Towards a radical digital citizenship

By Akwugo Emejulu, for E-learning, Politics and Society, 2014

In this section, I’d like to focus on the limitations of our dominant understandings of digital citizenship as understood in the subject area of digital education. For digital education, digital citizenship seems to be defined as the ability to effectively make sense of, navigate and exist in the digital world (Hargittai 2002; 2007; Seale and Dutton 2012). Thus to be a digital citizen is to be digitally literate. Digital citizenship also appears to be strongly linked to access to relevant digital technologies and resilience in the face of a rapidly changing world whereby education, work and leisure are being ‘disrupted’ by new technologies (Potter 2006; Jounell 2007; Barber, Donnelly and Rizvi 2013). Thus digital citizenship seems to be an instrumental state focusing on the effective performance of a ‘digital self’.

What’s interesting in conceiving of digital citizenship in this way is that this notion of citizenship seems to have been constructed in isolation from conceptions of citizenship in relation to nation states thereby (perhaps inadvertently) stripping digital citizenship of its politics and political implications (Marshall 1950; Berlin 1958; Lister 2003; Yuval-Davis 2013). In other words, dominant ideas of digital citizenship don’t take politics seriously. By ‘politics’ I mean the contentious struggle between different groups for the exercise of power. It seems to me that the particular ways in which the engineers and scientists working in both the public and private sectors and their venture capitalist backers of internet, the web and their associated digital technologies have won acceptance by society has masked the politics at play in the development, application and dissemination of these technologies (Latour 2005; Sismondo 2010). What I mean is that the focus and fetishisation of the ‘new’ in relation to digital technologies has crowded out discussions of politics and power. By focusing on ‘what’s new’ digital education has failed to ask ‘who has power’ and this has resulted in a strangely apolitical construction of digital citizenship.

In order to refocus digital citizenship on issues of politics and power requires us to look beyond the typical concerns of digital education. Rather than focus on the yawning gap between the digital haves and have nots across the globe or the lack of skills of some groups in navigating digital spaces or even the changing nature of education in this brave new digital world, we need to consider the particular logic of digital technologies and explore how this is reshaping individual and collective identities, social relations and the exercise of power. In doing so, we can start to look beyond viewing digital citizenship as a reaction to new technology but a process and a state of being related to: the nature and quality of public spaces; the ways in which citizens encounter each other; the processes by which citizens deliberate and participate in relation to the common good; the ways in which belonging and exclusion are policed by both institutions and other citizens.

In the next section, I will seek to define ‘radical digital citizenship’.


Part 2

Technology is not an end itself; it is a means to a political end’ (Milan 2013: 2)

In the last section, I sought to highlight some of the problems with how the field of digital education constructs ideas of digital citizenship. Digital citizenship appears to function as a reaction to the development of new technologies with technologies operating as a disciplining device compelling individuals and groups to adopt particular skills and ways of being in order to successfully exist in this new disrupted world. I also argued that conceptualizing digital citizenship in this way robs not only this concept but also ‘digital citizens’ of both the potential and actually existing politics at play.

In this section, I seek to define what I mean by ‘radical digital citizenship’ and attempt to discuss in greater detail the constitutive elements of this form of citizenship and the implications this has for technology and radical technological practice.

First, I define ‘radical digital citizenship’ as a process by which individuals and groups critically analyse the social, political and economic consequences of technologies in everyday life and collectively deliberate and take action to build alternative and emancipatory technologies and technological practices. Unlike dominant models of digital citizenship, radical digital citizenship is not about acquiring some form of ‘digital literacy’ as dictated by tech companies and self-interested venture capitalists. Instead, the cornerstone of a radical digital citizenship is the insistence that citizenship is a process of becoming—that it is an active and reflective state for individual and collective thinking for collective action for the common good. A radical digital citizenship is a fundamentally political practice of understanding the implications of the development and application of technology in our lives. What I want to do now is delve into further detail about what I see as the two parts of radical digital citizenship: 1) critically analysing technology and 2) collective action for emancipatory technologies. I will discuss each in turn.

To make meaningful the idea of a radical digital citizenship means to attempt to understand the social construction of technology and evaluate the political qualities of technology (Heidegger 1987; Mumford 1964; Winner 1980; Pinch and Bijker 1987; Klein and Kleinman 2002). In so doing, citizens will be able to trace the particular political, economic and social arrangements that give rise to certain kinds of technology and examine the influence of technology on social relations. For example, Winner persuasively demonstrates how Robert Moses, the powerful urban planner in New York City from the 1930s to the 1950s, turned the city’s infrastructure into a technology designed to frustrate desegregation efforts and undermine attempts by African American and Latino groups to move out of the ghetto. In particular, Winner (1980: 3-4) shows how Moses constructed freeways and bridges in such a way as to block public transport from reaching all-white suburbs. Since minority groups at the time were most likely to use public transport for work and leisure, Moses effectively prevented these groups from settling in white neighbourhoods by privileging the car as the only means of transport from the city to the suburbs. By refusing to define technology as a neutral concept, we can see how it—in this case, the transportation infrastructure in New York city and its suburbs—can embody particular ideologies and shape social relations for current and future generations.

