An Argument for Studying the Civics of Code

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, has done some summer reading on civics in the digital age and presents us with his finding in a new post on his blog.  He presents previous conceptions of citizenship, such as the “informed citizen.”  He also notes that

…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.

He also uses Lawrence Lessig’s sources of Internet constraint as means of defining the different spheres of civic action:

  • 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

My preference would be to study power, social change, and injustice “outside traditional political channels” in a way that references, but is not constrained by “older prescriptions of participation” like citizenship, civic engagement, and big-d Democracy. These systems are as likely to distract for the real issues of power within a society as they are to illuminate them, especially since these institutions were created in a historical period quite different from the current one.

Elections, citizenship, and the courts are the well-paved narrow paths laid before us, but they may not lead most quickly to our destination, if they lead there at all. Alternate paths to small-d democratic social influence – hacking and other digital direct action, social media campaigning – present a far broader and potentially more transformative means of changing the world.

Lessig’s typology works well as a means of categorizing the means of civc action, yet the have different histories of practice.  Elections and the courts, cultural norms (“the personal is political”), and even the markets have the locus of activism for many decades.  The arena of code is new. Since this arena of social change is the least understood, it is also the most likely source of as yet undiscovered civic innovation. This idea will likely still need to be defended in some quarters, especially against those who defined civic action in different ways in previous eras.

If an argument for focusing on the civics of code is needed, it might be that this focus does not belittle the other historical means of civic action. There is simply more that is unknown about the civics of code, which is the best motivation for any academic endeavor.

image:Flickr/ U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

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