Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

The “good citizen” and the effective citizen

With Rewire out in the world, I’ve had some time this August to think about some of the big questions behind our work at Center for Civic Media, specifically the questions I started to bring up at this year’s Digital Media and Learning Conference: How do we teach civics to a generation that is “born digital“? Are we experiencing a “new civics”, a crisis in civics, or just an opportunistic rebranding of old problems in new digital bottles? My reading this summer hasn’t given me answers, but has sharpened some of the questions.

Earlier this summer, I was invited by the Mobilizing Ideas blog to react to Biella Coleman’s excellent book, “Coding Freedom“. In my response, I noted that Coleman’s ethnography of hacker culture makes clear her hacker friends aren’t the stereotypical geeks, surgically attached to their computers, sequestered in their parents’ basement – they go to conventions, write poetry, and engage in political protest, as well as writing code.

The sort of hackers Biella documents engage in politics, and when they do, they’ve got multiple tools they can use. They organize political campaigns and lobby congresspeople, as Yochai Benkler and colleagues so aptly documented in this recent paper on resistance to SOPA/PIPA. They can write code that makes a new behaviors possible, like Miro, written by the Participatory Culture Foundation, which makes peer to peer filesharing and search easier and more user-friedly. They protest artistically, as with Seth Schoen’s DeCSS haiku (which prominently features in Biella’s writing.)

Hackers engage in instrumental activism, seeking change by challenging unjust laws. They engage in voice-based activism, articulating their frustration and dissent from systems they either cannot or are not willing to exit. But hackers aren’t merely competent activists in Biella’s account – they are able to engage in civics in a more broad way than most citizens. In addition to traditional channels for civic engagement, they can engage by creating code, giving them a more varied repertoire of civic techniques than non-coders have. (We might make the same argument for artists, who may be more effective in spreading their voices than those of us with less artistic talent.)

I’ve been thinking about Biella’s hackers in the context of some ideas from Michael Schudson. Schudson is a brilliant thinker about the relationship between media and civic engagement, the question that currently shapes my work at the Center for Civic Media. In his book “The Good Citizen”, and this 1999 lecture, Schudson challenges the idea that a good American citizen is one who carefully informs herself about politicians, their positions and the issues of an election. Schudson argues that this is an unrealistic expectation for citizens, pointing to the absurdity of 200 page Voter’s Guides to Elections that, he argues, nobody reads. (I know for a fact that danah boyd not only reads them, but holds parties to get people to read them with her.) But he also argues that this model of the “informed citizen” is only one model of American citizenship the republic has experienced since its foundation.

In “The Good Citizen”, Schudson explores four models of citizenship the US has passed through in the last two centuries and change. When the nation was founded, citizenship was restricted to a small group of property-owning white men, and elections didn’t focus on issues, but elected men of high status and character, who went on to deliberate in Congress with similar social elites. In the age of party politics, Schudson argues, politics was a carnival, with votes based on personal loyalties and social alliances, not on consideration of the issues.

Not until the Progressive reformers attacked corruption in the party system (an attack which included support for prohibition of alcohol, as party bosses were often tavern owners and the ability to supply voters with drink was a key political technique) did the notion of the informed voter come into play. Progressives, through adoption of the secret ballot, the introduction of referenda and the rise of muckraking investigative journalism, shifted responsibility for politics from a small group of elites and party bosses, to the general public. Schudson observes that the general public hasn’t been especially excited by this shift – participation in elections fell sharply during the progressive era and has been below 50% of eligible voters since.

Now, Schudson argues, we are living in an era where change through elections is less important than change through the courts, an age that began with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Informed citizens are important, but their power to make change comes from suing as much as it comes from voting, and activists and lawyers who understand how to challenge constitutionality through the court system are far more powerful than the average citizen.

While he’s critical of the informed citizen model as unrealistic, Schudson is not arguing for the superiority of the rights-based model, or for a return to party bosses. He’s pointing out that America has experienced different visions of what constitutes “the good citizen” and that these visions can change over time.

That’s helpful context for understanding Biella’s hackers. We may be experiencing a shift in citizenship where the idea of the informed citizen no longer applies well to the contemporary political climate. The entrenched gridlock of Congress, the power of incumbency and the geographic polarization of the US make it difficult to argue that making an informed decision about voting for one’s representative in Congress is the most effective way to have a voice in political dialogs.

Instead, we’re seeing activists, particularly young activists, taking on issues through viral video campaigns, consumer activism, civic crowdfunding, and other forms of civic engagement that operate outside traditional political channels. Lance Bennett suggests that we might see these new activists as self-actualizing citizens, focused on methods of civic participation that allow them to see impacts quickly and clearly, rather than following older prescriptions of participation through the informed citizen model.

Biella’s hackers are exemplars of self-actualizing citizens, using code as one of their paths towards self-actualization, alongside traditional political organizing and lobbying. Larry Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, a book deeply popular with the hackers Biella studies, offers the possibility that these are only two of four paths towards civic engagement and change.

