Tag Archives: digital democracy

ISA 2009: Panel on ICTs, Human Rights, Activism and Resistance

I just chaired a very productive panel at the International Studies Association (ISA) on the impact of ICTs on human rights, political activism and resistance.

ISApanel

The panel featured the following presentations:

  • Lucía Liste Muñoz and Indra de Soysa onThe Blog vs Big Brother: Information and Communication Technologies and Human Rights, 1980-2005.
  • Fabien Miard on “Call for Power? Mobile Phones as Facilitators of Political Activism.”
  • Patrick Meier on “iRevolutions: The Impact of ICTs on Protest Frequency in Repressive Contexts.” [slideshare]

Presentations

I’ve already blogged about each of the papers individually (see links above) so what follows are points from some of the presentations that I found particularly interesting. I also include the superb feedback that our discussant Professor Dan Drezner from The Fletcher School provided along with a summary of the productive Q&A session we had.

  • Muñoz and de Soysa: Their results show that Internet access leads to increasing respect of human rights by governments. This is true of both democracies and authoritarian regimes.
  • Joshua Goldstein: The role that Safaricom (a private telecommunications company) had in seeking to prevent and/or mitigate the election violence is unprecedented. Not only did the company refuse switch of the SMS network as per the government’s request, the company also sent out broadcast SMS to call on restraint and civic behavior.

Feedback to Panelists

Dan Drezner provided the following feedback:

  • The papers were definitely panel material as they all address important issues related to ICTs that overlap in very interesting ways. So overall, this was great set of papers and presentations, and panelists ought to make sure they read and learn from each others’ papers.
  • Most of the large-N papers blatantly seek to identify a positive correlation between ICT and human rights, political activism, digital resistance, etc. A less biased way to approach the research would be to formulate the question as follows: “How do ICTs benefit the State?”
  • Patrick should expand his set of countries beyond the 22 countries.
  • The dynamic between states and society vis-a-vis repression and circumvention may be an evolutionary one based on learning behavior.
  • The papers should treat ICTs not as independent variables but as an interactive variable with factors such as unemployment. In other words, the question should be: to what extent does ICT interact with other variables that we know ought to trigger protests?
  • The studies should separate anti-foreign protests from anti-government protests.
  • The large-N analyses should include more control variables such as dummy varibales for elections and wars.
  • The studies should also seek to assess the relationship between ICTs and the magnitude of protests and not only the frequency of protests.
  • The papers do not take into account the role of the Diaspora in helping to mobilize, organize and coordinate protests.

Response to Feedback

Here I only respond the feedback relevant to my paper and presentation:

  • On the bias towards finding a statistical relationship and expanding the number of countries in my study, I disagreed with Professor Drezner. I specifically chose the 22 countries in my dataset because the regimes in these countries are actively using ICTs to censor, repress, monitor and block information. So if anything, the cards are stacked against resistance movements when it comes to these countries. Hence my not planning to expand the dataset to include additional countries. Professor Drezner agreed on both points.
  • I completely agree on the evolutionary dynamic, which I described in my dissertation proposal and which explains why I often refer to the dynamic as a cyber game of cat-and-mouse.
  • I’m not entirely sold on treating ICTs as an interactive variable but will explore this nonetheless.
  • Agreed on the suggestion that anti-foreign protests be treated seperately since these protests are often organized by repressive regimes.
  • I fully agree on adding more control variables including elections, wars and population.
  • I concur with the point made about the magnitude of protests but this information is hard to come by. More importantly, however, the dataset I’m using is based on Reuters newswires and the reason I’m using this data is because Reuters is highly unlikely to report on low-level protests but rather on protests that have a national impact. So the dataset serves as a filter for large-scale protests and hence magnitude.
  • Very good point about the diaspora.

Q&A Session

We had an excellent set of questions from the audience which prompted a rich conversation around the following topics:

  • Repressive regimes learning from one another about how to use ICTs for censorship, repression, monitoring, etc. and resistance movement learning from each other.
  • The side to first acquire and apply new technology generally gets a head start, but this prompts the other side, e.g., the State to catch up and regain the upper hand.
  • Who are the users of these technologies? Demographics, gender, age, etc, should be important factors in the study of ICTs, State and society.
  • One member of the audience was a policy maker with the British government and  wanted to know what role Western governments should  play vis-a-vis digital activism.
  • The issue of civil resistance and the intersection with digital activism came up repeatedly in the discussion. Understanding one without the other is increasingly meaningless.

Patrick Philippe Meier

ISA 2009: Mobile Phones and Political Activism

The second presentation at the ISA panel that I’m chairing will feature research by Fabien Miard on mobile phones as facilitators of political activism (see previous post for first presentation). Fabien will be sharing the findings from his recent MA thesis (PDF), which I have read with great interest.

