Daniel Innerarity: Politics in the era of Networks

Notes from the conference Politics in the era of Networks, by Daniel Innerarity, within the framework of the Sessions Web conference series, organized by Centre d’Estudis Jurídics i Formació Especialitzada, in Barcelona, Spain, 25 January 2012.

Politics in the era of Networks
Daniel Innerarity, lecturer in philosophy at the Universidad de Zaragoza, researcher at Ikerbasque and director at the Democratic Governance Institute.

A democratic tension

When we speak about politics and social networking sites, we’re used to speak about David vs. Goliath: common people fighting against the powerful.

For the first time in many years, we are not facing a strong political power, but a weak political power. A political power disconcerted by the markets, globalization, a smart society. But, is that society that smart? Is it true that the digital revolution has had an impact on politics (and political parties and governments) and not on common people? Why should be common people be spared from that impact?

It is only natural that the political system and what happens out of it (unions, nonprofits, civil associations, etc.) advance in parallel and, in their confrontation, consensus and solutions emerge. This means that it is interaction what makes society advance, and not that it is society that is right despite the opposition of the political system.

Indeed, we do need an articulated civil society, as articulated as political parties and governments. Not a chaotic or disorganized one. Only an organized civic society can face a disorganized, weak political power. But there is a deep difficulty to articulate a general purpose strategy, especially when populisms leverage the fact that no-one seems to be accountable for their decisions.

The utopia of dis-intermediation

We are witnessing times were intermediation is toughly fought against: there seem to be no need for politicians, journalists, teachers, distributing industries, etc.

While there may be a positive side of dis-intermediation (lesser costs, a more straightforward access, increased availability of knowledge, etc.) there is also a dark side of it. The expert becomes a contested institution while the cult of the amateur becomes the norm.

The huge challenge is how to rebuild new mediators, more flexible, more participative, and not getting rid of them. Democracy is about commitment and engagement, and oftentimes this can only be achieved through representation.

Ballot boxes and dreams

A mature democracy is not about setting highest ideals, but about identifying what is the second best and being able to tell whether it is acceptable. If the second best is too far from ideals, society won’t progress; if the second best is too close to ideals, fanaticism takes place.

Our society is deeply de-politicized: not only technocrats are taking the power, but “tea parties” are stepping in the centre of the political debate. Those are parties or groups of people, without second best options, and that fight within the party for it not to agree with anything with the “enemy”. This breaks party-to-party and party-to-society communication. In many senses, the hardcore of the political blogsphere is made of “tea parties”, extremist partisans that radicalise the debate.

Paradoxes of democratic self-determination

Echo chambers (Sunstein) and the Daily Me (Negroponte) have been side effects of democratic self-determination, with the result that the quality of democracy is impoverished. People that thinks different from us protects us from insanity and fanaticism.

We certainly need to keep a certain distance from reality to see other opinions. And representation is just about this, about seeing the whole picture.

Untangling an illusion

The Internet implies a high degree of empowerment for the citizenry. And, historically, every new technology has come along with a utopia: technology will bring a social change or revolution. But, will it?

There is a common believe that a new technology appears in the void, in no social or economic context. But it does. And that is why the same (new) technology has different effects in different places, or “unexpected” or “undesired” changes instead of what we dreamt of.

There is a common believe that social media decentralizes and democratizes power. But the nature of power is not so: there are gatekeepers and mediators in the Internet. The Internet does not removes the relationships of power, but transforms them. E.g. in the top 40 political blogs in the US, there is also one woman, two hispanics, and no afroamericans. The top 40 political blogs in the US are made up by WASPs… as US politics.

Censorship, for instance, is not any more about governments censoring, but about crowds doing it willingly. Search engines are not really neutral, as they redirect traffic, etc.

We have to acknowledge that democracy is about design: social and power hierarchies have their mirror in the online world. Imperialism is not anymore about culture, but about protocols: we are living the imperialism of protocols.

There is a common believe that criticising (or demanding accountability) and building is the same thing, and it is not. Democracy is not only about winning elections, but about governing; or about reporting injustices, but about coming up with a better social design to avoid/correct them.

Digital revolutions have been more focused on accountability and reporting than on building.

The Internet is based on easiness and trust, and that is, precisely, its weakest point.

Discussion

Q: is it possible that the Internet stops us from a critical thinking? Innerarity: It depends. We sometimes need some things to just happen, without us having to think about how their work; but we sometimes need to stop and think. What we are in need of is to be able to turn the switch on or off, so that we are able to stop and think about a given aspect, and without, in the meantime, being dragged around because of the speed of times. Politics has lost its ability to set up, to propose: it’s reactive and not propositive, thinks short term instead of long term.

Q: are we confusing mobilization with engagement? Innerarity: organization is fundamental to perform deep and lasting changes. What organization? Whatever, but organization.

Q: has the Internet been able to engage more participants in politics? Innerarity: the network has sometimes provided an illusory activism, where the activist believes that they are having a deep impact and the truth they are having not.

Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí: so, the Internet is a menace for politicians and they should fight against it? Innerarity: it definitely is not, the Internet can help in doing better politics. The problem with politics and the Internet is usually on the politicians’ side.

Ismael Peña-López: what will be easier: to transform the actual institutions (parliaments, parties, schools and universities, etc.) or to substitute the with brand new ones? Innerarity: renewal is a must, that is out of question. Or parliaments become spaces for reflection, or they will legislate about the past, about past problems. But we’d rather update the institutions we have than try and substitute them with new ones: the cost might be higher and no one says traditional institutions could not be transformed.

More information

e-Research: social media for social sciences

On January 12, 2012, I spoke at a research seminar on how to benefit from the use of social media to enhance research, both in the stage of being aware of the advancement of one’s discipline, and in the stage of diffusing one’s own research production.

The seminar had three different parts.

During the first part, I provided an introduction to social media, where I mainly explained the main ways that information can be shared (and, thus, also monitored): RSS feeds, widgets and open APIs. Put short, RSS feeds share preset bits of information (e.g. an article, a list of articles, etc.), widgets share preset bits of information plus a preset way of presenting it (a list of last tweets you can embed on a website, a like button, etc.) and open APIs allow an external user to ask a database for customized collections of data (e.g. put on a map the last tweets on a given subject).

During the second part — the core of the seminar — I went through an imaginary typical research process, from the moment one has an idea that wants to explore until the research is over and a research output can be presented. I draw two parallel timelines where I complemented the traditional way of doing research (on the right in the presentation) and how this could be enhanced with social media (on the left in the presentation). I stressed the idea that social media is a complement and never a substitute of the traditional ways of doing research. That is, tweeting about a topic or writing on an academic blog should not stop anyone from attending conferences or writing academic papers.

The last part of the seminar was a debate about the pros and cons of using social media to do research.

There are four points I would like to highlight from that debate and that were directly or indirectly asked to me during our talk.

  1. What is the basic, fundamental tool: RSS feeds. Period. It is for me very important to be aware of the fact that, with the help of RSS feeds, you don’t have to look for information, but information will get to you. And this is a significant leap in reaching higher stages of efficiency and efficacy in managing information.
  2. If you are a knowledge worker and you are not present in the information landscape, you are not. Having a personal/research group/research project website is not an option, but a must.
  3. Where to start from? It depends. Begin with a part of your research. If you are in the stage of gathering information, set up a monitoring/listening strategy: identify your actors and subscribe to their blogs, twitter accounts, slideshare accounts, etc. If you are in the stage of diffusing your research production, set up a diffusion strategy, upload your papers and slides, comment on others’ websites (pointing back to yours, etc.). Managing efficiently your bibliography (i.e. with a bibliographic manager) is also a way to begin managing your own information/knowledge.
  4. Think digital, be digital. e-Research is not about adding a digital layer, and, thus, adding an extra amount of work, but about changing your working paradigm, about levering all the work you are already doing on digital support.

Following you can find and download the slides I used. You can also download a book chapter where I explain in detail the building of a Personal Research Portal. There is a collection I maintain, The Personal Research Portal: related works which gathers everything I have written or said about this topic.

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Downloads:

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Prezi slides:
Peña-López, I. (2011). e-Research: social media for social sciences. Research seminar at the Open University of Catalonia. January 12, 2012. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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Slides as a PDF:
Peña-López, I. (2011). e-Research: social media for social sciences. Research seminar at the Open University of Catalonia. January 12, 2012. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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Book chapter:
Peña-López, I. (2009). “The personal research portal”. In Hatzipanagos, S. & Warburton, S. (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Social Software and Developing Community Ontologies, Chapter XXVI, 400-414. Hershey: IGI Global.

Professional qualification: ICT Space Facilitator

Telecentres, cybercafes, libraries and civic centres with Internet access… Internet public access points have evolved into much more that just places where access to online content and services is provided. There has been an evolution of public access points, and most of them have taken up a role of promoting digital and social inclusion, either directly or indirectly.

Even more important, other institutions not specifically aimed at promoting ICT usage — firms, schools, universities, governments… — have set up “ICT spaces” to help with the adoption of ICTs within their walls.

Those ICT spaces are usually run by a person or a team with a singular collection of skills: they are managers, they are computer engineers, they are social workers, they are communicators, they are educators… all at the same time.

During much of year 2011 I had the luck to be working with the Catalan Government and its Institut Català de les Qualificacions Professionals (ICQP) [Catalan Institute for professional qualifications, part of the Catalan Ministry of Education] to try and define what were the competences, skills and, very important, training required to run an ICT space.

There were five of us on the team: two of us — Isidre Bermúdez Ferran, from Fundación Esplai, a major telecentre actor in Spain, and I — provided experience on the field, while three others — Xavier Delgado Alonso, from the Catalan Institute of Social Services, and Manuela Merino Alcántara and Bru Laín i Escandell, from ICQP — provided all the methodological background.

Working sessions were really intense and what was learnt from the whole process was incredible. Now, the result of our work has been made public for public scrutiny and can now be downloaded from the ICQP website, both in Catalan and Spanish. Comments are really welcome.