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Citizen Model for the Study of the Internet
New technology demands new paradigm, methodology
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2006-06-05 14:02 (KST)   
The Presidency of the European Union (EU) rotates among its member states every six months. In July 2006, Finland will assume the presidency for the second time. Recently I was at a conference on "Technology and Rethinking European Borders" in Lappeenranta, Finland.(1) The theme of the conference related to the problem of borders and the role that technology has played in the construction of the European Union. Following is an edited version of the talk I presented at the conference.

My last visit to Finland was in December 1999, when Finland last had the EU presidency. I was invited to speak at a very interesting conference of NGO's from all over Europe that took place in Tampere, Finland. The title of the conference was "Citizen's Agenda NGO Forum 2000."(2) It was held to herald in the new millennium. Some at the conference had just returned from the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle in the U.S.

The Citizen's Agenda NGO Forum 2000 put on the table the problem that citizens in Europe, as well as citizens in the U.S. (as shown in Seattle), were feeling the problem of a lack of power. The EU conference demonstrated the efforts of citizens to pressure their governments to maintain the social institutions and policies so vital to the fight against the harmful effects of globalization. I presented a talk at the conference exploring the question of whether the Internet could be helpful for citizens. The talk was titled, "Is the Internet a Laboratory for Democracy?"

In July 2006 Finland will again assumes the Presidency of the EU. The problem of the citizen is again an issue in the EU, as it is in the U.S. What, if any, is the connection between this conference on the history of technology and European borders and the problem of the citizen in 2006?

The paper I submitted for this conference discusses the history of the Internet and the role that it has played in helping to make it possible for the citizen to communicate across the borders of diverse networks.(3) I want to propose that at its essence, the Internet is about communication -- communication across borders. Similarly, communication is vital to those who desire to act as citizens in these times.

The Citizen's Agenda Forum demonstrated that the border that citizens have to be able to cross in their communication is the border posed by their elected representatives, who all too often are not interested in hearing the ideas and views of the citizens. This problem -- finding a way to have the representative system recognize a means of involving citizens in the decisions that are made -- is a problem that was identified and discussed at the workshop, "Civic Participation, Virtual Democracy and the Net" held during the Citizen's Agenda 2000 Forum. Research exploring whether the Internet could help citizens to bridge the borders blocking such communication was discussed. (4)

The problem of involving the citizens in the affairs of the EU, which was the subject of the Citizen Agenda Forum in 1999, had similarly been the focus of research and discussion in the EU in 1995-96. The debate over the ratification of the Maastricht treaty "revealed that there was still a degree of skepticism about European Integration" among the citizens of Europe, explains the EU document "Preparing for the 21st Century." The authors of this document explain that the "Maastricht Treaty makes citizenship an evolving concept."

In a paper published in 1996, after the meeting of the EU's Intergovernmental Conference, "The 1996 IGC: European Citizenship Reconsidered," Leszek Jesien, a researcher and advisor to the Polish government on EU integration, explores the problem of creating a European form of citizenship. (5)

Jesien argues that the bedrock principle of democracy is what legitimizes a government, and that is the "principle that power can be held and governance exercised only with the consent of the governed."

A sign that there is a lack of such legitimacy, he proposes, is when "men and women distrust the institutions of their state." Thus Jesien identifies as a necessary aspect of democratic legitimacy "the need to find modern ways for [the] proper expression of the political will of the citizens."

In the course of his research Jesien identified the ability to participate in the affairs of the state as the essential aspect of citizenship. But he still had a problem of determining how there could be a form of citizenship that was different from that of belonging to a nation.

To solve the problem, Jesien proposed as a model the role of the netizen -- Internet users who acted as citizens of the Net. Jesien recognized that the netizen was an active participant in the affairs of the Net. Jesien referred to the work of Michael Hauben, co-author of the book Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet. Michael did pioneering research which provided a conceptual foundation for the social phenomenon of the netizen.

In his paper about European construction, Jesien quotes Michael's description of the netizen:
"Netizens are Net Citizens ... these people are ... those who ... make [the Net] a resource of human beings. These netizens participate to help make the Net both an intellectual and a social resource."
Jesien recognized that just as the EU was having trouble determining how to develop a concept of citizenship, a related form of citizenship was being developed online. Jesien wrote:
"At the time the European Union struggles to shape the European citizenship with much effort and little success, the other citizenship --- Netizenship emerges."
What a rare researcher Jesien is, able to not only identify the significant aspect of the problem he was pursuing, but also to see a model for a solution from what would seem on the surface to be an unrelated phenomenon. Jesien proposed that European "negotiators and ... political leaders should look at this phenomenon with sympathy and attention."