Introduction

Fabien’s research examines whether the number mobile phones affect political activity by drawing on a large-N quantitative study. This is an area in much need of empirical analysis since “little systematic research beyond loose collections of case studies has been done so far.” Furthermore, as I have noted in my own dissertation research, the vast majority of social science research on information and communication technologies (ICTs) is focused on the impact of the Internet exclusively.

Data

The large-N study draws on the proprietary Cross-National Time-Series Data Archive (CNTS) for data on three forms of political activism: anti-government demonstrations, riots and major government crises. This dataset is derived from articles published in the New York Times (NYT). The data on the number of mobile phone subscribers is provided by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Control variables include: GDP per capita and population. The data he used spanned 191 countries between 1991-2006 but “a third of these dropped out due to missing values.”

Analysis

Fabien uses negative binomial regression (with one year time lag) to test whether the number of mobile phone subscribers is a statistically significant predictor of political activism.

The results indicate that mobile density has no significant effect on anti-government demonstrations when the control variables are included. The same is true when using riots or major government crises as dependent variables. GDP per capita is small and insignificant except for riots, where it has a significant negative effect. Population has an effect on all three variants of political activism variables.

Conclusion

Fabien therefore concludes that mobile connectivity is neither negatively nor positively associated with political activism. This implies that existing case studies “are overrated and that generalization by means of a global comparative case study is not possible.” He suggests that future quantitative research  take into account the following two recommendations:

  • Compare the impact of mobile phones on democratic versus oppressive regimes;
  • Analyze the combined impact of mobile phones and the Internet in addition to traditional technology variables;

These suggestions are spot on. One large-N quantitative study that I recently co-authored at the Berkman Center takes the first recommendation into account by comparing the impact of Internet and mobile phone users on measures of governance and democracy in both democratic and autocratic regimes (stay tuned for a blog post on this).

In my own dissertation research, I plan to compare the impact of Internet and mobile phone users on protests frequency in highly repressive versus midly repressive regimes. I also take into account Fabien’s second recommendation by adding Internet users and landlines. Furthermore, I include unemployment rate as a control variable which Fabien omits in his analysis.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Impact of ICTs on Repressive Regimes: Findings

My dissertation focuses on the impact of digital resistance on nonviolent political transitions. Digital resistance is a term I use to describe the convergence between civilian resistance and digital activism in countries with repressive regimes. I’ve finally completed the quantitative part of my research and would be very grateful to get as much feedback as possible on the findings so I can write up a final draft in the comings weeks and start planning the field research.

Introduction

The question driving my dissertation research is whether digital resistance poses a threat to authoritarian rule? In other words, are the tactics associated with nonviolent civilian resistance movements greatly enhanced by access to modern information communication technologies (ICTs) such as mobile phones and the Web? Or are repressive regimes becoming increasingly savvy in their ability to regulate the impact of the information revolution within their borders?

If I could turn my research into a Hollywood Blockbuster, the title would probably be: “Repression 2.0 versus Revolution 2.0: A Cyber Game of Cat-and-Mouse.”

There are many anecdotes on both sides of the cyber trenches, each asserting tactical victory over the other. But what do all these anecdotes add up to? Can they be quantified to determine what the final score on the scoreboard will read?

Methodology

One way to answer this question is to test whether the diffusion of information communication technology—measured by increasing numbers of Internet and mobile phone users—is a statistically significant predictor of anti-government protests after controlling for other causes of protests. If a positive and statistically significant relationship exists between protest frequency and access to ICT, then one might conclude that the information revolution empowers civil resistance movements at the expense of coercive regimes. If a negative relationship exists, one might deduce that repressive governments have the upper hand.

I used correlation analysis and negative binomial regression analysis on 22 countries between 1990-2007. These countries were selected because their regimes have the technical capacity to repress information. Five regression models were run. The first model included all 22 countries. The second and third model split the countries between high and low levels of protests. The fourth and fifth models split the countries between high and low numbers of mobile phone users.

Findings

This cluster approach was used to minimize the possibility of cancelation effects and to facilitate case study selection for further qualitative research. The cluster of countries with low levels of protests resulted in a statistically significant albeit negative relationship between the number of mobile phone users and protest frequency. This means that an increase in the number of mobile phone users is associated with a decrease in protest frequency.

The cluster of countries with high levels of mobile phones produced a statistically significant and positive relationship between the number of mobile phone users and protest frequency. In other words, an increase in the number of mobile phones is associated with an increase in the number of protests. The other two country clusters, “high protests” and “low mobile phones,” did not produce a statistically significant result for mobile phone use. The number of Internet users was not significant for any of the five models.

The results may suggest that the information revolution empowers civil resistance movements at the expense of repressive regimes in countries with relatively high levels of access to technology. On the other hand, repressive regimes appear to maintain the upper hand in countries with low levels of protest.

