The “Digital Demos”: How Connected Technologies are Reshaping Citizenship

Reflections on the Place, (Dis)Place and Citizenship Conference

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This week I traveled to Detroit to attend a conference on Citizenship held by the Center for Citizenship at Wayne State University.

An interesting topic at the conference was how connected technologies foster citizenship and civic action. At his keynote talk, James Holston posited that connected technologies and some cities’ efforts to build an “urban ciitizenship” have been turning “imagined communities into tangible communities” (read Benedict Anderson’s Book, Imagined Communities to understand the significance of this concept).

Holston used examples from recent uprisings in Turkey and Sao Paolo to show the ways in which really diverse groups of people (a range of socioeconomic, ethnic, religious representation) coalesced through civic actions such as street protesting and online activism.  

I was struck by the tensions that citizen engagement through connected technologies produced:

On one hand, the technologies fostered what Holston called a “sense of commonwealth” and an “insurgent citizenship” – a strong sense of civic engagement.

On the other hand, these same technologies can create a deep sense of skepticism, cynicism, and rejection of civic intuitions.

So – can we have (or build) democratic institutions that are sustainable, flexible, and responsive to this new context of digital connectedness?

Holston posed the question: “Are new digital means of civic action merely conveniences or does peer-to-peer urbanism engage data to revive urban citizenship and public and political engagement?

Has online networking and activism lead to a “digital demos?”

Further, who is left out of this new citizenry when the voices of certain groups of people are marginalized or suppressed by either lack of access to technology or data filtering algorithms used by networking software?

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In a similar vein, I heard an interesting talk about Crowdfunding by Rodrigo Davies at the MIT. According to Davies, Crowdfunding is a six billion dollar industry. People worldwide use sites like kickstarter.com, indegogo.com, and brickstarter.org to propose and fund civic improvement projects.

The question Davies raised was, are these groups ultimately helpful or harmful to communities and democracy? For example, if a neighborhood of folks raised $10,000 to fix their street, are they:

A: Doing the job that their government should be doing (thus, letting the government out of their responsibility) and creating an increased segregation from communities that don’t have the capacity to raise this money?

Or

B: Are the strengthening their neighborhood’s civic capacity, social capital and simply making it a nicer place to live?

Are we prepared to deal with the potential repercussions of such “digital citizenship?” How do these types of actions and technologies ultimately shape us as a society? And again, how do the platforms and algorithms that shape the decisions contribute to this outcome?

I found these questions to be quite relevant to my own field of education, as I see education as preparation for the next generation of engaged citizens. As connected technologies become a more embedded part of our everyday life, we need to consider not only the way they allow us to do new things, but also how they shape our democracy and society.

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