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Will New Media Change New Europe? In search of a new realism

During the process of transformation, Central and Eastern European countries have reached different levels of stability and prosperity. What remains common is the fact that all of the states, without exception, still need to “make up for the losses” that divide them from developed western partners.

November 25, 2013 - Igor Lyubashenko - Articles and Commentary

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Photo “Social Network Structure” by Shutterstock

And even if we agree that attractiveness of western political models has eroded recently, there is still at least one element in which the West has an undoubted advantage that escalates into a strong appeal – development of information society. Just like the rest of the world, Central and Eastern Europeans are fascinated with hi-tech gadgets more often accompanying us in our everyday life and connecting us into a global network. As the level of internet penetration grows, its impact on social and political processes in the region becomes more visible, although still not well assessed.

A panel discussion held on recently in Warsaw Poland became a good opportunity to speak about these issues. Discussants with different backgrounds (academia, social activism and public administration) presented their thoughts on the impact of technology on society. It was not a surprise that having the recent revelations by Edward Snowden’s in the background, the general atmosphere of the debate was quite pessimistic. Panelists discussed much about the challenges brought about by growing connectivity and the public tended to focus on these threads during the Q&A session. As for myself, the discussion became a confirmation of some thoughts that have appeared already some time ago.

The debate confirmed that time has come to stop treating the internet as child’s play. The societal function of technology is huge and differs depending on the level of traditionally understood democratic advancement. In countries like Ukraine and Russia, the web is primarily a carrier for new media projects, providing the public with an alternative form of information and content, freeing it from the dependency on official sources, at least to some extent. From time to time, it also becomes an accelerator of political actions in the “offline reality”. Compare it to Poland, a state of successful transformation and high democratic standards, and you’ll see that the public opinion’s attention is focused much stronger on problems of privacy and surveillance.

Nothing in common? Not exactly.

Regardless of the vector of geopolitical orientation, all states of the region are now exposed to global trends of forced transparency. As Bruce Schneier writes, governments will enter the battle for power  on the internet (I see no reasons for why Polish or Ukrainian government would not at least try) and with relatively weak civil societies they have all the chances of winning, increasing the role of the state in the life of society. And here is our common denominator, a field where our fears about authorities tracking opposition activists or simply gathering information about our favourite cat or alcohol-consuming records – documented voluntarily by ourselves in a pursuit to get more “likes” – are coming together.

A colleague of mine has recently expressed an opinion, that good old realism is now re-entering the stage in global international relations. It is a good point. Realism usually provides us with a clear view of the world, where balance of power and an aspiration to maximise our interests are dominating motivations for action. A world where there are “us” and there are “them”. While it may be helpful in analysis, realism can appear harmful, when it becomes a dominating way of thinking in societies. My fear is that if we’ll witness such kind of  thinking reorientation in Central and Eastern Europe, we may easily lose those fragile ties of cooperation that were built across dividing lines that still exist in the region.

The digital age is an incarnation of ideas of interconnectedness and interdependencies. Our goal should be to use these features to connect Central and Eastern European societies as close as possible, to make ideas spread across the region freely and prevent decision-makers from setting up new dividing lines (this time digital ones) for the sake of a mythical “protection of us from them”. Further discussion on the topic is crucial.

Igor Lyubashenko is an academic teacher, new media enthusiast and international relations analyst and coordinator of the Digital Eastern Europe column for NEE. He has a PhD in Political Science from the Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin.

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