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The cyberutopia was this? Sofactivism, tribalism, new censorship and trivialization of the public sphere

(((Versión española aquí mismo en breve))

Transcript from my conference at the EU Council and Club of Venice seminar on public communication and the Internet. Brussels, March 22, 2013 (((videos, speaker’s presentations and other resources)))

 For the ppt/pdf presentation click here, and don’t miss the blogosphere images!

In June 1989 Ronald Reagan announces the end of totalitarianism by virtue of the microchip. 20 years later, Gordon Brown tells us that Rwanda will never happen again thanks to the Internet.

It is a persistent pattern over the recent history of humanity –  every time there are new means of communication, prophets come and announce the liberation of the human being, the expansion of democratic participation, and a new step, maybe the definitive, in the long way to world peace. It happened with the telegraph, the phone, the written press, the radio and the television.

Just to put a prominent example, Marconi himself said that «the arrival of the era of wireless communication will make war impossible, because it will be ridiculous.» Of course, Marconi couldn’t see it. He died in 1937, when totalitarianism was strong in Europe and led to World War II.

The Internet has not escaped this. And what we can call “cyberutopia” has been so full of announces that it would be good to see, 20 years after its birth, if they happened at all or not. Because NO, the internet is not «new media» anymore. The internet is already two decades old. It is a mature invention already.

However, more or less recently, we have been told that:

  • We will be able to organize without organizations.
  • They tell us that the Web will let us build super networks.
  • That we will learn infinite new things thanks to those billions of links.
  • That these new powers will transform our economy.
  • And, of course, revolutionize politics.
  • Someone, more pessimistic, even says that the Internet will destroy our culture.

So here we go, as one analyst recounts:

“And so we come full circle. The ebb and flow of futurism is a curious one. Technology isn’t cyclical but it would seem our technological predictions of the future may very well be repeating themselves. Forever. And ever.”

Yes, the Internet provides features that would make the political, social and economic conversation much more productive, at least potentially. James Fishkin, one of the fathers of the so-called Deliberative Democracy, in which citizens engage in rational deliberation of different arguments to come to a conclusion, says that this kind of cold, analytic, rational democratic decision making needs the following conditions:
  • Accurate and relevant information: If you look for it, you can have it easily and free in the Internet.
  • Balance between the various positions on the same dispute. You can have that balance in the Internet, once again, easily and for free.
  • Diversity of opinions. Of course, all of them are in the Internet. You can find opinions from one extreme and the other, and all the opinions in the middle.
  • And the will of citizens to weight arguments objectively and regardless of who defends them. And here is where the problem comes, as we will see.
So let’s see… We have here a space that is the dream of anarchists, liberals, libertarians, rationalists, anti system activists, and leaders of religions, cults and social movements…

Open. Direct. Potentially transparent. Diverse. Participative. Inmediate. Multimedia. Free.

Well… This sounds all great, but what we find in the Internet is far from the rational use of all these potentials, and that is the hypothesis that I would like to make in my presentation: The Internet reproduces – and sometimes reinforces – certain patterns in the public affairs discussion that are persistent in the human being, and do not fit well with those prophecies of the ciberutopia. That the Internet is not more than a place, with all its marvelous capabilities and advantages, in where human beings behave as they always did.

This means:

  • A place for clickativism, or what I prefer to call «sofactivism», where you can have millions clicking here and there, but where only a few really committed and interested will make real change, through real and offline activism.
  • A place for eternal tribalism, where people get together as always did: with his or her similars, forming tribes, bands, gangs and parties. Where a few lead and the rest just observe and follow.
  • As a consequence, a place for trivialization of the public discussion, in which political and social “conversations” are as simple and trivial and archetypical and black and white as they always were in the old European cafés, bars and homes and working places.
  • A place with new forms of the old censorship, where the powerful control and the people is as vulnerable as always. And, more than that, where new or old powers are controlling even more.

Let’s see these four patterns in a closer look.

Sofactivism.