Presentation

I’ve written up the findings in this paper (PDF), which I am presenting next week at the International Studies Association (ISA) convention in New York. The paper is part of a panel I organized and will be Chairing on:

“The Changing Role of ICT in Political Activism, Resistance and Human Rights.”

My fellow panelists are presenting the following papers:

  • Fabien Miard on “Mobile Phones as Facilitators of Political Activism.”
  • Joshua Goldstein on “The Role of Digital Networked Technologies in the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.”
  • Lucia Munoz & Indra de Soysa on “The Blog vs Big Brother: Communication Technologies and Human Rights, 1980-2005.”

The chair of my dissertation committee, Professor Daniel Drezner from The Fletcher School, will be the discussant for the panel. Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to this panel. Stay tuned as I’ll be blogging the presentations, discussant feedback and Q&A next Tuesday.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Impact of ICTs on Repressive Regimes: Findings

My dissertation focuses on the impact of digital resistance on nonviolent political transitions. Digital resistance is a term I use to describe the convergence between civilian resistance and digital activism in countries with repressive regimes. I’ve finally completed the quantitative part of my research and would be very grateful to get as much feedback as possible on the findings so I can write up a final draft in the comings weeks and start planning the field research.

Introduction

The question driving my dissertation research is whether digital resistance poses a threat to authoritarian rule? In other words, are the tactics associated with nonviolent civilian resistance movements greatly enhanced by access to modern information communication technologies (ICTs) such as mobile phones and the Web? Or are repressive regimes becoming increasingly savvy in their ability to regulate the impact of the information revolution within their borders?

If I could turn my research into a Hollywood Blockbuster, the title would probably be: “Repression 2.0 versus Revolution 2.0: A Cyber Game of Cat-and-Mouse.”

There are many anecdotes on both sides of the cyber trenches, each asserting tactical victory over the other. But what do all these anecdotes add up to? Can they be quantified to determine what the final score on the scoreboard will read?

Methodology

One way to answer this question is to test whether the diffusion of information communication technology—measured by increasing numbers of Internet and mobile phone users—is a statistically significant predictor of anti-government protests after controlling for other causes of protests. If a positive and statistically significant relationship exists between protest frequency and access to ICT, then one might conclude that the information revolution empowers civil resistance movements at the expense of coercive regimes. If a negative relationship exists, one might deduce that repressive governments have the upper hand.

I used correlation analysis and negative binomial regression analysis on 22 countries between 1990-2007. These countries were selected because their regimes have the technical capacity to repress information. Five regression models were run. The first model included all 22 countries. The second and third model split the countries between high and low levels of protests. The fourth and fifth models split the countries between high and low numbers of mobile phone users.

Findings

This cluster approach was used to minimize the possibility of cancelation effects and to facilitate case study selection for further qualitative research. The cluster of countries with low levels of protests resulted in a statistically significant albeit negative relationship between the number of mobile phone users and protest frequency. This means that an increase in the number of mobile phone users is associated with a decrease in protest frequency.

The cluster of countries with high levels of mobile phones produced a statistically significant and positive relationship between the number of mobile phone users and protest frequency. In other words, an increase in the number of mobile phones is associated with an increase in the number of protests. The other two country clusters, “high protests” and “low mobile phones,” did not produce a statistically significant result for mobile phone use. The number of Internet users was not significant for any of the five models.

The results may suggest that the information revolution empowers civil resistance movements at the expense of repressive regimes in countries with relatively high levels of access to technology. On the other hand, repressive regimes appear to maintain the upper hand in countries with low levels of protest.

Presentation

I’ve written up the findings in this paper (PDF), which I am presenting next week at the International Studies Association (ISA) convention in New York. The paper is part of a panel I organized and will be Chairing on:

“The Changing Role of ICT in Political Activism, Resistance and Human Rights.”

My fellow panelists are presenting the following papers:

  • Fabien Miard on “Mobile Phones as Facilitators of Political Activism.”
  • Joshua Goldstein on “The Role of Digital Networked Technologies in the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.”
  • Lucia Munoz & Indra de Soysa on “The Blog vs Big Brother: Communication Technologies and Human Rights, 1980-2005.”

The chair of my dissertation committee, Professor Daniel Drezner from The Fletcher School, will be the discussant for the panel. Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to this panel. Stay tuned as I’ll be blogging the presentations, discussant feedback and Q&A next Tuesday.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Democracy: Introduction & Overview

My colleague Joshua Goldstein and I are teaching a new course on Digital Democracy and we just had our first brainstorming session. We see this class as being a series of brainstorming opportunities as opposed to traditional lecturing.

Josh and I we started the class by asking what the word democracy means to everyone. We sought to go beyond conventional text-book definitions to understand what democracy means to all of us on a day-to-day basis. Students shared the following thoughts; namely, democracy is:

  • About being heard;
  • Minority rights;
  • Accountability and transparency;
  • Advocacy for change;
  • Access.

