The intelligent citizen


John Bell in AlJazeera: “A quarter century after the demise of the Soviet Union, is the Western model of government under threat? …. The pressures are coming from several directions.
All states are feeling the pressure from unregulated global flows of capital that create obscene concentrations of wealth, and an inability of the nation-state to respond.Relatedly, citizens either ignore or distrust traditional institutions, and ethnic groups demand greater local autonomy.
A recent Pew survey shows that Americans aged 18-33 mostly identify as political independents and distrust institutions. The classic model is indeed frayed, and new developments have made it feel like very old cloth.
One natural reflex is to assert even greater control, a move suited to the authoritarians, such as China, Russia or General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi‘s Egypt: Strengthen the nation by any means to withstand the pressures. The reality, however, is that all systems, democracies or otherwise, were designed for an industrial age, and the management of an anonymous mass, and cannot cope with globalised economics and the information world of today.
The question remains: What can effectively replace the Western model? The answer may not lie only in the invention of new structures, but in the improvement of a key component found in all: The citizen.
The citizen today is mostly a consumer, focused on the purchase of goods or services, or the insistent consumption of virtual information, often as an ersatz politics. Occasionally, when a threat rises, he or she also becomes a demandeur of absolute security from the state. Indeed, some are using the new technologies for democratic purposes, they are better informed, criticise abuse or corruption, and organise and rally movements.
But, the vast majority is politically disengaged and cynical of political process; many others are too busy trying to survive to even care. A grand apathy has set in, the stage left vacant for a very few extremists, or pied pipers of the old tunes of nationalisms and tribal belonging disguised as leaders. The citizen is either invisible in this circus, an endangered species in the 21st century, or increasingly drawn to dark and polarising forces.
Some see the glass as half full and believe that technology and direct democracy can bridge the gaps. Indeed, the internet provides a plethora of information and a greater sense of empowerment. Lesser-known protests in Bosnia have led to direct democracy plenums, and the Swiss do revert to national referenda. However, whether direct or representative, democracy will still depend on the quality of the citizen, and his or her decisions.
Opinion, dogma and bias
Opinion, dogma and bias remain common political operating system and, as a result, our politics are still an unaffordable game of chance. The optimists may be right, but discussions in social media on issues ranging from Ukraine to gun control reveal more deep bias and the lure of excitement than the pursuit of a constructive answer.
People crave excitement in their politics. Whether it is through asserting their own opinion or in battling others, politics offers a great ground for this high. The cost, however, comes in poor judgment and dangerous decisions. George W. Bush was elected twice, Vladimir Putin has much support, climate change is denied, and an intoxicated Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, may be re-elected.
Few are willing to admit their role in this state of affairs, but they will gladly see the ill in others. Even fewer, including often myself, will admit that they don’t really know how to think through a challenge, political or otherwise. This may seem absurd, thinking feels as natural as walking, but the formation of political opinion is a complex affair, a flawed duet between our minds and outside input. Media, government propaganda, family, culture, and our own unique set of personal experiences, from traumas to chance meetings, all play into the mix. High states of emotion, “excitement”, also weigh in, making us dumb and easily manipulated….
This step may also be a precursor for another that involves the ordinary person. Today being a citizen involves occasional voting, politics as spectator sport, and, among some, being a watchdog against corruption or street activism. What may be required is more citizens’ participation in local democracy, not just in assemblies or casting votes, but in local management and administration.
This will help people understand the complexities of politics, gain greater responsibility, and mitigate some of the vices of centralisation and representative democracy. It may also harmonise with the information age, where everyone, it seems, wishes to be empowered.
Do people have time in their busy lives? A rotational involvement in local affairs can help solve this, and many might even find the engagement enjoyable. This injection of a real citizen into the mix may improve the future of politics while large institutions continue to hum their tune.
In the end, a citizen who has responsibility for his actions can probably make any structure work, while rejecting any that would endanger his independence and dignity. The rise of a more intelligent and committed citizen may clarify politics, improve liberal democracies, and make populism and authoritarianism less appealing and likely paths.”

Can Twitter Predict Major Events Such As Mass Protests?


