need to specify more carefully what we mean by participation, and try to illuminate its key elements. His presentation offered five parameters of participation: trajectories, modalities, motivations, sociality and visibility. Each parameter has some further subcategories. “I suggest three basic trajectories: consumption, civil society and politics. These obviously are entangled with each other in the real world, yet the distinctions allow us to focus on political participation as a specific form.” (Dahlgren).
Elitist ideals of democracy are still very much with us, even as they are continuously being challenged by visions of more inclusive and effective citizenship. Two other problems are that market dynamics as the most democratic force in society might erode the opportunities for meaningful civic participation. And governments at all levels have decreasing margins of manoeuvrability in an increasingly complex globalised world. Plus, existing democracy does not automatically guarantee participation.
Media and internet participation: civic practices
On the net, there is a wide array of participatory forms available. Dahlgren calls this “civic practices”, and this is where the different forms of citizenship become important – some of the forms were highlighted in the course. No matter whether we speak of rhetoric, intimate or inclusive citizenship, it is important to realise that no new media can compensate for systemic mechanisms. Also, “in late modern society, the opportunities for participating in consumption and entertainment are overwhelmingly more numerous” (Dahlgren), more accessible, and more enticing. And speaking about “users” emphasises the role of individual actors rather than social patterns; an idea neatly fitting with the commercial logic. User perspectives thus need to be framed by larger socio-cultural horizons.
As a very slippery concept, it points to complex, social technical and political arrangements. Brighenti (2010) suggests two basic models of visibility: First, the public sphere is a mode of visibility where one can be in public (“democratic publicness”). This implies intervisibility (the possibility of mutual visibility and accessibility of citizens and power holders). The second model is the public realm of social visibility, of interaction. Here, the gaze and recognition of others become central to the constitution of identity. The discussion and debates on topics such as digital divides, access to decision-making via the net, the isolation of the „echo-chambers‟ etc. are all related to visibility. However, less work is done in the area of social intervisibility of participants. The paradox of our time is that, despite the generally low presence of politics on the web, the significance of online media for political life is clearly growing.
Maria Bakardjieva addressed the following concepts in her talk:
- Media and the lifeworld
- Modes of citizenship: liberal, communitarian, republicanian, radical-democratic
- life politics, collective identities
- subpolitics and subactivism and their characteristics
- mundane citizenship
- the mediapolis
A big official thank-you, again, to the organisers Christina Neumayer & Maria Bakardjieva who did an outstanding job!
Brighenti, Andrea Mubi (2010), Visibility in Social Theory and Social Research. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.
Dahlgren, Peter (2009), Media and Political Engagement. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bakardjieva, Maria (2010), The Internet and subactivism: Cultivating young citizenship in everyday life. In T. Olsson ad P. Dahlgten (eds.), Young People, ICTs and DemocracyTheories, Policies, Identities, and Websites, pp. 129-146.