In English it is called slacktivism, or clickativism. A mobilization of low intensity, lazy and with low levels of commitment. Five examples and comments:

1. The Arab Spring was told to be a Twitter revolution. But the fact is that studies here and there demonstrated that most of those suppositions were just hype. For example, a study of the activity in Twitter on those days of 2011 shows that most of the tuits where coming from outside the countries affected, and most of the activity was just following the events that people was following on tv. Particularly in the most influential of all: Al Jazeera. The study shows the obvious: first come the mass media. After that, Twitter. Apart from that, social media are influential when they break the threshold of attention through the mass media (television and radio and press).

2. There is some research saying the opposite, bust most of it confirms that Internet does not make people participate more. The actives (a minority) keep being actives. And the inactives are still inactives, in spite of the wonders of Internet.

3. This explains why the most popular petition in the new section «We The People» in the White House website has around 350.000 signatures, less than 0.002 of the eligible voters. The most popular petition, by the way, tries to “legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group”. Whatever that means, but probably not the most urgent social cause in America by the way. If you take a closer look, you will find there a nice mix of extreme proposals (recall the election or repeal Obamacare), combined with other eccentric ones, such as the substitution of the national anthem for a song by a well known raper (11.000 signatures).

As you can imagine, and has been demonstrated by some studies, theses campaigns do not have any impact at all in officials or politicians, who do not take any care of that eccentric and small activity, although it shows very nice in their homepages.

4. Some sociologists say that this could even promote an effect known as social loafing: the more you feel many people is participating in something, the less effort you as an individual put in that something. This has been detected long time ago in the famous rope-pulling game: the more people are pulling the rope, the less individual effort they make. Does that happen in the social networks in Internet? There are no evidences, as I said before. It seems that the internet does not increase efforts to participate nor does it lower them.

5.  What is apparently spontaneous activism, in many cases responds to fake identities, the so called trolls that invade now the public space. You cannot be 15 different persons in a public demonstration in the street, but in the Internet you certainly can. In other cases, there are big corporations or big interests behind the apparent spontaneity of sofactivists. The same happens in the “real” or offline world, but it seems that the Internet is specially well suited for this anonymity, sometimes for good, but others for ill.

As noted by Malcolm Gladwell,  in his famous New Yorker article, social activism and mobilization, requires, always requires, discipline, commitment, structure, organization, hierarchies.  Sofactivism promotes none of them. Gladwell puts the example of the fight for civil rights by Afro-Americans in the US of the 60s: Quote:

«If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure. And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed in Birmingham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide.»

The second and third effects that we notice in the social activity about public affairs in the Internet:

Tribalism and Trivialization

 One would be tempted to think that, if not the amount of participation, Internet would at least increase the quality of that public participation. That if the Internet provides immense, infinite, resources of communications, the average citizen could  make good use of that capacity. For example, reading not only or always the same newspaper, but reading two or at least alternate different views.

Well, sorry, but that does not happen. It simply does not happen. When we take a look at those wonderful and fascinating pictures of the blogosphere, we find the reds on one side. The blues on the other. The greens in one place. The yellows in the other. The tribe of conservatives does not exchange views with the tribe of progressives, of course. People want to hear and read the arguments of their tribe. There could be cyberbridges uniting people, but the fact is that there aren´t. People do not speak with the enemy, so to speak. They speak in endogenic circles.

That happens in the US. Take a look at the American political blogosphere, with republicans on one side and democrats on the other.

It happens with political books. No one buys conservative books if one is progressive, nor do conservatives buy progressive books.

It happens in the political blogosphere in France, with more colors, because of its multiparty system.

It happens in Germany.

It happens everywhere. For example, in Iran.

It happens not only with blogs. But also in Twitter. See how the people twitted the State of the Union Address by Obama, and notice, again and again, the huge polarization of opinions, in favor of Obama on your left. Against Obama on your right.

In short, Internet does not connect different arguments and people. Internet does not promote a cold and balanced conversation. Internet connects tribes and opinions and reproduces the ancient tribalism of human beings.

The fourth pattern that I would tell you about is

New censorship

 Take a look at the European regulation on television or radio or even the laws regarding defamation and freedom of expression in the written press. They are quite clear. If you have a concession for a tv channel, you have just that: a concession. The radioelectric space is limited, so you have to comply with certain norms to make business of it.

