Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Digital Nation?

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 08, 1997

Posted to HotWired 9 Dec 97

Responding to Birth of a Digital Nation, by Jon Katz.

What constitutes citizenship in the Digital Nation?

The message we got from the survey is that citizenship is automatic, contingent upon owning certain of a small collection of electronic communications devices.

But we understand that the survey was a marketing ploy, that the methodology was suspect, and the conclusions unwarranted. And in any case, Katz's concept of membership in the digital nation is not - so far as he admits - contingent upon ownership of any of the devices advertised in Wired.

So let's leave the survey to one side and focus on the concept itself. What constitutes membership in the Digital Nation?

Presumably, one necessary condition is that members be on-line. They need to be connected to the internet. They need to participate in on-line activities at least to the extent that they can be identified as internet users. You can't have a digital nation if its citizens aren't digital.

That could be the only criterion. The essence of Katz's articles is that, in observing the communications of various internet users, a common ethos or political sentiment seems to emerge. In the first instance, Katz's articles are meant to be descriptive, not perscriptive.

So let's examine this sentiment which seems help in common by internet users. Katz sums up,

Luntz's digital citizens embrace change. They enthusiastically support a free-market economic system. Profoundly democratic, they couldn't care less about other people's skin color, gender, or sexual orientation. They are affluent but not necessarily rich. They are not as highly educated as is sometimes assumed. They are intelligent and well-informed. There is no subject on which they don't have opinions. They vote. They can't wait to get to the future - this is a profound characteristic of this new culture. People separate society in lots of ways, but if I were to draw a line delineating differing value systems in American media today, it would be between people who see change as positive and people who don't.
Drawing this out, we get the following criteria:
  • They embrace change
  • They support the free-market economic system
  • They are not prejudicial
  • They are affluent
  • They are intelligent and well-informed
  • They have opinions
  • They vote

Let us suppose that the majority of internet users satisfy these criteria. Several questions emerge:

  1. Does satisfaction of these criteria by a group of people constitute a nation?
  2. If a person does not satisfy (some number of) these criteria, is that person therefore not a digital citizen?

I think that the answer to both questions must be "No". In the case of the former, the criteria could define a public-interest group, a lobby, or even a political party. But they in no way define a nation. And in the case of the latter, in the same way, having a certain set of opinions or beliefs is not a criterion for being digital.

More revealing, perhaps, are the central questions surrounding the birth of a Digital nation:

Can we build a new kind of politics? Can we construct a more civil society with our powerful technologies? Are we extending the evolution of freedom among human beings?

Most digital citizens would answer in the affirmative to each of these questions. but is an affirmative answer necessary for citizenship. Suppose I felt that new technologies are eroding, not enhancing, individual freedom. Would Jon Katz then say that, because of this opinion, I am not a Digital Citizen?

I doubt it. My fear would be a perfectly legitimate opinion. Denying my citizenship on the grounds that I have an unpopular opinion would run contrary to everything Katz says about the Digital nation. Insofar as freedom exists in the Digital Nation, its members must be free to hold contrary opinions.

But then, critically, If a defining characteristic of a nation is that it embraces diversity of opinion, then you cannot define membership in that nation according to the opinions held by its citizens.

By analogy: Americans identify with "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". That is, most Americans, if asked, would embrace these values. However, embracing these values is not what defines an American. Rather, what defines an American is being born in the United States (or having legally immigrated).

But nobody is born in the Digital Nation. The closest analogy we can draw here is that we are 'born' into the Digital Nation when we first log on to the internet. But then we must admit as digital citizens the various Nazis who have set up shop, hate groups, pornographers, far-right moralists, the Heaven's Gate cult, Jerry Garcia fans (who have created all-Dead on-line radio), and, god forbid, socialists.

Should Heaven and Earth move, and we all reject the free-market system as fast as a flooded North Dakota farmer, we would still be digital citizens. Wouldn't we?