I have taken a significant portion of the time allotted for my talk to focus on one aspect of my paper. I believe that this aspect is worthy of the time for several reasons. One is that it focuses on a serious problem of European construction and of the crisis of democracy worldwide. A second is that once a problem was identified and studied, a solution to it was found in a model which emerged from the new technology, from the technology of the Internet. Third is that there is something new and significant to be learned from paying attention to technology and to the social phenomena which emerge as a result of the technology.

While this example on the surface doesn't refer to the problem of borders or boundaries, the relevance to the theme of this conference becomes clearer when one considers that an essential aspect of the Internet has to do with the problem of making communication possible across the borders or boundaries of dissimilar but interconnected networks.

My paper describes the means found to solve the communication problem facing the Internet pioneers. Their breakthrough was the design and creation of gateways to perform the functions needed to support communication across the borders or boundaries of dissimilar networks.

While the design of these gateways is only a part of the design for the Internet, it helps to demonstrate that a significant technical model was developed to help to solve the problem of communication across boundaries or borders of dissimilar networks. (One could add that an aspect of the problem was that these early computer networks were or would be under the political ownership and administration of diverse entities.) Similarly, the netizen provides a model for a social phenomenon that has made it possible to solve the problem of citizenship across borders or boundaries, a problem Jesien identified as relevant to EU construction.

I am proposing that the study of the origin and development of the Internet and of the netizen is a fruitful arena for research, as something new has been created and the research can make it possible to learn about the newly emerging technology and the newly emerging social processes that it brings into being.

Not only is the study of the Internet a means of learning about collaboration across technical and social borders or boundaries, it is also true that the Internet provides a platform to nourish and support such collaborative research.

The significance of this research is highlighted by some observations about the nature and needs of new technology like the Internet that are presented in the work of a British researcher writing about the history of technology and engineering. In his article "Engineering Disclosing Models," Michael Duffy argues that not only is it important to recognize the nature of the new and emerging technical and engineering developments, but also that the research to document these new developments will require new models and methodologies. (6)

Duffy argues that these new engineering and technical developments represent a change in the conceptual paradigm as fundamental as the change described in the book The Elizabethan World Picture by Tillyard. This book described the changed paradigm in the Elizabethan period that made it possible to discard the models of the old world of fire, air, earth, and water, and to substitute in their place a science that would focus on the nature of the phenomena being observed in order to determine their underlying principles and scientific laws. This paradigm, Duffy explains, led to the discovery of thermodynamics and mechanics and other scientific explanations that made possible the industrial revolution. Duffy proposes that the new technologies of our time are very different from the machines and systems which built and powered the former phases of industrialization.

Similarly, the new kinds of industry and technology being created require a new conceptual apparatus adequate for interpreting the new physical and biological phenomena. I would add that a new conceptual apparatus is needed to understand and develop the social phenomena that the new technology brings into being.

There is, Duffy argues, a need for a new history of engineering and technology and a new methodology that will focus on concepts and models as the basis for this new history. Essential for this is a need to focus on the actual technology and the new social forms that emerge as part of these developments. I want to propose that the new technologies like the Internet also require a new research agenda to support the study and understanding of the changes that they have introduced into our society.

Even the simplest model can affect a revolution, Duffy observes, referring to the importance of the application of the model of the semi-permeable membrane from chemistry being transferred to describe the model of the heart by diastolic and systolic action.

Similarly, the model of gateways and the netizen are significant new models to help open up the study of communication across boundaries or borders of dissimilar systems. Citizens seeking to find a way to impact the decisions made in their society may well find that they can learn from the experiences and models that have developed on the Internet.

Just as Duffy is arguing for a new methodology appropriate to the study of new engineering developments, so I want to argue for such a new methodology for the study of the Internet that will focus on what is new, on how it was created, and on what its impact has been. As Geoff Long, in a book chapter titled, "Why the Internet Still Matters for Asia's democracy," argues:
"The Internet is fundamentally different from any previous media communications technology... The Internet was developed using a participatory model that has its own democratic traditions... The Internet itself is still evolving ... the full story has yet to be written."(7)

1. For the program of the conference see "Launch of the Tensions of Europe Research Programme," Lappeenranta, Finland May 24.

2. The Citizens' Agenda NGO Forum 2000 was held from the 3rd to 5th of December 1999 in Tampere, Finland.

3. See "Communicating Across the Boundaries of Dissimilar Networks: The Creation of the Internet and the Emergence of the Netizen."

4. See, for example, Seija Ridell, "Manse Forum: a local experiment with web-mediated civic publicness [PDF]; Lasse Peltonen, "Civic forums, virtual publicness and practices of local democracy"; Ronda Hauben, "Is the Internet a Laboratory for Democracy?."

5. Leszek Jesien, "The 1996 IGC: European Citizenship Reconsidered."

6. Michael Duffy, "Engineering Disclosing Models," Helvelieus, edited by Oktawian Nawrot, University of Gdansk, 2004, p. 22-64.

7. From Asian Cyberactivism, edited by Steven Gan et al, 2004, p. 72.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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