Emerging Technology From the arXiv : “The idea that social media sites such as Twitter can predict the future has a controversial history. In the last few years, various groups have claimed to be able to predict everything from the outcome of elections to the box office takings for new movies.
It’s fair to say that these claims have generated their fair share of criticism. So it’s interesting to see a new claim come to light.
Today, Nathan Kallus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge says he has developed a way to predict crowd behaviour using statements made on Twitter. In particular, he has analysed the tweets associated with the 2013 coup d’état in Egypt and says that the civil unrest associated with this event was clearly predictable days in advance.
It’s not hard to imagine how the future behaviour of crowds might be embedded in the Twitter stream. People often signal their intent to meet in advance and even coordinate their behaviour using social media. So this social media activity is a leading indicator of future crowd behaviour.
That makes it seem clear that predicting future crowd behaviour is simply a matter of picking this leading indicator out of the noise.
Kallus says this is possible by mining tweets for any mention of future events and then analysing trends associated with them. “The gathering of crowds into a single action can often be seen through trends appearing in this data far in advance,” he says.
It turns out that exactly this kind of analysis is available from a company called Recorded Future based in Cambridge, which scans 300,000 different web sources in seven different languages from all over the world. It then extracts mentions of future events for later analysis….
The bigger question is whether it’s possible to pick out this evidence in advance. In other words, is possible to make predictions before the events actually occur?
That’s not so clear but there are good reasons to be cautious. First of all, while it’s possible to correlate Twitter activity to real protests, it’s also necessary to rule out false positives. There may be significant Twitter trends that do not lead to significant protests in the streets. Kallus does not adequately address the question of how to tell these things apart.
Then there is the question of whether tweets are trustworthy. It’s not hard to imagine that when it comes to issues of great national consequence, propaganda, rumor and irony may play a significant role. So how to deal with this?
There is also the question of demographics and whether tweets truly represent the intentions and activity of the population as a whole. People who tweet are overwhelmingly likely to be young but there is another silent majority that plays hugely important role. So can the Twitter firehose really represent the intentions of this part of the population too?
The final challenge is in the nature of prediction. If the Twitter feed is predictive, then what’s needed is evidence that it can be used to make real predictions about the future and not just historical predictions about the past.
We’ve looked at some of these problems with the predictive power of social media before and the challenge is clear: if there is a claim to be able to predict the future, then this claim must be accompanied by convincing evidence of an actual prediction about an event before it happens.
Until then, it would surely be wise to be circumspect about the predictive powers of Twitter and other forms of social media.
Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1402.2308: Predicting Crowd Behavior with Big Public Data”

Phone Apps Help Government, Others Counter Violence Against Women


NextGov: “Smart and mobile phones have helped authorities solve crimes from beatings that occurred during the London riots to the Boston Marathon bombing. A panel of experts gathered on Monday said the devices can also help reduce and combat rapes and other gender-based violence.
Smartphone apps and text messaging services proliferated in India following a sharp rise in reported gang rapes, including the brutal 2012 rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi, according to panelists at the Wilson Center event on gender-based violence and innovative technologies.
The apps fall into four main categories, said Alex Dehgan, chief data scientist at the United States Agency for International Development: apps that aid sexual assault and domestic violence victims, apps that empower women to fight back against gender-based violence, apps focused on advocacy and apps that crowdsource and map cases of sexual assault.
The final category of apps is largely built on the Ushahidi platform, which was developed to track reports of missing people following the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
One of the apps, Safecity, offers real-time alerts about sexual assaults across India to help women identify unsafe areas.
Similar apps have been launched in Egypt and Syria, Dehgan said. In lower-tech countries the systems often operate using text messages rather than smartphone apps so they’re more widely accessible.
One of the greatest impediments to using mobile technology to reduce gender violence is third world nations in which women often don’t have access to their own mobile or smartphones and rural areas in the U.S. and abroad in which there is limited service or broadband, Christopher Burns, USAID’s team leader for mobile access, said.
Burns suggested international policymakers should align plans for expanding broadband and mobile service with crowdsourced reports of gender violence.
“One suggestion for policy makers to focus on is to take a look at the crowd maps we’ve talked about today and see where there are greater incidences of gender-based violence and violence against women,” he said. “In all likelihood, those pockets probably don’t have the connectivity, don’t have the infrastructure [and] don’t have the capacity in place for survivors to benefit from those tools.”
One tool that’s been used in the U.S. is Circle of 6, an app for women on college campuses to automatically draw on friends when they think they’re in danger. The app allows women to pick six friends they can automatically text if they think they’re in a dangerous situation, asking them to call with an excuse for them to leave.
The app is designed to look like a game so it isn’t clear women are using their phones to seek help, said Nancy Schwartzman, executive director of Tech 4 Good, which developed the app.
Schwartzman has heard reports of gay men on college campuses using the app as well, she said. The military has been in contact with Tech 4 Good about developing a version of the app to combat sexual assault on military bases, she said.”