But then - what's the point of Katz's article? We have a couple of choices:

  • That logging onto the internet causes (in some direct or indirect manner) a person to embrace the values described above, or
  • That people embracing the values above are more likely to log on to the internet.

If we accept Katz's description as a good overall description of internet users, then most likely a mix of both options above is true. But neither sits well with Katz's analysis.

Katz clearly cannot accept the latter choice. If the internet selects a certain group of people, then that group of people already existed before they logged on to the internet, in which case there is nothing special about being digital, rather, being digital is a special an extension of a pre-existing lifestyle.

But if Katz is asserting the latter, then he has a very difficult task ahead of him: showing how technology such as the internet can shape people's opinions. I think there's a case to be made here - it seems to me that any improvement in global communications technology will play a role in shaping people's opinions. But it's a long way to go from that general opinion to one which identifies exactly which ways an opinion is being shaped.

Ironically, I think that the point of the survey was to show the former: that the internet attracts a certain group of (affluent, educated and right wing) people attactive in turn to marketers of various products, most especially those such as are sold by Merrill-Lynch and advertsied in Wired. There's a point to be made here, too, insofar as a certain level of affluence is required to join the on-line culture.

But now we are a long way from any sort of nation.

The other aspect of Katz's observations, but not supported in the survey, is that digital citizens are, in a word, post-political. Katz writes,

The citizens of a digital nation as I would define them are also eager to move past the tired and combative language of modern media and politics - so visible during the 1996 presidential campaign and since - and participate in something better, saner, less combative, more humane. To me, those are the big ideas worth discussing about the digital nation, whether those representations of this new culture are true or significant or not. I'll pass on debating methodology or statistics, a trap not much more revealing or useful than the Crossfire syndrome epidemic of contemporary journalism of pitting a liberal against a conservative on every issue and watching them scream at each other for three minutes. Everyone has stats to support everything.

Let's suppose that digital citizens are indeed "eager to move past the tired and combative language of modern media and politics" (though, with the Drudge Report recording its 6 millionth visitor today, I hesitate even to make that claim). What does this mean?

Well, for one thing, it does mean debating surveys and statistics. To judge by posted notes here and on other forums, on-line citizens are no longer willing to accept skewed infromation like Pablum. They don't accept pigeon-holing, and especially bad pigeon-holing. They recognize surveys such as the Wired effort for what they are: tired marketing ploys attempting to pull partisan-political strings.

They are also post-political in the sense that they no longer defer to authority figures telling them what to think. That is why they - like Katz - tire of Crossfire style debates. On-line citizens, exposed to a wide variety of views and opinions, can no longer hold fast to the idea that spokesmen touting a political platform represent any widely-held point of view.

But increasingly, I think, digital citizens are post-national. Increasingly they view the restrictions imposed by nationhood and nationality as fetters inheritied from an archaic age, when borders were constructed to keep both people and ideas apart from each other.

This translates, in the first instance, as American hegeonomy, partially because of the overwhelming number of Americans on the internet, and partially because Americans generally have no clear idea of what life is like outside their borders (a consequence of American nationalism).

But as the number of non-American users increases this will appear more and more to be a move toward genuine internationalism. This has significant consequences, some of which are identified in Katz's articles and in the survey.

In order to talk with anyone outside your own nation, you need to recognize and respect cultural, linguistic and religious differences. For you can't force them to agree with you, as you could in the old days. You can't even harass them! - they simply log off.

It used to be the case that, in a dispute over fundamental principles of society, you could say, "America - Love it or leave it" and have your way. But Americans on-line are faced with the reality that many people do not love America and have left it. What do you do then? Quit? No - live in a digital world means accepting these differences and moving on, aware and accepting of other people's differences.not relevant on a global scale.

Neither Katz not the survey addresses this, however, I would predict that on-line citizens find global issues more pressing and more engaging. Issues like the Global Environment Conference now in progress, or the recently concluded Asia-Pacific Economic Conference, or the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, or even more down-to-earth subjects as global telephony standards.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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