Nishant Shah is the Director of Research at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, a guest researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, and a Knowledge Partner with Hivos, The Netherlands. He is the lead researcher and the editor of the four-volume edited anthology ‘Digital AlterNatives with a Cause?’ The past decade has been heralded as the ‘decade of citizen’ activism. Time magazine went so far to declare the everyday protesters as ‘Person of the Year’. Nishant Shah in his guest post unpacks the idea of citizen as a change agent.
The first decade of the 21st century made its mark as the ‘Decade of Citizen Action’. In extraordinary and unprecedented ways, accompanied by the power of digital and network technologies, large groups of people around the globe mobilized themselves to demand their rights as citizens. From the Facebook and Twitter Revolutions in Middle East, Asia and North Africa, to the Blackberry Riots in London; from the Occupy Everything movements in North America, to flash-mobs protesting corruption in India, we have witnessed an immense amount of energy catalysing people to express their discontent with the way things are.
There has been much media and academic attention to these uprisings; with strident voices fiercely arguing about the role that digital technologies and new media forms had to play in these protests. There are those who explain the power and the energy of these movements by looking at the distributed networks of participation enabled by mobile and portable computing devices in the hands of everyday citizens, acknowledging that the digital networks, in their ability to surpass containment and censorship, were successful in building collectives in geographies where it was impossible.
On the other side, there are analysts, who warn us that the technologically over-determined accounts of these protests make the larger human and political histories opaque, rendering them one-dimensional and neglecting the efforts of those who were not a part of the spectacle of digital technologies. On both sides, the arguments are strong and often persuasive. Taking an either-or stance in this debate might be fruitless and it is perhaps better for this debate to co-exist, in a state of tension, exploring both the human commitment and the technological conditions that have made this spate of actions possible.
While the arguments continue, impassioned and sombre, there is something else within that discourse that remains unquestioned on all the sides of the debate and might be worth exploring. This is the imagination that whether you are on the side of the people or of the technologies, there is a consensus that ‘change’ has happened. It is a given that whether or not our accounts are comprehensive and/or our frameworks biased, we are witnessing a change that needs to be accounted for and explained. So deeply ingrained is this idea of change that we have almost no qualifications of what this change is. There is a series of buzzwords that emerge as answers to the question of change – mobilization, participation, collaboration, networking, peer-2-peer, etc. These buzzwords are meant to be self-explanatory. The change is sometimes at the level of tactics, at others the level of technological platforms, and at yet others, the level of scale and scope. They indicate, in their presence that a shift has taken place. It is almost a circular dialogue:
Q: What changed?
A: A whole lot of people mobilized themselves using Facebook and Twitter and Blackberries.
Q: So what changed?
A: They participated in demanding for their rights.
Q: True, but what exactly is this change that we are talking about?
A: New collectives have come into being to challenge the status quo.
Q: Right. But what changed?
A: Well, these new collectives are mobilizing themselves using peer-2-peer technologies and networking in unprecedented ways.
Facetious as this imagined dialogue might sound, it is symptomatic of the blind spot that we seem to have developed about the nature of change that is embodied and enabled by these digital technologies.
And it is time perhaps to ask what exactly has changed, apart from the technologies of protest, the modes of engagement, and inclusion of new kinds of citizens in the processes of change. There are a few ways of unpacking this change that we need to build towards.
1.History of the Future
Most change action is geared towards building new futures. However, change can be defined only in its relationship to something else that preceded it. The novelty of the digital technologies is so seductive that it erases the historicity of the contemporary and immerses us only in the contemporary moment. Change cannot be universal. Change cannot be the same everywhere. Change needs to be contextualized and we need to look at the historical confluence of social, cultural, political, and economic forces that have led to the moment of change.
2.Systemic and Surface
There is no denying that there is much that has changed in our demands of change and how we make them. However, we need to make a distinction between modes of engagement and the ambitions of that engagement. What happens when the mobilizations are towards reinforcing certain fundamental and regressive values of control and oppression? What happens when the tools that we celebrate are used for violence and harm? While the new forms of engagement – which are often surface – are interesting because they include more people in the fold of citizen action, they also need to be examined in the light of what they seek to change.
3.Citizen and the State
Citizen action is not new. The history of the modern nation state is a history of citizen action, which fought against feudal structures of power to give birth to the nation, as we know it. Similarly, the central role of technologies in crafting citizen action is also not new. Different technology revolutions like print, cinema, telecommunications, etc., have significantly shaped the ways in which citizens have orchestrated themselves to fight for their rights against States and state-like structures that perpetuated social and political inequities.
So, what has changed then needs to be located not in the fact that people are asking for change but that they are reconfiguring their relationship with the State. The State, which was the patron of rights and was the central addressee of these protests has lost its position of power and hence we see a wide range of actions that are seeking to build new forms of governance and administration that need to be analysed.
The young have always been influential in our imagination of the future because they have the most at stake. They continue living in inherited structures as long as those structures promise them a safe, sustainable and equitable future where they can see themselves living in wealth, dignity and safety. When the promissory note of this future disappears, we see the fissures of discontent and anger surfacing. In our conversations around digital natives and citizen action, we need to move beyond the ‘How’ and concentrate on the ‘Why’. Why do so many young people take to the streets as architects of their own future? What are the constants that have failed them, producing a deficit of future, which they are seeking to counteract through these actions? If there is a revolution around the corner, what is it voiced against? And how do we build new conditions of safety, security and stability that enable these digital natives to craft the kind of future they want to occupy?
With the Changing Face of Citizen Action, we hope to explore these questions in the hope that beyond the technology-human debate, there is something more to be learned about our future and the human will to change.
The Centre for Internet and Society critically engages with concerns of digital pluralism, public accountability and pedagogic practices, in the field of Internet and Society, with particular emphasis on South-South dialogues and exchange. This month they published the Changing Face of Citizen Action that you can now read online.