We then asked what adding “digital” in front of “democracy” means for all of us:

  • Empowerment of the individual;
  • Fall of hierarchies;
  • Wider participation;
  • Democratization of information.

With these definitions in mind, we explored the digital technologies used to document today’s historical democratic event, the US inauguration. We spoke about uses of Facebook, Twitter, Second Life, etc., and the tools in place to promote transparency and accountability in the Obama Administration. A list of these are available on the course wiki. The point of this survey was to emphasize that these tools can also be used to improve other democratic processes.

(Incidentally, we chose to set up a wiki because the academic online platform Blackboard is just a gated community. The platform reminds me of Jonathan Zittrain’s recent book on “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.” I’d like to suggest an idea for a new start-up: Blogboard).

We then delved into the readings by Benkler and Ronfeldt (also available on the wiki). This brought up some neat conversations ranging from issues on censorship and anonymity to digital activism, the digital divide and the information economy. A couple students recounted their experience with censorship when they lived/worked in China. Another student described the dynamic between repressive regimes and digital activists as an “information race,” which I found to be spot on. We also spoke about the role of the media in a digital democracy and discussed the rise of citizen journalists.

After the brainstorming session, we went through the syllabus and briefly introduced each session. As part of this week’s assignments, we’ve asked students to get a Twitter/Twhirl and Google Reader account. We’ve created a Twitter feed for the course: @digidemocracy. Weekly assignments will include writing blog posts on the readings and Tweeting current events/issues related to digital democracy.

As previously mentioned, Josh and I welcome feedback from anyone vis-a-vis the syllabus, the individual session outlines, tweets, blog posts etc. In the meantime, please feel free to send the class relevant links/articles to @digidemocracy.

Patrick Philippe Meier

New Course on Digital Democracy (Updated)

As mentioned in a previous blog entry, my colleague Joshua Goldstein and I are teaching a new full-semester undergraduate course on Digital Democracy. The course is being offered as part of Tufts University‘s interdisciplinary Media and Communication Studies Program.

The course will address the following topics:

  • Introduction to Digital Democracy
  • American Democracy
  • Global Democracy
  • Media and Democracy
  • Guest Speakers: Digital Democracy
  • Bloggers Rights
  • Digital Censorship and Democracy
  • Human Rights 2.0
  • Digital Activism
  • Digital Resistance
  • Digital Technology in Developing World
  • Class Presentations

The course wiki along with the syllabus is available here. We regularly update the syllabus so do check back. Feedback on the syllabus is also very much welcomed.

We are particularly keen for suggestions vis-a-vis recommended material (websites, online videos, links, books, papers etc.) and in-class activities.

Patrick Philippe Meier

The Prospects for Cyberocracy

David Ronfeldt at RAND just sent me his new (co-authored) piece on “The Prospects for Cyberacrocy” which I found particularly interesting given the contrast to his original paper of the same name in 1992. David’s timing is impeccable since I am co-teaching a course on Digital Democracy with my colleague Joshua Goldstein. The course is being offered this Spring semester as part of the interdisciplinary Media and Commincation Studies Program at Tufts University.

Since David’s paper is 70 pages long, what follows is a concise 5-page summary with  references to additional contemporary works (e.g., by Clay Shirky, Yochai Benkler, Antony Loewenstein, etc.), and current examples written specifically for our Digital Democracy students.

In 1992, David Ronfeldt wrote that a “precise definition of cyberocracy was not possible at present.” In a general sense, then, he identified two ways in which cyberocracy may manifest itself:

  1. Narrowly, as a form of organization that supplants traditional forms of bureaucracy and technocracy;
  2. Broadly, as a form of government that may redefine relations between state and society, and between the public sector and the private sector.

Ronfeldt cautions that optimism about the information revolution should be tempered by an anticipation of it’s potential dark side. He contrasts term cyberocracy with aristocracy and theocracy—under which the high-born and high priests ruled respectively. The author argues that cyberocracy, a product of the information revolution, may slowly but radically affect who rules, how and why. That is, “information and its control will become a dominant source of power, as a natural next step in political evolution.”

Clay Shirky would certainly agree. “When we change the way we communicate, we change society.   The tools that a society uses to create and maintain itself are as central to human life as a hive is to bee life.” However, “the mere tools aren’t enough. The tools are simply a way of channeling existing motivation.”

Citing earlier research, David suggests that consequences of new technology can be usefully thought of as first-order and second-order effects. The first-order effect can be  framed as gains in efficiency. “The history of previous technologies demonstrates that early in the life of a new technology, people are likely to emphasize the efficiency effects and underestimate or overlook potential social system effects.”