The Age of Democracy


Xavier Marquez at Abandoned Footnotes: “This is the age of democracy, ideologically speaking. As I noted in an earlier post, almost every state in the world mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic” in its constitutional documents today. But the public acknowledgment of the idea of democracy is not something that began just a few years ago; in fact, it goes back much further, all the way back to the nineteenth century in a surprising number of cases.
Here is a figure I’ve been wanting to make for a while that makes this point nicely (based on data graciously made available by the Comparative Constitutions Project). The figure shows all countries that have ever had some kind of identifiable constitutional document (broadly defined) that mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic” (in any context – new constitution, amendment, interim constitution, bill of rights, etc.), arranged from earliest to latest mention. Each symbol represents a “constitutional event” – a new constitution adopted, an amendment passed, a constitution suspended, etc. – and colored symbols indicate that the text associated with the constitutional event in question mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic”…
The earliest mentions of the word “democracy” or “democratic” in a constitutional document occurred in Switzerland and France in 1848, as far as I can tell.[1] Participatory Switzerland and revolutionary France look like obvious candidates for being the first countries to embrace the “democratic” self-description; yet the next set of countries to embrace this self-description (until the outbreak of WWI) might seem more surprising: they are all Latin American or Caribbean (Haiti), followed by countries in Eastern Europe (various bits and pieces of the Austro-Hungarian empire), Southern Europe (Portugal, Spain), Russia, and Cuba. Indeed, most “core” countries in the global system did not mention democracy in their constitutions until much later, if at all, despite many of them having long constitutional histories; even French constitutions after the fall of the Second Republic in 1851 did not mention “democracy” until after WWII. In other words, the idea of democracy as a value to be publicly affirmed seems to have caught on first not in the metropolis but in the periphery. Democracy is the post-imperial and post-revolutionary public value par excellence, asserted after national liberation (as in most of the countries that became independent after WWII) or revolutions against hated monarchs (e.g., Egypt 1956, Iran 1979, both of them the first mentions of democracy in these countries but not their first constitutions).

Today only 16 countries have ever failed to mention their “democratic” character in their constitutional documents (Australia, Brunei, Denmark, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, Monaco, Nauru, Oman, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Tonga, the United Kingdom, the USA, and Vatican City).[2] And no country that has ever mentioned “democracy” in an earlier constitutional document fails to mention it in its current constitutional documents (though some countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries went back and forth – mentioning democracy in one constitution, not mentioning it in the next). Indeed, after WWII the first mention of democracy in constitutions tended to be contemporaneous with the first post-independence constitution of the country; and with time, even countries with old and settled constitutional traditions seem to be more and more likely to mention “democracy” or “democratic” in some form as amendments or bills of rights accumulate (e.g., Belgium in 2013, New Zealand in 1990, Canada in 1982, Finland in 1995). The probability of a new constitution mentioning “democracy” appears to be asymptotically approaching 1. To use the language of biology, the democratic “meme” has nearly achieved “fixation” in the population, despite short-term fluctuations, and despite the fact that there appears to be no particular correlation between a state calling itself democratic and actually being democratic, either today or in the past.[3]
Though the actual measured level of democracy around the world has trended upwards (with some ups and downs) over the last two centuries, I don’t think this is the reason why the idea of democracy has achieved near-universal recognition in public documents. Countries do not first become democratic and then call themselves democracies; if anything, most mentions of democracy seem to be rather aspirational, if not entirely cynical. (Though many constitutions that mention democracy were also produced by people who seem to have been genuinely committed to some such ideal, even if the regimes that eventually developed under these constitutions were not particularly democratic). What we see, instead, is a broad process in which earlier normative claims about the basis of authority – monarchical, imperial, etc. – get almost completely replaced, regardless of the country’s cultural context, by democratic claims, regardless of the latter’s effectiveness as an actual basis for authority or the existence of working mechanisms for participation or vertical accountability. (These democratic claims to authority also sometimes coexist in uneasy tension with other claims to authority based on divine revelation, ideological knowledge, or tradition, invented or otherwise; consider the Chinese constitution‘s claims about the “people’s democratic dictatorship” led by the CCP).
I thus suspect the conquest of ideological space by “democratic” language did not happen just because democratic claims to authority (especially in the absence of actual democracy) have proved more persuasive than other claims to authority. Rather, I think the same processes that resulted in the emergence of modern national communities – e.g. the rituals associated with nationalism, which tended to “sacralize” a particular kind of imagined community – led to the symbolic production of the nation not only as the proper object of government but also as its proper active agent (the people, actively ruling itself), regardless of whether or not “the people” had any ability to rule or even to exercise minimal control over the rulers.[4] There thus seems to have been a kind of co-evolution of symbols of nationality and symbols of democracy, helped along by the practice/ritual of drafting constitutions and approving them through plebiscites or other forms of mass politics, a ritual that already makes democratic assumptions about “social contracts.” The question is whether the symbolic politics of democracy eventually has any sort of impact on actual institutions. But more on this later….”