Lessig’s book is written as a warning about possible constraints to the open internet. While many contemporary scholars warned that the lawless internet would come under control of national and local governments, Lessig warned that it would also be regulated through code, which would make some behaviors difficult or impossible to accomplish online. Lessig outlines four ways complex systems tend to be regulated:

- By laws, created and enforced by governments, which prohibit certain behaviors
- By norms, which are created by or emerge from societies, which favor certain behaviors over others
- By markets, regulated and unregulated by laws, which make certain behaviors cheap and others expensive
- By code and other architectures, which make some behaviors difficult and others easy to accomplish

These four methods of regulation are also ways in which activists and other engaged citizens can participate in civics. Citizens frustrated and angered by NSA surveillance of domestic communications, for example, could lobby Congress to hold hearings on whether the NSA has overstepped its bounds, or whether FISA courts are providing sufficient oversight of government surveillance requests. Civic coders could build tools that make use of PGP encryption easier to protect the privacy of emails. Citizens could punish companies that have complied with surveillance requests and reward those who are moving servers outside of the US to make them more surveillance resistant. And people could begin using Tor and PGP routinely, to influence norms of behavior around encryption and make the NSA’s techniques significantly less effective.

These methods are often applied to non-technical issues as well. Social entrepreneurship uses market mechanisms to seek change, paying farmers a fair wage for their coffee, for instance, by buying from collectives rather than from exploitative wholesalers. Social media campaigns focus on harnessing attention and changing norms, bringing underreported issues to wider audiences. Using code to make government more transparent or more effective is a popular, if possibly overhyped, approach to social change. These models may represent a complement to the informed citizen and rights-based citizenship models Schudson examines, representing new civic capabilities in addition to the capability of influencing laws and governments.

Mastering these four capabilities is a tall order for any civic participant, but some activists are trying. Julian Assange has technical skills, as well as a deep understanding of media, which has allowed him to cooperate and compete for attention in working to change norms around secrecy and whistleblowing. His long run from prosecution has sharpened his understanding of legal systems, and, until the financial “blockade” against Wikileaks, he seemed to be doing reasonably well raising money for his project. (My friend Sasa Vucinic, involved with anti-Milosevic radio station B92 and founder of the Media Development Loan Fund, argues that the key to running a successful anti-government newspaper is to get the funding model right and build a sustainable media outlet.) Edward Snowden has proved extremely technically savvy, legally astute and has had an excellent relationship with the global press, essential to gain a wide audience for his revelations.

Schudson’s portrait of citizenship through the ages focuses on the behavior of large groups of citizens. Assange and Snowden are too idiosyncratic to serve as exemplars of a new class of digitally engaged citizens, promoting a new vision of citizenship. But they demonstrate what a highly competent, multifaceted civic participant might look like and I suspect that we will see more citizens leveraging the full suite of tools that Lessig’s structures of regulation point to.

A challenge for those of us who see the shape of civics changing is how we prepare people to participate in civics where the skills required are so diverse. If it’s difficult to expect citizens to be informed voters, as Schudson argues, it’s very difficult to expect them to be coders, entrepreneurs, lawyers and media influencers. We might hope, as Dewey does, that diverse interests will lead to an interlocking public – I care about surveillance and work to change norms, while you write code, and our friend tackles another challenge through social entrepreneurship. Or it may push us back to a democracy enhanced by expertise, as Walter Lippmann suggests, with citizens throwing fiscal and moral support to organizations that lobby for laws, write code, build just markets and influence public debate, leveraging the expertise and skill of those who dedicate their talents to one or more of these facets of citizenship.

I shared a draft of this post with Erhardt Graeff, who pointed out an inherent tension between ideas of the competent and effective citizen and the “good” citizen. The “good” citizens, in Schudson’s exploration, are those who participated in the system of the times, whether or not we see those systems as laudable in retrospect. A particularly cynical version of this idea would posit that today’s “good citizen” is a predictably partisan consumer, deviating as little as possible from the demographic predictions and models built by pollsters and data analysts to ensure that our candidates are correctly marketed to us. Highly participatory and effective citizens would challenge this sort of model, and it’s certainly possible that a democracy composed purely of Assanges and Snowdens would have a hard time functioning.

Erhardt points out that Lessig has been an activist throughout his career, and that his vision of regulation in Code is one consonant with the effective citizen. But can democracy work if all citizens are effective at promoting and campaigning for their own issues? Have we seen evidence of a society with high, effective engagement and with the other characteristics we expect of a democracy? Should a group like Center for Civic Media be working on thinking through models of effective citizenship or considering the larger question of what a large group of effective, engaged citizens could mean for contemporary visions of democracy?

3 Responses to “The “good citizen” and the effective citizen”

  1. gaboesquvel says:

    Great Article, thanks…

    * you have a little markup error

  2. Ethan says:

    Thanks – what I get for coding everything by hand. Fixed it…

  3. I don’t know how to start tightening up this hunch about effective citizenship before wading in here, but I hope to hear your thoughts: information about potential causes to champion or even pay attention to is overwhelming now, making the decision to focus on a subset seem arbitrary. And maybe it is, but I think it’s more important to start exploring what matters to you and how you can effectively contribute than it is to sit back and dither about whether you should attend to it at all, cute cat gifs accumulating all the while.

    I think it might be prudent at this point to focus on evolving tools to facilitate engagement (with information, with other people who may not share your views but are still activists engaged in the same issues), because irrespective of what that large group of effective, engaged citizens could mean for democracy, I think it will still be important for people to have these means.


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