The second-order effects bring about behavioral and organizational change which affect how people think and work together. New systems of thought are thus generated by second-order effects. “The major impact will probably be felt in terms of the organization and behavior of the modern bureaucratic state.” Take the printing press, for example, “it created conditions that favored, first, new combinations of old ideas and, then, the creation of entirely new systems of thought.”

In “Seeing Like a State,” James Scott explains why certain state-centered schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Scott writes that “no administrative system is capable of representing [or monitoring] every existing social community except through a heroic and greatly schematized process of abstraction and simplification.” David Ronfeldt provides additional insight: “the hierarchical structuring of bureaucracies into offices, departments, and lines of authority may confound the flow of information that may be needed to deal with complex issues in today’s increasingly interconnected world.”

Would a cyberocracy provide a more effective political template to improve the human condition? Ronfeldt might be tempted to answer in the affirmative. Clay Shirky [2008] and Yochai Benkler [2006] would not hesitate to reply with a resounding yes.

Ronfeldt writes that “bureaucracy depends on going through channels and keeping information in bounds; in contrast, cyberocracy may place a premium on gaining information from any source, public or private. Technocracy emphasizes ‘hard’ quantitative and econometric skills, like programming and budgeting methodologies; in contrast, a cyberocracy may bring a new emphasis on ‘soft’ symbolic, cultural, and psychological dimensions of policymaking and public opinion.”

As Clay Shirky notes, “if you want to organize the work of even dozens of individuals, you have to manage them.  As organizations grow into the hundreds or thousands, you also have to manage the managers, and eventually to manage the managers’ managers.  Simply to exist at that size, an organization has to take on the costs of all that management.” This template is hardly likely to improve today’s interconnected challenges.

In “Wealth of Networks“, Benkler writes that the “actual practice of freedom that we see emerging from the networked environment allows people to reach across national or social boundaries, across space and political division. It allows people to solve problems together in new associations that are outside the boundaries of formal, legal-political association.”

Writing in the early 1990s, pioneer computer technologist Alan Kay anticipates the rise of blogs which are in effect new types of associations that stand outside of traditional boundaries (cited in Ronfeldt):  “The retrieval systems of the future are not going to retrieve facts but points of view.  The weakness of databases is that they let you retrieve facts, while the strength of our culture over the past several hundred years has been our ability to take on multiple points of view.”

However, authoritarian regimes (and some democratic ones according to Noam Chomsky), typically crack down on the ability of individuals to express multiple points of view. Writing in 1992, Ronfeldt states that “some of today’s trendier points—e.g., the information revolution empowers individuals, favors open societies, and portends a worldwide triumph for democracy—may not hold up as times change.”

Ronfeldt suggests that the information revolution will foster more open and closed systems; more decentralization and centralization; more inclusionary and exclusionary communities; more privacy and surveillance; more freedom and authority; more democracy and new forms of totalitarianism.

Ronfeldt provides a superb critque of those who maintain that decentralization and networks explain and ensure the success in the new business environment. However, “complex organizations depend on some kind of hierarchy.  Hierarchy does not end because work teams include people from different levels and branches.  The structure may be more open, the process more fluid, and the conventions redefined; but a hierarchy still exists.”

The consequence of the information revolution may thus mean “greater decentralization for highly centralized organizations, and greater centralization for decentralized ones.” On the other hand, if new technology does foster decentralization, “it may also provide greater ‘topsight‘—a central understanding of the big picture that enhances the management of complexity.” The pursuit of topsight is thus the pursuit to understand the big picture, “the most precious intellectual commodity known to man.”

A question of interest to me given my dissertation research is whether repressive regimes will/do have the ability to retain the upper hand in using new technology to maintain information supremacy within their borders. Ronfeldt touched on this question in 1992. “As cyberocracy develops, will governments become flatter, less hierarchical, more decentralized, with different kinds of middle-level officials and offices?  Some may, but many may not.  Governments [particularly repressive regimes] may not have the organizational flexibility and options that corporations have.”

Along these lines, former US Secretary of State George Shultz argued in 1985 that information and communication flows can be used as a powerful instrument for compelling closed societies to open up. At the time, Schulz wrote that communist states fear the information revolution perhaps more than they fear Western military strength. “The revolution in global communications thus forces all nations to reconsider traditional ways of thinking about national sovereignty.”

Ronfeldt summarizes Shulz’s take on the “dictator’s dilemma“: if the Soviet regime risked adopting new technologies, it’s leaders would have to liberalize the Soviet economic and political systems, which is arguably what happened. Ronfeldt thus writes that as “long as the aim in the West is the demise of communist and other traditional hard-line authoritarian systems, policymakers in the United States and Europe are well advised to expect that the diffusion of the new technologies will speed the collapse of closed societies and favor the spread of open ones.”

