ICTs and civil society

Recent information revolutions are based on the emergence of new information and communication technologies (ICTs), which encapsulate the converging set of technologies in microelectronics, computing telecommunications and optoelectronics.[1] Previous industrial revolutions were based on technologies that used cheap inputs of energy. According to Castells, new ICTs are based on cheap inputs of information. This shift led to the emergence of a new paradigm, on which a new society he names ‘informational society’ is born.[2] This new paradigm consists of various elements.

The first element is how technology acts on and transforms information. It is no longer solely new information that acts on technology such as with previous industrial revolutions. It is also how information is becoming a raw material that can be used and reused for multiple purposes and in multiple aspects of life. Indeed, for the first time in history, the human mind is a productive force, and not just the decisive element of the production process.[3] Information itself becomes a resource to produce knowledge and wealth. Second, ICTs are pervasive technologies. Indeed, information is an integral part of human life, where most processes of our individual and collective existence are influenced by new ICTs.[4]

Third, new ICTs favor networking in the shape of a dynamic net such as social media. They allow complex, global and extensive interactions among individuals, which increases creativity potential and leads to unpredictable patterns of development. This also leads to flexible processes and organizations that can change shape and form rapidly. Finally, the last element is the convergence of all technologies and media: microelectronics, telecommunications, optoelectronics, and computers are all integrated[5] and become a global cyberspace.

The information revolutions gave birth to the Net Generation: children, teenagers and young adults who were born since the generalization of new ICTs have integrated all aspects of the previously described new paradigm. And for the first time in history, these young generations know more about the dominant technology than their parents.[6] Indeed, they are used to looking up the information they need on the web: they are not just passively consuming, but active in customizing the knowledge they wish to receive through setting up their Twitter, news feeds, blogs, or Facebook profiles.

Born with the third screen[7] (the screen of mobile devices that came after television and computer’s screens), the Net generation is used to seeing electronically altered images or living in a virtual reality as contained in online video games. Uniform products or services are not appropriate for these users anymore, since they are used to tailor-made, real-time solutions that respond directly to their needs and desires. For example, they choose to stream a series online instead of waiting for a TV channel to showcase it; they can customize or design their own cloths and order items from all around the world; they can create communities of peers with the same interest and receive answers to their questions almost in real time.

This has led to a perceived need of being part of an online community to share feelings, values and ideas. Institutions have become aware of this need and used them to support their interest. Obama, for instance, created an online platform for his two presidential campaigns[8] where potential voters could discuss issues relevant to them and make their views available to the President. This openness and transparence was probably one of the factors that led to his popularity among younger voters.

Sometimes, the Net generation becomes more visible, like in some Arab countries: the Arab spring as it is often called shows a good example of how the use of new ICTs can support a change in society. New ICTs provides new possibilities for people to be politically active. The causes of the revolution are not new and stem from injustice, the lack of jobs, repression, violence, the non-respect of human rights, or economic disparity. The tools used to fight this revolution are however no longer weapons, but the new ICTs, which allow the Net generation to raise awareness, denounce or call for help.

The Internet and mobile phones are almost like military tools used by the youth in some Arab countries to spread the word, decide on a meeting point, join forces on an issue, locate snipers and send their location to friendly militant forces, and finally to change the society they are in. These newly created networks give a real sense of participation to the population. The clash is evident with authoritarian regimes such as in Iran where there is the biggest example of young generation with access to secular information.

Since a few years, the first wave of the Net generation is entering the workforce, the marketplace. This generation is bigger than the baby boomers: 80 million compared to 78 million in the USA alone.[9] In other parts of the world such as Asia or Africa, they represent an even bigger part of society. This generation with ownership of online tools becomes a powerful force to change societies: “thus, the industrial society, by educating citizens and by gradually organizing the economy around knowledge and information, prepared the ground for the empowering of the human mind when new information technologies became available.”[10]

Similarly to the Renaissance thinkers who planted the seed for the European technological dominance that took place a few centuries later, education and the generalization of new ICTs in the 20th century contributed to the emergence of a new type of society as defined by Castells with new organizational principles in the 21st century though three patterns of interaction: transparency, collaboration, and participation.

First, the Internet and mobile phones allow users to set the agenda and discuss among each other worldwide and in real-time with little constraint or rules. Most discussions take place transparently in public and can be contributed to by every individual. The pattern of transparency is one of the new values for the Net generation and our digital age: transparency is indeed a powerful and overall positive force.[11]

However so far, companies, governments, and organizations have been organized around secret data. This is especially the case for governments and transnational corporations. Individuals have a hard time now to secure their information. The Internet has the capacity to make any information available as discussed in chapter one. However, it sometimes leads to privacy issues that must be dealt with legally. When transparency is an opportunity for organizations, privacy is an obligation for individuals.[12] Most recent research shows that privacy breaches are what concern most Internet users.[13]

The second pattern of interaction is collaboration.[14] There is a new model of production in which people from all around the world join their forces to create a product, deliver a service, or innovate. The last new pattern of interaction is participation: consumers become what Alvin Toffler calls prosumers, in the sense that they do not only consume new ICTs but can also produce products or services thanks to these new technologies.

