Digital Citizenship – the vacuity thereof

Are lessons in digital citizenship a good thing? Surely when it comes to digital citizenship there is something that even Luddite-sympathising, politically-minded #edtech sceptics can affirm. There is something here to be positive about, isn’t there?

Well, yes and no. If you disregard the name and look very narrowly at the content of what passes for digital citizenship skills, it is nice and sensible, or at least harmless: how to act responsibly online, respecting other people and their property, knowing how to keep your stuff safe, standing up to cyberbullies, keeping a balance between life online and offline, etc., etc.

digital citizenship education

That’s all fine as far as it goes. But why on earth is this called digital citizenship? In the old days we had lessons about road safety at school. They weren’t called “road citizenship”. So why are lessons in digital safety and digital manners being called “digital citizenship”? We smell an ideological rat.

Hypothesis: Calling this kind of thing “digital citizenship” performs two ideological functions: Firstly, it conceals the actual death of the citizen; and, secondly, it lends support to the myth (coming from elsewhere) that technological progress is proceeding in perfect historical harmony with political progress.

Where are the citizens?

First, the skeleton in the cupboard: the dead citizen. What is not said by the digital citizenship discourse, but is implied by it, is that citizenship offline is fine and dandy, and all we need to do now is attend to a few details about how these offline citizens behave when they plug themselves into the internet. Do we need to point out that this is a lie?

Things are not fine and dandy with citizenship offline. To make the point, it is worth recalling a story from ancient Greece that gives an example of what citizenship was prior to its death – an extreme example, but one that still serves as a helpful reminder.

The story: A Spartan woman had five sons in the army and was awaiting news of the battle. A Helot arrives. Trembling, she asks him for news. “Your five sons were killed.” “Base slave, did I ask you that?” “We were victorious.” The mother runs to the temple and gives thanks to the gods.

This is a story used by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (one of the great pathologists of political disease) towards the beginning of his great book on education: Emile. Admittedly, the complete obliteration of the domestic (the private) by the public seen in the story must have been an exceptional attitude even in the time of the ancient Greeks (the play Antigone by Sophocles gives a very different – Athenian – picture of conflict between the duties proper to the family and those owed to the polity). However, there is an idea here that remains valid: Where the notion of citizenship really means something (where it is alive and well) the members of a community see participation in the life of the polity as integral to their well-being, and so politics becomes a deeply personal issue. Politics doesn’t have to be the sole interest, but it has to be a vital interest.

citizen as consumer

By comparison, what do we have now? Instead of a public realm that we feel a deep personal commitment to, we accept a radical split between the public and the private. The private is where the really important things happen – where we pursue our idea of happiness, which no one else can question, supposedly. The public is something we look to simply to protect the private, not as an arena in which we experience a larger and a deeper sense of ourselves, or in which we realise an important part of ourselves.

And so, on the rare occasions when we think of ourselves as citizens, the chances are that our citizenship means little more than holding a passport, abiding by the law and paying our taxes. There is no sense of a public life that it is up to us to sustain and develop. No, as long as we pay our taxes, we are relieved of any obligation to do anything specific for the society we live in. It doesn’t really matter if we act towards that society with the same indifference we might have if we were living in a foreign society.

And when we pay our taxes, we do so grudgingly. We will go out of our way to claim what is rightfully ours, but we won’t go out of our way to consider what we owe to the society without which our little fortresses of solitude would collapse. We do also put a cross in a box every four years or so, but, hell, that doesn’t mean very much. When children are asked what they are going to do when they grow up, has there ever been (since the fall of Athens) a child who said: “Why, I’m going to be a democratic citizen; I’m so excited; I do so want to live a life of action and purpose and meaning”?

solitary citizen

How else can we describe this if not as citizenship without citizenship – an utterly depoliticised view of citizenship that brings to mind a homeopathic remedy, where the active ingredient is absent but somehow an invisible essence is supposed to remain?

And things are getting even worse. In the UK, the reform of the public sector since the end of the 1970s has framed people not as citizens who need to have a say in public policy, but as consumers who need to be able to choose between different products and services. The extent to which this fundamentally anti-political, market approach has been largely accepted indicates people’s willingness to accept a political gagging that leaves them with little more than the “power” to silently choose between the array of things that have been graciously laid out for them. The space for a meaningful political life closes, and people content themselves with the satisfactions of the market. And politics persists merely as something we watch on TV. Another product to be consumed. The citizen is dead; long live the happy shopper.

There are entire books written about the death of the citizen (Benjamin Barber has written one and Ronald Beiner has written another). So there is a hell of a lot more to be said here, but in order not to tire the patience of the reader, we will leave the matter there.

The point to be reiterated here is simply that by calling their new lesson “digital citizenship” and spinning it with such a smile, the impression is created that citizenship is still alive and well. Nothing to worry about offline; just a few online things to sort out like cyberbullying and piracy. Lies.

The myth of the high-tech boost to political progress

The second ideological function concerns the myth that digital technology is helping to advance citizenship – a sub-myth belonging to the more general mythology according to which technological progress is a force for political progress. The technology is assumed to be exerting a politically progressive force, cutting across national boundaries and creating a real material basis for a global citizenry. When John Lennon sang: “Imagine all the people…” the idea of a global coming-together of billions of peace-loving citizens was just pie in a relatively satellite-free sky; but when they all have broadband…

More often than not, this is not made explicit, but it is arguably implicit in the decision to refer to the new form of connectivity as a form of citizenship. The internet is not just a digital shopping mall, but a place where a new political collectivity is being formed. Previously we had American citizenship, British citizenship, Nigerian citizenship, etc., etc.; now we have digital citizenship joining all the connected world in a new politically significant community reaching the length and breadth of the globe.

