The beautiful city of Barcelona was a well chosen location for a conference taking place in November and it awaited us with unsurprisingly mild temperatures. Even warmer was the welcome at the pre-conference reception for the speakers. “In all beginnings dwells a magic force” (Hesse) which I caught a glimpse of when we mutually introduced ourselves by choosing three words to characterise our involvement in the cross-section of internet and politics.
Hence, my personal expectations towards the personal democracy forum were quite high when I entered the Torre Agbar tower the next day. The first thing I spotted was that the main hall was completely full – round about 300 people were waiting for Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry to kick of the event with some opening remarks followed by a keynote from Charles Leadbeater.
Leadbeater then talked (keynote audio) about the emergence of cloud culture, a term which has been derived from cloud computing. Using the metaphor of clouds for culture points to the fact that cultural contents are produced in a more and more collaborative and fluid way. Further to this cultural artefacts become to a large extend available digitally with the consequence that more people than ever have access to them via the Internet. “Many eyes make culture rich in the way the more an archive is opened up to many points of views and eyes the more value will be seen in it”, Leadbeater stated. Together with all the available “tools of creativity” which allow to add more value to existing content sort of “cultural mushroom clouds” happened to appear.
At the same time there are reasons to be concerned and challenges which we currently do not really know how to address.
One problem is that structural principles of society run counter against the idea of cloud culture. E.g. politicians facing problems “giving loads of stuff away” and contribute to an anonymous creation of public goods. Instead they have to claim that they are doing things for people and need to take the credits to get elected. Cloud culture took a kind of leadership which politicians were “constitutionally unable to grasp”.
Other problems are that social media are tend to flush away existing business models and ways of content production without yet delivering mature alternatives – one just has to think of the crises of newspapers and the recording industry. Leadbeater said that he is convinced that we will have to figure out how to finance important services like e.g. investigative journalism but he does not think, however, that newspapers are the best approach to it.
The biggest threat in the digital age after all is censorship. Leadbeater: “ I am ashamed actually that a labour government has chosen this three strikes rule and cut people off from their ISPs for file sharing without in the slightest bit thinking that the big story is the freedom of the internet and its impact on democracy around the world. And if western governments do that, if western governments back off that they are just giving an excuse to authoritarian regimes to use that as well”.
Well roared, lion! - this was a good opening keynote and delivered some tasty food for thought. Unfortunately, the examination of the digital society throughout the conference could not constantly keep up this level.
There were way too many presentations and panels dealing with campaigning – at least for my taste. The Obama campaign, election campaigns in general, move on, avaaz etc. pp. The teleologic approach to social media is what they all have in common. Use social media to get more votes for your candidate, to put pressure on politicians, to achieve any kinds of objectives. Campaigners are usually not struggling to find the best arguments or policies, to initiate debates or to improve public discourses. Nor they are interested to involve as many people as possible in the generation of common goals or objectives. No, the goals have always already been defined and the only thing that seems to count is action and mobilisation. But who defined these objectives? And who take care that action leads to better results?
The campaigning approach always implies that good and bad can easily be separated. And that action based on good intentions lead also to good results. It does not require a PHD in sociology to know that both are not always the case in modern society: The road to hell is paved with good intentions…..
As Jeremy Zimmerman from la quadrature du net put it, the set up of effective campaigns presume that you are right. Not right in the sense right vs. left but in the sense of not being wrong. And how did he know that he was right? Well he just knows it and further more trusts on loads of experts consulting his organisation.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of the kind of citizens’ lobbyism Jeremy and others have created while trying to improve the so-called EU Telecom Package (or to obviate the worst, respectively). And yes, I believe he was right in that particular case. But can this really be generalised?
Being absolutely convinced to be totally right seems to be a much more a fundamentalist than democratic attitude. And the only reason politics come into play is the fact that in most cases it can not be simply decided once and for all what is right or true.
It went even scarier when Scott Heiferman from meetup.com enthusiastically shouted out that it is all about the WE and not about THEM and US. Well, this desire for unity has historically led to the worst results one can possibly think of. Here comes definitely the point where I cannot follow anymore. There is us, them and we and I can’t see the benefits of presuming that there are no longer differences among individuals, groups or organisations.
To sum it up: I do not believe that society is generally lacking efficient campaigns and that more social media based campaigns will inevitably lead to better policies. Instead of taking all the implications of the looming digital ideology for granted we should discuss more thoroughly how to cope with the partly contradicting logics of cloud culture and politics. This would also mean to spend more time to explore the relations between socials media based or citizens driven politics and existing governmental structures.
However, as I said at the beginning, I came with quiet high expectations and this is always the safest way to get disappointed. Nevertheless, I wasn’t: This well organised event was definitely worth attending and I met quite a lot of friends and colleagues. I am sure this will also be the case at the future democracy conference taking place tomorrow in London.