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What Ancient Greek rhetoric might teach us about new civics

The Omidyar Network, DFID and Wired Magazine hosted an event in London last week, titled “Open Up“. It brought together pioneering organizations in the open government space for a conversation about what was, and what wasn’t working in using information technologies to make governments more inclusive and transparent. Some of the most exciting organizations aren’t focused on opening government information so much as they are creating other channels to collect information and pressure governments. I really enjoyed meeting Yemi Adamolekun of Enough is Enough, a Nigerian project focused on an RSVP strategy for transforming that country’s politics – Register, Select, Vote and protect your vote. And it was great to see old friends like Ken Banks of FrontlineSMS, Felipe Hauser of Ciudadano Inteligente as well as encountering some new projects like Chris Taggert’s Open Corporates, which he describes as “a deeply unsexy project” for indexing 60 million corporate entities around the world.

I offered some remarks at the close of the conference. In typical fashion, what I wrote and what I said aren’t entirely the same – that’s what you get with speakers who improvise. There’s a video of my remarks here, as well as this blogpost.

My intention was to expand on an idea I’ve been exploring lately: the idea that civics is changing due, in part, to participatory media, and that we’re better off thinking about making people powerful civic actors, not just helping them open government data. Here’s what I had planned to say:


A great deal of our conversation today has focused on getting governments to open up their data and to share what they know with the general public. This conference is indicative of a larger trend – much of the thinking of the power of technology to transform societies, especially societies in the developing world, focuses on government transparency. I think this focus is deeply important, but I also think it’s an incomplete way to understand the space of technology and social change. We need to understand not just governments and transparency, but the rights and responsibility of citizens. This moves us from the realm of government transparency and into the realm of civics.

You may, or may not, share my sense that civics – our responsibilities and practices as citizens, locally and globally – are changing, in part due to changes in the media environment. We are moving out of a broadcast era and into an era of participatory media. Broadcast is still important and powerful: there are good reasons we’re paying close attention to the current troubles of the BBC, because authoritative voices that reach huge audiences matter intensely. But we are also at a moment where many of us are creating and sharing acts of speech every day. It seems likely that a shift from a culture where a few, very powerful institutions speak to one where everyone can speak, but there are battles for verification, for influence, and for attention, is a key shift likely to change how we participate.

This shift towards a more participatory civic dialog, sometimes called a network public sphere, may have broad implications for how we govern ourselves. It’s possible that we are moving from a particular model of highly professionalized representative democracy, enabled by broadcast media, towards a form of more open and direct participation, based on participatory media. Whether you find this exciting or scary has a lot to do with how enthusiastic or scared about government you are, and whether your goal is to increase the legitimacy of governments, or to challenge and transform those governments.

My colleague at MIT Ed Schiappa studies rhetoric, and like any good academic, can make a link from what he studies to whatever subject we’re talking about. But Ed came to visit the Center for Civic Media and made a compelling case that civics in an age of participatory media points to the revival of rhetoric.

If your instinctive response is to reject this idea, it’s probably because you’ve got a bad impression of rhetoric, which is Plato’s fault. Plato saw a fundamental conflict between rhetors, who spoke to persuade, and philosophers, who sought out the truth. You may remember Plato’s allegory of the cave, where people were shackled underground, able only shadows cast on a wall by actors moving in front of a fire. In Plato’s view, Philosophers were those who figured out the true nature of the universe, not the flickering shadows they cast, while rhetors were content to manipulate those shadows and make them more persuasive. Plato believed that very few of us escape our cognitive shackles and understand the nature of the universe, but those few who do are qualified to rule as philosopher kings.

The guy Plato was arguing with was Isocrates, who had founded the first permanent academy in Athens. That academy taught rhetoric, which Isocrates defined as the production of public discourse. He was preparing men (only men, and only a few elite men) to participate in the public sphere of the time, and teaching not only techniques of persuasion, but logical argument, the structure of government and the other information his students would need to carry out their duties as citizens. Because the public sphere at that point was an oral public sphere, this meant his students learned to debate and persuade, towards the goal of becoming effective citizens participating in public life.

Preparing people to make public speeches seems a little dated. We live in a world where representative democracy is more common than direct democracy and where broadcast media has a great deal of power. We often think of our “civic responsibility” in terms of educating ourselves on the issues and voting, rather than seeking to solve problems ourselves, and persuade others of our preferred solutions. Our models for teaching civics often focus on informing citizens and preparing them to vote, not on helping citizens understand different levers of power and different theories of change. But I think that’s starting to change.

We’re seeing people engage in campaigns of mass persuasion using social media. Some are campaigns designed to support democratic processes, like the Nigerian Enough is Enough campaign. Others are focus on lobbying on specific issues. One that’s received a massive amount of attention – Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign – is one that I’ve been very critical of, but it’s certainly worth trying to understand their scale and impact. Invisible Children wanted to show that there was a constituency of people who wanted to see Joseph Kony brought to justice, and they unleashed a flood of tweets and Facebook posts to drive people to an online video. The video was watched 100 million times in under a week, nine times as often as the most popular television broadcast in the US. Congress took note, and has provided what Invisible Children and allies were asking for: a continued US military presence in Uganda. There’s lots that was wrong with their strategy – it’s unclear it will ultimately lead to Kony’s arrest, and the focus on the Lord’s Resistance Army has angered many Ugandans, who don’t see Kony’s arrest as a major priority for Uganda on the international stage. Still, the campaign was clear evidence that individuals can marshall a great deal of attention and have political influence, perhaps even if the theory of change was no more sophisticated than “let’s make noise and someone will give us the change we want”.