Assessing Zuckerberg’s Idea That Facebook Could Help Citizens Re-Make Their Government


Gregory Ferenstein in TechCrunch: “Mark Zuckerberg has a grand vision that Facebook will help citizens in developing countries decide their own governments. It’s a lofty and partially attainable goal. While Egypt probably won’t let citizens vote for their next president with a Like, it is theoretically possible to use Facebook to crowdsource expertise. Governments around the world are experimenting with radical online direct democracy, but it doesn’t always work out.

Very briefly, Zuckerberg laid out his broad vision for e-government to Wired’s Steven Levy, while defending Internet.org, a new consortium to bring broadband to the developing world.

“People often talk about how big a change social media had been for our culture here in the U.S. But imagine how much bigger a change it will be when a developing country comes online for the first time ever. We use things like Facebook to share news and keep in touch with our friends, but in those countries, they’ll use this for deciding what kind of government they want to have. Getting access to health care information for the first time ever.”

When he references “deciding … government,” Zuckerberg could be talking about voting, sharing ideas, or crafting a constitution. We decided to assess the possibilities of them all….
For citizens in the exciting/terrifying position to construct a brand-new government, American-style democracy is one of many options. Britain, for instance, has a parliamentary system and has no constitution. In other cases, a government may want to heed political scientists’ advice and develop a “consensus democracy,” where more than two political parties are incentivized to work collaboratively with citizens, business, and different branches of government to craft laws.
At least once, choosing a new style of democracy has been attempted through the Internet. After the global financial meltdown wrecked Iceland’s economy, the happy citizens of the grass-covered country decided to redo their government and solicit suggestions from the public (950 Icelanders chosen by lottery and general calls for ideas through social networks). After much press about Iceland’s “crowdsourced” constitution, it crashed miserably after most of the elected leaders rejected it.
Crafting law, especially a constitution, is legally complex; unless there is a systematic way to translate haphazard citizen suggestions into legalese, the results are disastrous.
“Collaborative drafting, at large scale, at low costs, and that is inclusive, is something that we still don’t know how to do,” says Tiago Peixoto, a World Bank Consultant on participatory democracy (and one of our Most Innovative People In Democracy).
Peixoto, who helps the Brazilian government conduct some of the world’s only online policymaking, says he’s optimistic that Facebook could be helpful, but he wouldn’t use it to draft laws just yet.
While technically it is possible for social networks to craft a new government, we just don’t know how to do it very well, and, therefore, leaders are likely to reject the idea. In other words, don’t expect Egypt to decide their future through Facebook likes.”