This is (still) the current US policy towards Cuba, for example. In his recent book, “The Blogging Revolution,” Antony Loewenstein notes that,

“Cuba’s official Communist organ Gramma International reported in June 2008 that a meeting in Washington in May discussed using USAID to ‘promote the clandestine dispatch of electronic materials to the island via European and Latin American intermediaries’.  The aim of the US$45 million was to distribute ‘propaganda pamphlets, cell phones and modern communications equipment’ and ‘train Cubans resident in third countries.’

George W Bush has publicly stated that he wanted to use the Internet to destabilize the Cuban Government. In May 2001, Bush gave a speech in which he advocated the Internet as just one tool to weaken Castro, and the 2006 Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba Report state that US$24 million was being spent on ‘efforts to break the Cuban government’s information blockade and expand access to independent information, including through the Internet’.”

As Ronfeldt noted in 1992, however, “the fact that the new technology can help sweep aside old types of closed regimes does not necessarily mean that it will also make democratic societies more democratic, or totalitarian ones impossible.” Indeed, “a longer view of history provides little assurance that the new technology favors democracy.”

As Ronfeldt wrote, “the printing press and later technologies, like the telephone and radio, did not prevent new and ever worse forms of autocracy from arising.” While these technologies undermined the power base of old monarchies, these same technologies were subsequently “turned into tools of propaganda, surveillance, and subjugation that enabled dictators to seize power and develop totalitarian regimes.”

Ronfeldt maintains that technology is not neutral or apolitical but it does “widen the range of possibilities within a particular context.” But as Clay Shirky notes, “arguments about whether new forms of sharing or collaboration are, on balance, good or bad reveal more about the speaker than the subject.”

In any case, the effect of technology depends on context. Ronfeldt cites Daniel Bell (1979) to explain that “the new revolution in communications makes possible both an intense degree of centralization of power, if the society decides to use it in that way, and large decentralization because of the multiplicity, diversity, and cheapness of the modes of communication.”

Ronfeldt adds that “the existence of democracy does not assure that the new technology will strengthen democratic tendencies and be used as a force for good rather than evil. The new technology may be a double-edged sword even in a democracy.” To this end, “far from favoring democracy or totalitarianism, cyberocracy may facilitate more advanced forms of both. It seems as likely to foster further divergence as convergence, and divergence has been as much the historical rule as convergence.”

Furthermore, Ronfeldt argues that while “in the past the divergence principle was most evident between countries,” a future possibility “is that the principle may increasingly apply within countries. The information revolution may enable hybrid systems to take form that do not fit standard distinctions between democracy and totalitarianism.  In these systems, part of the populace may be empowered to act more democratically than ever, but other parts may be subjected to new techniques of surveillance and control.”

A question that naturally follows is whether cyberocracy will spell the obsolescence and transformation of standard Marxist theses. While Marxism claimed that “capital accummulation” faciliated political exploitation, would Marx not focus instead on “information” if he were to reappear today? Ronfeldt suggests that information may very well come to “succeed capital as a central theoretical concept for political and social philosophy” in the post-industrial age.

According to Marxism, the capitalist accumulation of “surplus labor” and labor’s exploitation by “monopoly capital” account for a society’s structure and its ills and inclinations.  That structure is composed of socioeconomic “classes” that are defined by the “relation to the means of production of capital.”

But the post-industrial age may instead raise a new concern about “surplus information” or “monopoly information” that is concentrated, guarded, and exploited for privileged economic and political purposes.  Moreover, a society may become structured into new kinds of classes depending on one’s relation to the means of production of information.

The above summarizes Ronfeldt’s Cyberocracy paper from 1992. The following is a summary of his 2008 postscript co-authored with Danielle Varda.

Ronfeldt and Varda conclude that “influence in the information age is indeed proving to revolve around symbolic politics and media savvy — the ‘soft power’ aspects of influence.” Based on the evidence of the past 18 years, the authors also conclude that “the information revolution continues to enable both democratic and totalitarian tendencies. […] The information age is indeed leading to new hybrid amalgams of democratic and authoritarian tendencies, often in the same country.” The authors also conclude that “governments are still straining to adapt.  Bureaucracy remains the rule, cyberocracy a speculation.”

In terms of next steps for further research, Ronfeldt and Varda outline four speculations about future trends:

  1. The advanced societies are developing new sensory apparatuses that people have barely begun to understand and use;
  2. A network-based social sector is emerging, distinct from the traditional public and private sectors.  Consisting largely of NGOs and NPOs, its rise is leading to a re-balancing of state, market, and civil-society forces;
  3. New modes of multiorganizational collaboration are taking shape, and progress toward networked governance is occurring;
  4. This may lead to the emergence of the nexus-state as a successor to the nation-state.

The authors argue that people and organizations in “advanced societies” are “building vast new sensory apparatuses for watching what is happening in their own societies and around the world. Of all the uses to which the new technologies are being put, this may become one of the most important for the future of the state and its relationship to society.” The rise of citizen journalism is certainly a significant consequence of the information revolution.