For instance, further to Kenya’s controversial elections that resulted in civil turmoil, riots and deaths, a young lawyer created a website named “ “Ushahidi”, which means “testimony” in Swahili, (…) that was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. (…) Our roots are in the collaboration of Kenyan citizen journalists during a time of crisis.”[15] In Haiti, after the 2010 earthquake, the Ushahidi network helped find people thanks to the geolocation of their phones, and send someone for their rescue.

A critical issue with collective action is the free-riding attitudes: “a rational actor will abstain from contributing to a public good if his or her contribution has a negligible impact on the total amount of the good produced and consequently a negligible impact on his or her consumption of the good”[16]. Therefore, participation is dependent on how visible the cause is: “seeing others contribute should motivate actors to contribute their share.”[17] Visibility and efficiency of the cause are great motivators for people to participate. Mass waves of text messages sent to motivate an audience “strengthen the hidden networks, boosts solidarity, creates further groups, and recruits new militants who, attracted by the movement’s public action, join the networks.”[18]

New ICTs also enable the general public to monitor public figures in an unprecedented way.[19] Until recently, the state controlled power thanks to surveillance techniques. This control is now reciprocal. The state becomes more and more transparent for the public eye, and with it the actions of political figures. A feeling of constant scrutiny might discourage illegal activities. The speed by which information circulate via Internet and mobile technologies is an additional deciding factor for the political elite when taking actions.

These new patterns of interaction affect more and more aspects of our lives, as they are dominant on new ICTs. It is hard to define if they stem from users or from technology. In any case, it seems that adapting to these new circumstance is the only solution for some sectors of industry. For instance, many newspapers struggle since 2000: they do not break news anymore. If the news is important, it will be first available on social media such as Twitter. Newspapers need to reinvent themselves: they still provide in-depth information and knowledge about complex issues and news.

New ICTs represent a continuous process of change[20] that involves users and developers, states and individuals, transnational corporations and civil society. New uses of Internet change its structure and its future developments. The influence is bi-directional: its structure and technical developments influence who uses the Internet, and the way the user behaves influences the Internet, mobile technologies, the Web and big data.

This process of change is not only technological. Demography is indeed another element to take into consideration: North America and Europe count for less than 35% of all Internet users. Asia counts for 45% with a lower rate of penetration, which means there is still a vast part of society still to be connected: “The Internet may have been born in the West but its future will almost certainly be decided elsewhere.”[21]

[1] Castells, Manuel (1996) The Rise of the Network Society, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Vol. I. Cambridge, MA and Oxford, UK: Blackwell, p.30.

[2] Grinin, Leonid (2007) Periodization of History: A theoretic-mathematical analysis, In: History & Mathematics. Moscow, Russia: KomKniga, p.20.

[3] Castells, Manuel (1996) Op Cit, p.32.

[4] Ibid, p.30.

[5] Ibid, p.33.

[6] Tapscott, Don (2008) Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, New York, NY: Portfolio, Penguin Group, p.45.

[7] Ibid, p.78.

[8] Democratic National Platform (2012) Moving America Forward, Retrieved 5 August 2013 from http://www.democrats.org/democratic-national-platform

[9] Don Tapscott (2008) Op Cit, p.58.

[10] Castells, Manuel (1996) The Rise of the Network Society, Vol. I. Op Cit, p.31.

[11] Don Tapscott (2008) Op Cit, p.63.

[12] Don Tapscott (2008) Op Cit, p.64.

[13] Mohr, Nikolaus (2013) Mobile Web Watch 2012. New York, NY: Accenture Publishing, p.16. Retrieved May 2013 from http://www.accenture.com/us-en/Pages/insight-mobile-web-watch-2012-mobile-internet.aspx

[14] Don Tapscott (2008) Op Cit, p.75.

[15] For more detailed information on the organization’s activities, see Ushahidi website: http://www.ushahidi.com/mission/

[16] Miard, Fabien (2012) Call for Power? Mobile phones as facilitators of political activism, In Costigan, Sean S., Perry, Jake (eds.) Cyberspaces and Global Affairs. London, UK: Ashgate, p.128.

[17] Ibid, p.128.

[18] Ibid, p.128.

[19] Ibid, p.131.

[20] Kaldor, Mary, Moore, Henrietta, Selchow, Sabine (2012), Op Cit, p.30.

[21] Deibert Ron (2012) The Growing Dark Side of Cyberspace ( . . . and What To Do About It), The Penn State Journal of Law & International Affairs, V.1 (2), p. 263.