That does not happen in the Internet. We have here a place in which a six year old kid can type “porn” and get some explicit images to start. Or “terrorism” if you want.

I am not saying that this is necessarily bad. It depends very much in what you consider acceptable or not. What I am saying is that all this does not depend basically on the will of legitimate governments, or at least not yet. It depends by now mainly on the decisions of Google, Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft, and other companies, most of them, by the way, American.

They have the freedom to close accounts– as Twitter unilaterally did with a fake account of Pope Francis the first day of his election. They can also manage the data of users, start billing for their services if they want without previous notice, promote certain names and messages for their sponsors, etc., etc.

Governments in authoritarian regimes are not stupid, of course, so they create their own government-controlled platforms. As they do in China, with their Weibo system, a quite good substitute of Google and Twitter altogether, but with the tied and expected controls by the Chinese officials. Or in Russia. Where the Duma passed last year a law that permits the censorship of a blacklist of sites that do not comply with the desires of the Putin Government.

More democratic governments are not stupid either, of course. And they are doing all they can to control communications, not necessarily in defense of the world peace or the wealth of nations or the benefit of the human species.

Only two days ago, on Wednesday in New York City, the CIA Chief Technologist Officer said in a conference:

«The value of any piece of information is only known when you can connect it with something else that arrives at a future point in time,»

«Since you can’t connect dots you don’t have, it drives us into a mode of, we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever.»

So here goes the CIA: we are watching you. And you are a walking sensor. And we want to have all worldwide information. And we will keep your data forever. And yes, you should be questioning about your rights, but we go faster than you. By the way, the conference came after we knew about a Six hundred million dollar deal between the CIA and Amazon for cloud computing analysis.

Yes, it sounds wonderful to talk about Freedom and Openness, and Open Government, and things like that, but we are very far from that happy Arcadia. We are far from the dream of libertarians, and founders of cults and religions and movements. Not to say that we might well be going in the opposite direction. Lack of legal controls in democratic states. Overt massive potential or real control of private lives, and second generation censorship in authoritarian regimes, allows us to speak about a shift in power, and about a new form of censorship, both private and public.

To summarize, it could well be an exaggeration to compare Internet with a Dishwasher. As one historian does when he says:

“The Internet is a post office, newsstand, video store, shopping mall, game arcade, reference room, record outlet, adult book shop and casino rolled into one.  Let’s be honest:  that’s amazing.  But it’s amazing in the same way a dishwasher is amazing—it enables you to do something you have always done a little easier than before.”

Yes, it is probably just and exaggeration, but no more than the hype of the cyberutopia that dominates today the public debate about the Web.

So, what can we do to “adapt”, as the title of this meeting suggests? How can we adapt to this environment in which, evidently, Internet is not going to disappear? Let me end proposing four ideas, at least as an invitation for debate and open discussion:

1. Let’s not focus on the Internet more than on the human being who uses it. Let’s move to a citizen-centric communications from this internet centrism in which we currently are. This probably means counting more on psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists than on technologists and web-experts. Sorry for the web-experts.

2. Let´s not create problems that do not exist. Let’s stop investing money, time and other resources trying to force citizens to be rational, participative, involved, commited to public affairs, when the huge majority of citizens are emotional, unengaged, and basically lazy with public affairs.

3. Let’s move quickly on regulation. If we put no limits to the control and marketing of private information, it will probably be too late when we feel the need to do it.  The public space in the Internet is unlimited, but somehow is public. It has no sense that we allow people to do things in Internet that are not allowed in the offline life.

4. When I have specific internet communications projects, I never consider Internet isolated from anything, as I do not consider tv, radio, cinema, papers or face to face communications isolated. I do not ask: “what can Internet provide so I will adapt to it?.” On the contrary, I ask “what does my client need so that I can integrate Internet to his or her needs? In a kennedian way of wording: «Ask not what you can do for the Internet; ask what the Internet can do for you.»

That is a quite different approach, and it works for me much better.

Ladies and gentleman, I wish we can soon balance the forces of the cyber utopia and the cyber pessimism, placing ourselves in the virtuous center of cyber realism. I hope this presentation is at least useful for the setting of that debate.

Thank you very much.

 

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