Politicising technology is also important for the field of digital education. Instead of focusing attention on, say, the pedagogy of MOOCs or the construction of digital identities in online spaces, a radical digital citizenship framework helps us look beyond these interesting but rather constrained questions to the very real material struggles—between faculty, universities and private sector organisations—over the shape, delivery, cost and accessibility of higher education. It also helps us move beyond empty statements about ‘disruption’ and ‘progress’ that digital technologies afford higher education to consider whose political and economic interests are served by these attempted restructurings of higher education. This is not to argue that the above academic questions about digital education aren’t important but that they must always and relentlessly be put in a wider context of the struggles of power as embodied in digital education technologies.

Indeed, by placing politics at the heart of a radical digital citizenship, it becomes easier to understand how ‘there is no such thing as a pure and politically innocent “basic” science that can be transformed into technological applications to be “applied” in “good” or “bad” ways at a comfortable distance from the “clean” hands of the researcher engaged in the former’ (Asberg and Lykke 2010: 299). To practice a radical digital citizenship is to resist the idea that a neutral technology exists. Technology always reflects the interests of scientists, engineers and capitalists (and in Silicon Valley, as elsewhere, there is little difference between engineers and capitalists) thus ‘the practices and social relations of technoscience go hand in hand with global and local capitalism’ (ibid: 300). By critically analysing the social construction of technology, we can map the effects of particular kinds of technology beyond its intended applications. Thus, understanding the gentrification and displacement of working and middle class minority groups in San Francisco and Oakland gives us a window into the operation of digital technology and its effects. We cannot separate out the billions of dollars made in Silicon Valley from digital technologies and its knock on social effects of a skyrocketing cost of living in the Bay Area and the uneven effects this has on particular social groups.

The process of politicising technology is also linked to collective action for emancipatory technology and technological practice. By ‘collective action for emancipatory technology and technological practice’ I mean the process by which individuals and groups work together to build and maintain alternative communication infrastructure to enable marginalised groups to ‘convey their own messages, bypassing the filters of commercial and state gatekeepers’ (Milan 2013: 1). If we recognise that dominant digital and communication technology embody and practice an exclusionary capitalist ethos, then it is important to develop independent information platforms, alternative presses, grassroots ISPs, and open source software that support dialogue, organisation and mobilisation outside the confines of corporate media infrastructure. Again, if politics is about struggles for power, then part of the struggle is to name digital technologies as a power relation and create alternative technology in order to create a new digital commons for citizens to encounter each other to struggle for equality and justice.

So, where does all this leave digital education? For me, digital education must move away from its apolitical and/or politically naïve posture (I can’t figure out what’s happening in this field. I can’t tell if key authors just don’t care about politics or that their politics are so underdeveloped that they can’t quite grasp the broader politics at play here—aside from, of course, the ubiquitous Neil Selwyn). I do think if the field of digital education wants to be more than just a convenient tool (or maybe a Trojan horse?) for the neoliberal reshaping of education, it must take seriously the radical potential of education in digital spaces and about digital technologies. What that means is that digital education, as an academic field of practice, is not just about investigating the educational experiences of being online. This new space for human activity and education is very interesting but it has been created and shaped for particular purposes. To pretend that those purposes don’t matter—or worse, pretend that those purposes are part of a different conversation that doesn’t necessarily involve digital education is a mistake. The critical heavy lifting about digital technologies shouldn’t be left to the cultural theorists and science and technology studies folks. That’s an abdication of responsibility about what education in digital spaces might mean and what education in these spaces might be. As Lyn Tett (2010) argues, education is at least partly about desire fulfillment. Taking part in education is an oopportunity to consider the world as it is and how it could be. Education can ‘open up a way to aspiration, to desire better, to desire more and to above all to desire in a different way’ (Thompson 1976, quoted in Tett 2010: 97). Sure, learning the skills to exist online is important. Sure, developing a form of digital literacy is important to be resilient in the face of ‘disruption’. But digital education has a role and obligation, I think, to help individuals and groups desire more for themselves than being a commodity and performing a digital self and to help us desire more from the internet and web than just the commodification of digital spaces. To make this leap to help us desire better requires an understanding of a radical digital citizenship.


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