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)

Mobile communication and economic and social development in Latin America

Notes from the presentation of the book Comunicación móvil y desarrollo económico y social en América Latina, by Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol, Hernán Galperin and Manuel Castells, M., that took place at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute, Barcelona, on September 28, 2011.

Presentation: Javier Nadal, Executive Deputy Chairman of Fundación Telefónica

There are few technologies, if any, that have been so quickly adopted as Information and Communication Technologies, in general, and mobile telephony, in particular.

And it is very worth noting that this adoption has not happened in the same way around the globe. Different regions, cultures, communities have and are using mobile telephony in many and very different ways. Thus the need to do thorough research in this field, and see how mobile telephony can empower and develop communities and individuals.

Manuel Castells, sociologist, director of the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and author of the book.

The three things people value the most are Health, Education and the ability to communicate. And if we consider Education as Communication, we can narrow the priorities to just Health and Communication.

That is why ICTs are such a powerful phenomenon, with pervasive and fast rates of penetration and adoption. And the more important is a phenomenon, the more the need to perform research on it, to analyse it, understand it and, if needed, affect its path.

The book is not a descriptive one, but an analytical one, taking data from Telefónica and CEPAL-ECLAC to be able to perform econometric regressions.

Main conclusions of the econometric analysis:

  • There is a proven, statistically significant, systematic, positive effect of mobile phones upon economic growth, especially in poorest countries and especially in poorest regions.
  • Inequality is neither increased nor decreased because of mobile technologies. Mainly because adoption rates are so high (circa 80% in general) that any strata of society does have access to mobile telephony.
  • There is an impact of mobile phones decreasing poverty.

This last statement is especially proven by the qualitative analyses performed in the book (see below the case studies), which show:

  • A positive impact on employment. As many people work autonomously, thanks to mobile phones they can get jobs/works done without the bounds of more rigid organizational structures.
  • People find employment more quickly thanks to disintermediation of the job market.
  • Increase in security — and the feeling of security — of people: distant communication reduces exposure to different kinds of violence and hazards.
  • There is an increase in the autonomy of people, but at the same time increasing the connectivity amongst people and increasing the feeling of community, of a common identity. But not any autonomy, but “secure autonomy”.

If we take the context of schools, it is clear that the educational system is lagging behind the evolution of technology, and educators and policy-makers should definitely rethink their teaching strategies and leverage the power of mobile techonology and mobile (i.e. ubiquitous) access to knowledge [I personally disagree with Castells that laptops at school should be replaced with mobiles: I believe the problem is not the device, but the educational model].

Discussion

Ismael Peña-López: despite the high rates of adoption and, thus, the lack of impact in quantitative terms on inequality, what happens in qualitative terms? Are we witnessing evidence for the knowledge gap hypothesis? Castells: absolutely. What we see is that technology adoption is not affecting inequality, but social inequality does affect unequal technology adoption (e.g. poors not accessing broadband). Nevertheless, the inequality of mobile adoption, or the inequality in communications, is not as important as socio-economic inequalities, and that is a very important fact.

Q: how is it that people spend relatively so much in communications instead of “food”? Castells: the main reason is because it is worth it: mobile phones have an impact on employability, for instance, and very important too, on socialization, which, at its turn, has an impact on employability and inclusion in general. That’s why: communications are of crucial importance nowadays and do have an impact on each and every aspect of our lives.

Q: is there a different impact depending on e.g. gender? Castells: there is, but not because of the gender factor, but because the gender factor already made a difference in the “real” world. For instance, in the Peruvian Andes markets are set up by women. Thus, the impact of mobiles on those women was higher than on men, but not because of their gender, but because of their important role on the local economies.

Book Review

The book performs a thorough and deep analysis on how mobile technologies have had an impact on Latin America, both at the economic and social levels. After two initial chapters depicting the framework and context, the book goes on estimating the quantitative impact of mobile telephony on economic growth and poverty alleviation, then moving onto mobile usage in rural areas, social businesses for e-inclusion, technology appropriation and usage among youth.

The table of contents is as follows:

  1. Introduction: Mobile communication and development in Latin America in the XXIst century; Roxana Barrantes Cáceres, Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol, Sebastián Ureta.
  2. Socio-economic context and ICT diffusion in Latin America; Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol, Andrea Molinari, Javier Vázquez Grenno.
  3. Estimation of the contribution of mobile telephony to growth and poverty alleviation; Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol, Javier Vázquez Grenno
  4. Mobile telephony in rural areas: case study in Puno, Peru; Roxana Barrantes Cáceres, Aileen Agüero, Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol.
  5. Mobile telephony and inclusive businesses: Proyecto SUMA in Argentina; Hernán Galperin, Andrea Molinari.
  6. Appropriation and usage: case study in Brasil; François Bar, Francis Pisani, Carlos Seabra.
  7. Mobile youth culture in an urban environmetn: case study in Santiago de Chile; Sebastián Ureta, Alejandro Artopoulos, Wilson Muñoz, Pamela Jorquera.
  8. Synthesis of results and conclusions; Manuel Castells, Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol, Hernán Galperin.