Ronfeld and Varda point out that “many of the new apparatuses reflect the perception of perils.  Crime and terrorism are impelling new installations for watching cityscapes, monitoring communications, and mapping potential hotspots.  But sensor networks are also being deployed for early warning and rapid response regarding many other concerns — disease outbreaks, forest protection, [etc.].”

In addition, the authors argue that “environmental, human-rights, and other social activists continue to develop new media to keep watch and speed mobilization in case of a challenge or abuse somewhere […].” Examples include DigiActive, Digital Democracy 2.0, Witness, Ushahidi, and Global Voices. Indeed, Ronfeldt and Varda suggest that citizens’ concerns about top-down surveillance may be countered by bottom-up “sousveillance” (or inverse surveillance), particularly if individuals wear personal devices for detecting and recording what is occurring in their vicinity.”

Ronfeldt and Vera maintain that new sensory apparatuses will accelerate the “rise of civil-society actors, by providing networked [actors] with new tools not only for checking on the behavior of government and corporate actors, but also for participating in collaborative governance schemes with them.  New mechanisms for attracting and combining diverse viewpoints under the rubric of ‘collective intelligence’ could help foster this. So could the continued advance of principles favoring freedom of information, the right to communicate, and open access.”

While networks are as old as hierarchies and markets, the authors argue that they are “only now coming into their own as a major societal organizing principle.  To function well on a large scale, multiorganizational networks require complex information and communications systems—even more than do hierarchies and markets—and those systems are finally afforded by the Internet and other new digital technologies.”

Clay Shirky would certainly agree with this conclusion. He writes that “we now have communications tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordination action that take advantage of that change.”

Ronfeld and Varda argue that civil society stands to gain the most from the rise of networks since “policy problems have become so complex and intractable, crossing so many jurisdictions and involving so many actors, that governments should evolve beyond the traditional bureaucratic model of the state.”

To this end, “a less hierarchical, more decentralized, pro-partnership model is needed, one that relies more on outsourced market measures and collaborative network designs.  Metaphorically, this means a state that is less about (vertical) stovepipes and silos, and more about (horizontal) webs, bridges, and pools—a state where issues are deliberated less in channels and more on platforms.”

Ronfeldt and Varda forsee that “the evolution of network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies, and technologies will attract government policymakers, business leaders, and civil-society actors to create myriad new mechanisms for communication, coordination, and collaboration spanning all levels of governance.  Aging contentions that ‘the government’ or ‘the market’ is the solution to particular public-policy issues will give way to inspired new ideas that, in some areas, ‘the network” [or, in my opinion, ‘the ecosystem’] is the solution.'”

Returning to the question of hierarchies versus networks, Ronfeldt and Varda maintain that “states, not to mention societies as a whole, cannot endure without hierarchies. Familial tribes and clans were the first major form of organization to arise centuries ago; hierarchical institutions were second—and the state remains the home realm of this form. Information-age government may well undergo ‘reinventing’ and be made flatter, more networked, decentralized, etc.—but it will still have hierarchy at its core.”

In conclusion, Ronfeldt and Varda argue that the rise of the “Nexus-State” does not imply the weakening of the “traditional state.” To be sure, “the rise of the market system had those effects on the state, beginning a few centuries ago.  As the state relinquished the control of commercial activities to private companies, both the nation and the state became stronger.  Likewise, as the social sector expands and activities are transferred to it, the state should again emerge with a new kind of strength, even though it loses some scope in some areas.”

Only time will tell. I look forward to David’s update in 2020!

Patrick Philippe Meier

Roundtable: Human Rights and Technology

I was recently invited by USAID to participate in a closed meeting with global activists promoting human rights. The roundtable was described to me as follows:

We are having a high-level event in Washington and we are hoping you can participate. It will be very small, with only 2025 people, and we are seeking someone who can speak to best practices and the future of human rights blogging at an awards ceremony honoring international human rights bloggers. Either Secretary of State Rice or Administrator Fore of USAID will be in attendance.

The organizers wanted an independent academic and avid blogger with a good understanding of human rights monitoring and digital activism. I accepted the invitation since the roundtable would be an opportunity to brainstorm about the challenges and opportunities of blogging for political activism and human rights advocacy.

I was initially not going to blog about this event given some of the sensitivities involved, but as it turns out President Bush had a public meeting with the activist bloggers right before our roundtable (which is why we started almost an hour late). The White House meeting was covered by Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post. The organizers of the roundtable thus encouraged me to blog about the event (although I still have some reservations about the public nature of all this).

bloghouse

The roundtable was attended by the above activist bloggers (now residents of the US) and several representatives from USAID, the State Department, the National Security Council (NSC) and Department of Defense (DOD). Clearly, I was the only non-USG, non-dissident blogger around the table, which made sense since I was invited to provide an independent perspective to the conversation. Consider this blog post as an extension of that invitation.