The Internet as Politicizing Instrument


New Issue of Transformations (Editorial): “This issue of Transformations presents essays responding to Marcus Breen’s recent book Uprising: The Internet’s Unintended Consequences. Breen asks whether the Internet can become a politicising instrument for the new online proletariat – the individualised users isolated by the monitor screen. He asks “if the proletariat can use the Internet, is it freed from the moral and social constraints of the past that were imposed by conventional media and its regulation of the public space?” (32) This question raises further issues. Does this freedom translate into an emancipatory politics where the proletariat is able to pursue its own ends, or does it simply reproduce the power relation between the user-subject and the Internet and those who control and manage it. The articles in this issue respond in various ways to these questions.
Marcus Breen’s own article “The Internet and Privatism: Reconstructing the Monitor Space” makes a case for privatism – the restriction of subjective life to isolated or privatised experience, especially in relation to the computer monitor – as the new modality of meaning making in the Internet era. Using approaches associated with cultural and media studies, the paper traces the way the Internet has influenced the shift in the culture towards values associated with the confluence of ideas around the private, best described by privatism.
Fidele Vlavo’s article investigates the central discourses that have constructed the internet as a democratic and public environment removed from state and corporate control. The aim is to call attention to the issues that have limited the development of the internet as a tool for socio-political empowerment. The paper first retraces the early discursive constructions that insist on representing the internet as a decentralised and open structure. It also questions the role played by the digerati (or cyber elite) in the formulation of contradictory demands for public interests, self-governance, and entrepreneurial rights. Finally, it examines the emergence of two early virtual communities and their attempts to facilitate free speech and self-regulation. In the context of activists advocating freedom of expression and government institutions re-organizing legislation to control the Internet, the examination of these discourses provides a useful starting point for the (re)assessment of the potential of direct online mobilization.
Emit Snake-Being’s article examines the limits of the Internet as a politicising instrument by showing how Internet users are subject to the controls of the search engine algorithm, managed by elite groups whose purpose is to reproduce themselves in terms of neo-liberal capitalism. Invoking recent political events in the Middle East and in London in which a wired proletariat sought to resist and overturn political authorities through Internet communication, Snake-Beings argues that such events are compromised by the fact that they owe their possibility to Internet providers and their commercial imperatives. Snake-Being’s article, as well as most of the other articles in this issue, offers a timely reminder not only of the possibilities, but of the limits of the Internet as a politicising instrument for progressive, emancipatory politics.
Frances Shaw’s paper concerns the way in which the logic of surveillance operates in contested sites in cities where live coverage of demonstrations against capitalism leads to confrontation between demonstrators and police. Through a detailed account of the “Occupy Sydney” demonstration in 2011, Shaw shows how both demonstrators and police engaged in tactics of surveillance and resistance to counter each other’s power and authority. In an age of instant communication and global surveillance, freedom of movement and freedom from surveillance in public spaces is drawn into the logics of power mediated by mobile ‘phones and computer based communication technology.
Karyl Ketchum’s paper offers detailed analysis of two Internet sites to show how the proletarianisation of the Internet is gendered in terms of male interests. Picking up on Breen’s argument that Internet proletarianisation leads to an open system that “supports both anything and anyone,” she argues that, in the domain of online pornography, this new-found freedom turns out to be “the power of computer analytics to harness and hone the shifting meanings of white Western Enlightenment masculinities in new globalising postcolonial contexts, economies and geopolitical struggles.” Furthermore, Ketchum shows how this default to male interests was also at work in American reporting of the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. The YouTube video posted by a young Egyptian woman, Asmaa Mahfouz, which sparked the revolution in Egypt that eventually overthrew the Mubarak government, was not given due coverage by the Western media, so that “women like Mahfouz all but disappear from Western accounts of the Arab Spring.”
Liden and Giritli Nygren’s paper addresses the challenges to the theories of the political sphere posed by a digital society. It is suggested that this is most evident at the intersection between understandings of technology, performativities, and politics that combines empirical closeness with abstract understandings of socio-political and cultural contexts. The paper exemplifies this by reporting on a study of online citizen dialogue in the making, in this case concerning school planning in a Swedish municipality. Applying these theoretical perspectives to this case provides some key findings. The technological design is regarded as restricting the potential dialogue, as is outlined in different themes where the participants enact varying positions—taxpayers, citizen consumers, or local residents. The political analysis stresses a dialogue that lacks both polemic and public perspectives, and rather is characterized by the expression of different special interests. Together, these perspectives can provide the foundation for the development of applying theories in a digital society.
The Internet and Privatism: Reconstructing the Monitor Space (Marcus Breen)
The Digital Hysterias of Decentralisation, Entrepreneurship and Open Community (Fidele Vlavo)
From Ideology to Algorithm: the Opaque Politics of the Internet (Emit Snake-Beings)
“Walls of Seeing”: Protest Surveillance, Embodied Boundaries, and Counter-Surveillance at Occupy Sydney (Frances Shaw)
Gendered Uprisings: Desire, Revolution, and the Internet’s “Unintended Consequences”(Karyl E. Ketchum)
Analysing the Intersections between Technology, Performativity, and Politics: the Case of Local Citizen Dialogue (Gustav Lidén and Katarina Giritli Nygren)”