More information

Towards e-Health 2.0? Health and Web 2.0 in the Information Age

From 2005 to 2007, good friend Francisco Lupiáñez took part in a Manuel Castells’s project entitled Technological Modernisation, Organisational Change and Service Delivery in the Catalan Public Health System (aka PIC Salut).

His main findings in the Public Health system related with the adoption of ICTs are really similar to the ones I pointed at — there related to the Educational system — in my conference Opening Session: Digital Citizens vs. Analogue Institutions (indeed partly based on data from a brother project, L’Escola a la Societat Xarxa: Internet a l’Educació Primària i Secundària, also led by Castells and belonging both of them to a framework project about ICT adoption in Catalonia, Spain).

These findings can be summarized as follows:

  • ICTs are broadly considered as a promising tool among physicists and nurses, health care professionals at large (managers, the pharmaceutical sector, etc.) and patients.
  • Internet and intranets are widely used to get Health information.
  • But e-health management and service delivery systems, even if in a growing trend, they are far from being mainstream and are quite often rare.
  • ICT used is mainly focused to interprofessional use, while patients (or the direct use with the customer) are excluded from the equation.
  • Productivity, efficiency and quality don’t seem to be affected because of lack of accompanying measures in habits, procedures, strategies, policies, etc. at all levels.

Put short: information and some professional interaction, but almost total lack of communication. e-Health 2.0? No way. Interactivity does not exist and, actually, the “reputation factor” still plays a very important role that the Internet has not solved yet (i.e. who do you trust?).

More details about the results of the project can be accessed here and here.

For those who can read Catalan, this is a very interesting presentation:

On the other hand, there’s a conference at the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park on Thursday 15th May 2008 just about this subject. Please find here more information about the programme.

The scarcely relevant practice of chat rooms and social networking sites

Manuel Castells is a scientific I admire. There are things I share — most of them — and things I don’t. Right now I’m working hard with two works of him:

Castells, M. (2000). “Materials for an exploratory theory of the network society”. In British Journal of Sociology, Jan-Mar 2000, 51(1), 5-24. London: Routledge.
Castells, M. (2004). “Informationalism, Networks, And The Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint”. In Castells, M. (Ed.), The Network Society: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

which I find really interesting and a recommended reading for everyone.

This is why I find so disappointing when an author of his stature can so unexpectedly slip out of the road by writing:

the Internet is quickly becoming a medium of interactive communication beyond the cute, but scarcely relevant practice of chat rooms (increasingly made obsolete by SMSs and other wireless, instant communication systems)

[bold letters are mine]

Of course, I’m not questioning him for not foreseeing that SMS would not replace instant messaging — which is what he’s actually meaning by the general concept of chat rooms —, two technologies that now live together in perfect harmony, especially in teen environments. It’s about the scarcely relevant practice of chat rooms.

This is 0% evidence, 100% value judgment.

Evidence about the relevance of such practice is way easy to be checked. First of all, we should remember the origins of both e-mail and instant messaging: high-tech scientific laboratories — there’s plenty of literature about this issue. But once it went out of the scientific environment and got popular, there’s more and more evidence about the relevance of such tools: the Pew Internet & American Life Project issued in that same year, 2004, the report How Americans Use Instant Messaging about 53 million American adults using instant messaging programs. Well, this is quite a lot of people doing scarcely relevant practices. But just at the end of last year, 2007, Garrett and Danziger analyzed how instant messaging was used at work for work purposes in their article IM=Interruption Management? Instant Messaging and Disruption in the Workplace, finding positive uses — yes, you read right: positive. So, evidence absolutely shows that there are good, interesting, useful practices around instant messaging.

What about value judgment? Well, I’d personally agree on assessing as useful, effective, efficient, etc. the use instant messaging for criminal purposes: phishing and pharming, organizing terrorist attacks, seducing minors for sexual purposes, etc. Actually, the main security concerns nowadays about the Internet are precisely in this line: how to avoid the effectiveness of tools like instant messaging, social networking sites and e-mail for criminal purposes. Hence, what is to blame is the criminal who uses these tools, but the tools are working great — even if in bad hands, because tools know no ethics, no law (well, Lessig would complain about this last point).

Summing up: a tool is useful, efficient, effective or relevant besides the fact that we like or dislike the way it is used, but based on its performance.

Same with social networking sites. In a work I’ve already talked about by David Beer and Roger Burrows, they write about Facebook. Even if they are quite open minded, there’s a full chapter about the bad uses of Facebook concerning teachers’ privacy issues which, from my point of view, is almost a digression that really does not deal with the sense of ‘democratization’, as stated in the title of that chapter.

While the authors complain — more than criticize — about the fact of having some colleagues exposed to public dishonor, they lose focus on the subject of analysis: Facebook, social networking sites, shifting towards the (bad) education and practices of such students, which was (supposedly) not the matter of debate in the article.

Day after day I am surprised by the recurrent exercise to blame on the Internet things that belong to “real” life: Law, Education, Business Management… And, even worse, to state about Internet applications and uses things that are absolutely false, taking as evidence what, all in all, was just lack of deeper knowledge and prejudice. Even in the most brilliant scientists. We all have bad days everywhen.