I’m also seeing a form of civics that focuses on solving problems independent of the government. One of the most interesting outgrowths of the Occupy movement is Occupy Sandy, which is helping hurricane relief in areas where FEMA has fallen short, distributing supplies from two churches in Brooklyn, and using a wedding registry on Amazon to collect more than $100,000 of donated supplies. Movements like Occupy – and like the anti-austerity movements in Europe – are often highly skeptical of the state, but are moving beyond critique to use digital tools to coordinate DIY efforts. At the same time, we’re seeing the emergence of “civic crowdsourcing” using Kickstarter and other platforms to enable people in a community to fund local projects like parks and community centers, sometimes in cooperation with local governments, sometimes independently of them.

The rise of these strains of activism – activism via harnessing attention and through coordinating DIY responses – probably are not a complete replacement for civic participation in representative democracy. But it’s possible that they’re an effective complement, particularly at moments where people have little faith in the state, either due to understandable frustration with governments in Greece or Spain, or due to living in closed societies. Learning the mechanics of the Tunisian government weren’t all that useful to the activists who overthrew the Ben Ali regime; learning to use media as an activist tool and to build their own institutions independent of the state was far more transformative.

If we want to prepare people to be effective citizens, we need to think about teaching this new civics as well as older forms of civic participation. Citizens need to do more than watch or read about the issues and then vote. They need to know how to report, to advocate, to coordinate, to propose and test solutions. In the open government movement, we often focus on bringing the best practices from the US and the UK to the developing world. In the world of new civics, it’s possible that the lessons we need to learn come primarily from the developing world and from closed societies, where people have been forced to learn these tactics and techniques.

Here are some of the lessons we might teach to help people be effective civic actors using participatory media.

The simple act of dissent can be powerful:
In a society like Ethiopia, where the media is heavily state controlled and censored, the ability to write online may be the only way to criticize the government. In the case of Ethiopia, speaking out often leads to arrest and imprisonment. But the imprisonment of figures like Eskinder Nega, an independent journalist who’s been sentenced to 18 years in prison for “treason”, has called international attention to Ethiopia’s dreadful human rights record. And we’re seeing brave individuals step up and share their voices, like the bloggers behind Zone 9, a new blog dedicated to freedom of speech in Ethiopia. (Zone 8 is the wing of Ethiopia’s most notorious prison, where journalists and political prisoners are held, so Zone 9 is a step beyond that system of control.)

Amplifying voices makes them more powerful:
The protests in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia would probably have been snuffed out, like earlier protests in the city of Gafsa. Instead, they spread throughout the country and ultimately took down Ben Ali’s government. Sidi Bouzid’s protests were documented, posted to Facebook, translated and contextualized by activists at Nawaat, and amplified by Al Jazeera, which helped other Tunisians see what was taking place and join in the protest movement. This has lessons for us in the power of documenting grievances and our responses to them, in curating and contextualizing for a wider audience, and in learning to use broadcast media to create broader audiences and build popular movements.

Small acts can build a coherent, influential whole:
Ushahidi began as a project designed to ensure that stories of individual Kenyans affected by post-election violence didn’t go unheard. It’s turned into something even more powerful – a platform that tells stories through pointillism, turning small, individual reports into a broader picture.

Sometimes, the state is listening:
Ipaidabribe is a crowdsourcing platform designed to document bribery in India. As with Ushahidi installations, it’s designed to give a picture of a broad phenomenon through individual reports. But sometimes those individual reports can lead to action: recently, a Bangalore-based software engineer was shaken down for a bribe when bringing an expensive kayak into India from the US. He used the platform to post a report, and the customs official was censured and suspended. It’s not always possible for people to post signed reports, as this engineer did, nor is it always possible to verify anonymous reports. But creating spaces where people can post about mistreatment and demand government response is a way of using extra-governmental systems to pressure the state.

We can propose interventions and converge on solutions:
My colleague Yochai Benkler has been conducting extensive research on the success of the anti-SOPA/PIPA movement in the US, and offers the idea that what made the movement so powerful was the fact that lots of actors were able to propose possible protest actions. Movement actors voted by amplifying proposals they liked and ignoring (or criticizing) others. The success of protests like the Wikipedia blackout came about after a long process of convergence on paths forward.

Using Kickstarter or other crowdfunding platforms for civic solutions leverages the same mechanisms: many people can propose problems and solutions, and a group can vote – this time with contributions – on which they think are most worthy. There are cautions about this method, but the idea of converging on possible solutions is an exciting one.

I’ve not seen great solutions to some more complicated civic problems, notably the problem of distributed deliberation, which was a core practice of Athenian rhetoric. In general, we’re pretty bad at bringing people on the Internet together in civil conversations. But we may be getting closer to this ideal (and who knows how often conversations in the agora descended into flame wars?) through learning how to produce media that shares our perspectives and learning how to reflect constructively on others’ ideas. We are starting to see some promising offline solutions, like participatory budgeting, that ask a group to come together in a formal process to solve a well-defined problem: the allocation of a fixed set of resources to community problems.

If we’re starting to learn lessons about what works, we may also be learning how we’d teach this new civics. We’d study how laws are passed, but also how online and offline campaigns pressure lawmakers. We’d talk about courts and elections, but also about the media and popular movements. We’d focus on learning how to write, to advocate, to film, to amplify. We’d work on tools and techniques to coordinate efforts and to solve problems together. If we change our assumptions, we’re no longer focused on preparing people to vote for their representatives, but to be active participants in their society, whether or not it’s an open and democratic society.

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