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Civil Society and New Technology: Rising opportunities or threats?

Civil society is a hot concept in the contemporary political debate, and many stress that it is a crucial ingredient of national or international identity which helps democracy to improve.

August 12, 2013 - Julia Rokicka - Articles and Commentary

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However, this phenomenon can also be increasing seen as a threatening power which could revolutionise future politics, coerce successive change and destroy the stability of the present system. One question is particularly relevant at the present moment: is civil society developing faster because of new technology?

Civil society in Eastern and Central Europe

In many cases, post-communist countries are still facing economical backwardness because of the ruins of centrally planned economies, debts, lack of a free market, private property and other traces of the transition period. We can observe ethnic conflicts, strong nationalism, and issues concerning state boundaries in the region. Poverty is unavoidable after many years of wars and communism – apparent in countries such as Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova. There is a strong need for new technology – new infrastructure, access to the internet, increased technologically savvy healthcare and an upgraded system of education; which is, in fact, why the development of civil society and the implication of new technology are reasonable and necessary. The Balkan region (or Balkan boiler, as it was coined in the past) is still dealing with conflicts and cleavages of the former Yugoslavia among other problems. Stabilisation in this area is crucial for progress, new perspectives and integration into the European Union.

New technology, new reality

By incorporating new technology and using it to develop, civil societies can take a main role in addressing any issues or challenges which emerge. Civil society actors challenge established political processes and are opening up space for new forms of governance: civil society has become both an important force in policy processes and a buzzword for conceptualising citizen involvement.

Technology now allows the capture of almost every type of activity and interaction, is trivially cheap and easy to use. Individuals routinely record all telephone calls for their own personal archive, as with all their online communications. Organisations of all sorts recognise the importance of attention data, i.e. information about where users are focusing their attention, and regularly collect and mine it for trends and patterns in an attempt to put them a step ahead. Archive and search have become core issues for everyone, from mothers organising their family photo and video archives, to charities sorting through their supporter activity database.

It has always been a difficult task to catch the attention of civil society. Attention itself has become a scarce resource. Advertising is no longer as effective as it once was, as the careful building of relationships and a sense of community has replaced shiny PR campaigns.

In the last few years, a so-called “new civic space” has appeared, which exceeds traditional, easy to catch spheres, and more visible actions have started or take place on the internet. This new civic space allows for new technology to act as enablers of solidarity beyond borders, and this in turn alters the political space for governments and civil society.

Networking

A great example of new technology influencing new generations, activating them, building better communication between people, stimulating better consciousness, more interest and hence strengthening civil society is the system of Information and Communication Technology. ICTs consist of unified communications and the integration of telecommunications (telephone lines and wireless signals). This system mainly influences three areas: productivity and innovation (facilitating creativity and management), modernisation of public services (for instance: health, education, transport), and advances in science and technology (supporting cooperation and access to information). ICTs are successfully implemented in the teaching and learning process (ICT as a medium of knowledge exchange) in such countries like Norway, Australia, Kenya, India, Great Britain and even Estonia.

Rising star”

When it comes to Estonia, such a small post-communist country may be considered one the most wired in Europe due to its strong commitment to civil society and ICT development. Third in the world in press freedom, economic freedom, civil liberties, education, a leader in e-government (the digital management of interactions between the government and citizenship), Estonia has an advanced Human Development Index and an high income compared to its bordering countries. Furthermore, Estonia has a low level of unemployment – in 2007 it was around 2 per cent, while it was 7.7 per cent in 2012.

People might find it interesting and surprising that Skype, the most famous VoIP communication software, was invented in Estonia. It seems that the words of the Estonian president are very accurate: “Being such a small country, after the Soviets left there were too few people to administer it effectively. We opted to make up for the lack of human resources through automation.” In such surroundings, civil society has amazing opportunities to flourish.

Old and new civil society

In Poland, civil society appeared earlier than in other post-communist countries and this impulse influenced the development of other civil societies, leading to the collapse of the authoritarian systems. Gideon Baker, professor at Griffith University in Australia and author of the book Civil Society and Democratic Theory: Alternative Voices, assumed that Solidarity was seen as a beacon of hope for all of Eastern Europe. At this time, the approach to civil society presented a vision of initiatives from citizens (not politicians) and involved civic actions and the birth of an alternative culture. Everything started from the fight for better working conditions, but as time passed, those economic issues became political. Through Solidarity, people realised that they could redefine the situation: as a movement, they could arrange their lives in a different way from the one provided by the system – but only if they transfigured this public will into action. This was a strategy called “society first”, and was a great example of the rising civil society without new technology.

In today’s world we have more capabilities to organise social movements and initiatives from below – which is why we should pay more attention to information and social correlations – and in this way change the laws and hence reality. In 2012 there was an extensive social action against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a multinational treaty for the purpose of establishing international standards for intellectual property rights enforcement. Society protested against the threat of hiding materials from the public, limiting privacy on the internet and the freedom of speech, represented by the agreement. This protest had a particular relevance in Poland. In January 2012 about 20 governmental sites were hacked, dozens of Polish websites opposing ACTA hampered access to their pages, and people started to organise civic initiatives such as petitions, meetings and protests, both on the internet and on the streets.

The meteoric flow of information lets people connect through collective actions, not only at the local or national level, but on an international or even global scale. Examples include Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Australia, Canada, Estonia, Mexico, Poland and many others. The protests against ACTA represents a kind of global action which can be seen as a sign of global civil society, in the realm of groups cooperating outside governments. It provides a huge possibility to deal with global problems which affect everybody and can only be solved through collective actions. A global civil society would help to avoid nationalism and would be effective for many initiatives.

Opportunities and challenges

In an ever-changing world and in the age of globalisation, we can observe failures of the centralisation of the state, traditional institutions and even of governance. In order to face new challenges there are attempts to enhance governing using public deliberations, through the creation of social networks which enable people to participate with an active role in the political and social life. Building trust is crucial in creating civil society, and the level of trust in the post-communist countries is lower than in other European countries, such as the Nordic countries (where civil society is already shaped).

A strong civil society, well-informed, conscious of its needs and rights, engaged in the political and social life can support democratic change (overcoming authoritarian regimes and oppression). Through new technology building a social net, people will be better informed, better connected to each other, and hence feel more powerful to avoid oppression. New technology will help people become more integrated and motivated to deal with social problems. In the contemporary world, information is power; and if we spread technology in society, it will be possible to create society which has knowledge and empowered to use it.

The problem which arises is consciousness – do people become more or less socially active through new technology? Will people use it for the public good or only for their private good? Opinions vary. New technology has two faces – it provides new opportunities, but at the same time challenges for civil society. Citizens can fight for their rights without violence, and create the surroundings they want to live in. On the other hand, technology can destroy familiar, friendly and neighbourly relations. Is there the possibility that new technology and the global civil society will turn into a dangerous power?

The chosen examples show that the information process, human rights and civil society can unfold faster with new technology and act for the public good. However, only the future can show in which direction civil society and technology will evolve.

Julia Rokicka is a MA student studying Political Sciences at the University of Wrocław.

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