Communication and Civil Society (I). Politics in the Internet age (I)

Notes from the Civil Society and Politics transformation in the Internet Age, organized by the Communication and Civil Society seminar of the IN3 in in Barcelona, Spain, in October 26-27, 2011. More notes on this event: comsc.

Presentation by Joan Coscubiela, co-director of the Seminar

The IN3 has made up this year a research seminar called Communication and Civil Society to debate around the new role of communications in politics, especially when the tools to broadcast a message have become of personal use.

In this framework or communication revolution also come political revolutions like the Arab Spring, the Spanish Indignants Movement (or 15M movement) and the Occupy Wall Street Movement. To analyse these movements we need not only to approach them from the ivory tower, but from the inside, with an activist and participatory approach.

The goal of the seminar is, thus, to find out what the social impact is of this crossroads between communication and politics.

Panel: Politics in the Internet age (I)
Manuel Castells, Joana Conill, Amalia Cardenas

Manuel Castells

Politics is the exercise of power to accomplish common goals within the established institutions; while social movements aim at changing values of the society, at transforming people’s minds. And the problem comes when common goals and social values are disconnected. Then comes revolution, which is the occupation of the institutions by non-established means to impose the new values and transform or rewrite the rules according to them.

We live in specific communication frameworks, with which we communicate with our peers, build communities… and build our own minds in the process. It is not exactly that technology determines the way we are, but it certainly has a major role on how we build our societies. When the communication framework changes, society changes: we are shifting towards communicative autonomy, that leads towards social autonomy.

When there is oppression, there is resistance. Thus, the new communication tools that provide autonomy have had two consequences: on the one hand, the explosion of resistance; on the other hand, the attempt to control such tools to avoid resistance.

The Tunisian Revolution is a clear case of this increase of resistance to impose, through social activism, the change of a system. In Tunisia, the feeling of humiliation is worst than exploitation, as it is portrayed by the immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi.

Fear is one of the strongest feelings and one of the main barriers for revolutions. Fear is a mechanism of survival of the species. Fear paralyses and stops us from self-destruction. But once fear is overridden, the sense of community provides a feeling of security and then comes enthusiasm. That is what happens after the Tunisian Revolution, that spreads enthusiastically to Egypt, and then to Spain.

But what is the spark that helps overriding fear? In the Tunisian case that is Internet. The first call for a revolution in Egypt comes through the Internet in January 25th, 2011, when Asmaa Mahfouz posted a video of her calling out for a protest.

After that, movements like the April 6 Youth Movement join the call and activate their networks to raise the population up. And the activation is very fast because of the flat structures of the networks.

When the government tries to stop the revolution by cutting down communications, the international community comes to the rescue with several solutions. This international community is partly made up by for-profit firms (e.g. Google, Twitter, Facebook) that are interested in the success of the movement: they are in the business of selling freedom and, thus, that is their business, to provide freedom to communicate. As Lotan, Graeff, Ananny, Gaffney, Pearce and boyd demonstrated, The revolutions were tweeted.

Indeed, the total blackout of communications is nearly impossible. If the international community of hackers — like Anonymous and Telecomix in Egypt — is committed to restablishing a way of being connected, a government can make it more difficult, but not impossible.

When there is communication, a movement is strong. When communication fails, the movement gets waek and normally ends up violently, as it is the ultimate lasting resource.

Main characteristics of these movements

  • Instantly generated, sparked by indignation.
  • Multimodal, images impacting people thanks to distributed by networks.
  • Horizontal, and based on trust.
  • Disintermediation of the formal political representation.
  • Viral, expansive.
  • Have no centre, they cannot be controlled, they reconfigure their architectures all the time.
  • Both local and global.
  • Self reflective, on a continuous process of deliberation.
  • Both online and offline.
  • Leaderless, with no strong affinities.
  • Do not aim at political projects, but at specific goals.
  • Deeply transforming, deeply political, without being programmatic.
  • Express feelings, generate debates, but do not support political parties or governments.
  • Aim at rebuilding democracy, more base on direct and/or deliberative democracy. They generate utopias not as unreachable things, but as drivers of change.

Joana Conill, Amalia Cardenas

After all these revolutions, especially in Spain, what has been achieved?

It is important to note that not all achievements necessarily mean taking the (political) power.

On the one hand, a huge achievement has been transforming the processes. The processes to share information and opinion, or the process of deliberation. Within these processes, some achievements have been the acknowledgement that being wrong can be right, or that errors can be discussed and their solutions be fed back onto the deliberation process.

Meetings are facilitated so that everyone can speak despite of their gender, status, shyness. And conflict resolution mechanisms are put into practice so that participation does not only come smoothly, but conflicts are solved and actually provide good input into what is being discussed.

Feelings are put into the equation. There is a shift from the I think towards the I feel, including I believe, I guess, in my opinion, from my point of view, etc.

The ultimate goal is more and better participation.

And it is not only about more and better participation of people, about not excluding people from the process, but also about not excluding some values from the process.

The relationships amongst people determine the quality of the interchange, of the communication. If communication determines society and politics, it is crucial that we care about the quality of personal relationships.

Discussion

Q: Why people do not have (enough) fear in Spain? Why do all people agree with the Indignants but so few people participate? Why is there so much resignation? Castells: there is fear, and a lot of it: there is fear of losing one’s job or fear of breaking the rules or fear of being hit by the police. All these fears are stopping many people from participating. Nowadays, institutions are not sustained by legitimacy, but by resignation.

More information

Civil Society and Politics transformation in the Internet Age (2011)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2011) “Communication and Civil Society (I). Politics in the Internet age (I)” In ICTlogy, #97, October 2011. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from http://ictlogy.net/review/?p=3851

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