After some formal introductions, we were each given about five minutes to present our perspectives on the issue of human rights and blogging. Only ten minutes were available for Q&A. Here are some of my personal, independent reactions, to the roundtable:

  • I was surprised how often Russia was referred to as the Soviet Union;
  • The introductory remarks placed too much faith in technology as the solution. There was little discussion about tactics and overall strategy;
  • The reference to the platform developed by the MIT Center for the Future of Civic Media (C4)  to enable activists to communicate securely and anonymously was not entirely accurate. First, the project is being designed for reporters, not activists, and second, the platform has not  been built yet;
  • One of the blogger activists said that US rhetoric vis-a-vis the support of human rights was less helpful than direct action, i.e., applying pressure via leverage of trade, etc;
  • Another activist said that his network does not want US material or financial support, only moral support;
  • The blogger from Iran (now living in the US), noted that the regime was spending some $60 million to try and control the proliferation of jokes sent by SMS that makes fun of the president and ruling officials;
  • When a USG official asked about the use of mobile phones for political activism, one blogger replied that the best way to help repressive regimes is to use mobile phones. I echoed his concerns by pointing out that mobile phones can be a liability because (1) they can be tracked, i.e., geo-located; (2) encrypted SMS is still not the standard; (3) address books are not encrypted or easily deletable which means that confiscated mobile phones can place hundreds in danger.

The meeting was cut short because it started late, so there was actually little time for brainstorming. Below are my (independent) concerns about the meeting and the future of human rights and political activism. They may not jive with the US Government’s take on these issues, but then again, I know that they wanted someone independent in the room to get as many different perspectives on the topic of human rights and technology. For this, the organizers have my utmost respect.

  • I don’t think that the US Government should be publicly meeting with human rights bloggers, especially the leading dissident, political activist bloggers because this makes life more difficult and more dangerous for the majority of citizen journalists and digital activists still living in repressive regimes; note that the invited bloggers all live in the US;
  • While repressive regimes need no excuse to crack down on bloggers/journalists, they often do using accusation of ties to the US government when in fact there are none. So why make it any easier for them to do so by having dissident bloggers who live in the US pose with President Bush?
  • Some argue that most activists feel their best hope for any nominal protection is to be as public as possible about their high-level meetings. But these activists already live in the US, they have already been granted asylum and therefore are not in as much danger as their colleagues still living under repressive rule. So while the bloggers who met with President Bush won’t be arrested since they live in the US, my concern is for those dissident bloggers who are risking their lives every day to influence change in their own countries;
  • Dissident bloggers tend to be political activists and/or former reporters. They are not tech savvy. In fact, when I asked a blogger sitting next to me at the meeting for their email address, they gave me a yahoo email address. This particular blogger was the only one in the group who still lives in their original country to which they were returning to the following day. I told the blogger that I would not be emaling them on that address and that they should set up a hushmail address as soon as possible;
  • Activist bloggers are in dire need of training in digital activism so that they can ensure both personal and data security; I was truly shocked about the yahoo email address;
  • Echoing what fellow bloggers have told me in the past, not everyone blogs. Bloggers are not the only voice of the people. Speaking out is only part of the problem; more of a challenge is being heard. This presents a catch-22 since a successful activist blogger who manages to be heard will usually present themselves as a target by the regime.

In closing, I don’t think the White House should be publicly supporting dissident bloggers. Instead, the USG should be promoting human rights and principles of free speech in general. If the USG wants some policy guidance on this, I would refer them to the general approach taken by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). In particular, I would consider learning from the successful US policy regarding the support of the Otpor student movement against Milosevic.

Again, I realize my views may not align with the USG officials who participated in the roundtable, but again, I was invited specifically to provide an independent perspective and to blog about it, which, to their credit, is an important element of policy making—diversity of opinions, that is. I look forward to contributing more of my thoughts in any future meetings.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Democracy at Mobile Active ‘08

Emily Jacobi and Mark Belinsky with Digital Democracy are doing phenomenal work in Burma. Their presentation in Jo’burg provided an overview of their projects in the region.

Some of the most interesting observations they made included the following:

  • Activists within Burma smuggle out pictures taken using their mobile phones using flash drives, so that fellow activists in neighboring countries to upload to the web.
  • There is a correlation between access to the Internet and self-identification as activists.
  • A change in communication policy in Burma is most likely to come from pressures by Chinese businessmen who carry out extensive business (trips) to Burma and who are increasingly frustrated by connectivity issues and cost.


I had the opportunity to hang out with Emily and Mark quite a bit over the three-day conference and I’m really excited by the work they’ve been doing and will begin doing in other countries. They were two of the most interesting new friends I made at MobileActive. I’m eager to follow their work and to explore potential areas for collaboration with DigiActive.

Patrick Philippe Meier