This is a myth.

The internet could function as an extension of a vibrant offline political life, but in the absence of that, it becomes an extension of pre-existing forms of life that were and remain fundamentally anti-political. What we need to remember is that real citizenship has to involve a sense of commitment to the particular community of which one is a part. In a democracy the community will be guided and structured by ideals of a universal character that keep the members of the community looking beyond its own narrow horizons and stop the community closing its intellectual borders, but if it is a democracy of real, living citizens, those individuals will feel a deep attachment to that particular community. Work must begin in that community, and if there are universal ideals of world peace (for instance) to be fought for, the citizen will look for fellow citizens in that particular community to fight together for those ideals on a consensual basis.

But, as noted, there is no vibrant offline political life. Children may be digital natives, but they are also, even more importantly, market natives. They grow up in a society shaped above all by the most important piece of digital technology yet invented: the market. And they are shaped (programmed) by the experience of finding themselves immersed in it. Their formative experiences of public life are likely to be in shopping malls. It is unlikely that they will be taken to a local assembly or council to be impressed by the eloquence, engagement and devotion of their fellow citizens. Hence, the market native is not a political native but an anti-political one.

Children given such an intensive market education from such a tender age come to accept the language and practice of selling yourself as second nature. When children log on to the internet, they tend to do so as people looking more to sell themselves than to develop a nascent political engagement with the community they find themselves in. Hence the current form of the social media, centring everything on the individual, who is continuously reminded how high or low their personal popularity is. It’s about you, your face, your visibility and your following. Little else.

There is nothing about the coding language PHP (the one which makes up the backbone of Facebook, for instance) which requires online activity to be set up in this way. The fact that it is set up in this way is simply because this is what chimes with the mentality of the market native.

What of things like Wikipedia, which some people contribute to anonymously? But, for the most part, Wikipedia functions as a source of impersonal knowledge. People use it as a source of information. They use it and leave; they are not engaged by it. And the experience is nothing like that of going to a neighbourhood library, where one sees the local staff and the local members of the library and one is reminded that this is sustained by a community of which one is a part. And when I borrow a book it ceases to be available for others, so I must bring it back fairly soon and not take out too many books at once. There is nothing comparable to this experience in the average use of Wikipedia.

In this way, life online (quite predictably) repeats life offline, with its deep rift between the personal (played out in the misleadingly named social media) and the impersonal (in things like Wikipedia and all the other sources of that great digital asset: information). The rift has its origins in a market-dominated society, and what falls into the abyss opened up by that rift are most of the opportunities for the kind of local collective life without which the idea of citizenship means almost nothing.

But what about the new horizontalism – the fact that the technology of the internet creates a new network of many-to-many relationships that threatens to topple the old vertical pyramid of power, revolutionising the political landscape and putting power into the fingers of the new digital citizens? Another myth. The fact that billions of potential revolutionaries (who could collectively bring the entire empire to a standstill just by refusing to bank and shop) are connected to the internet at the same time is a fact of no political significance whatsoever. The only time you see a smattering of those people is when using things like the social media – arenas marked by a vertical-friendly market culture, and arenas owned and operated by massively vertical organisations.

In the days of old, the main public space was the town square, which people could occupy, bringing things to a standstill and forcing the powers-that-be to listen. People cannot occupy the internet and achieve a similar result. The internet does not create a space which forces the powers-that-be to listen, but that hardly matters since virtually no one is interested in having a right to be heard. They are happy instead to just let off steam, making comments here and there that are not serious political acts, but the discursive equivalent of a drive-by shooting. On the other hand, all of the data concerning everyone’s movements online can be “occupied” by the oligarchy. And as the start-ups get bought up by the large corporations, verticality asserts itself in an arena that could have been a space for a horizontal offline culture if there had been such a thing.

And everyone knows that whatever you post will remain online and may be used against you by prospective future employers, who thereby become unwitting censors of online activity, and whose critical eye is internalised by the anxiously ambitious person posting online. In a society where the only arena for achievement is the economy, no one wants to jeopardize their chances of rising up the pecking order by expressing opinions online that are at odds with the anti-political culture of business. In this way, the phenomenon of online surveillance (Big Data) pushes the old verticality even deeper into the individual’s psyche.

social media surveillance and citizenship

In a vertical society the spaces opened up by the internet will be colonised sooner or later by the old verticality (even if bits of the analogue regime fall by the wayside). Similarly, in a market-dominated society the spaces opened up by the internet will be colonised sooner or later by market forces (which for market natives have become deep psychological forces). So, far from aiding political development, the new technology helps to consolidate a fundamentally anti-political (anti-democratic) social order.

A different citizenship education

If the assumptions of the edtech digital citizenship discourse are all wrong and we have to go back to the drawing board, what might an alternative approach to citizenship education look like?

Well, it certainly wouldn’t resemble the sort of thing introduced in the UK by the Labour [sic] government in 2002. That left citizenship studies as a discrete subject on the periphery of a STEM-centred curriculum delivered in a system that was also supposedly committed to the personalisation of education. If you wanted to make citizenship seem irrelevant, that would be the way to go.

A self-respecting democracy ought to put the preparation for citizenship at the core of education. Across the board, education needs to be rethought to enliven the political imagination of young people and equip them to take a far more active part in the political lives of the communities to which they belong (assuming they have a right to do so – and before sorting out education, something needs to be done about the constitution). This might mean ensuring that: history is taught as the history of citizenship, including the history of struggles for greater political freedom; language lessons include ample practice in and reflection on the language of argument and debate; all lessons include ample opportunity for argument and debate; there are lessons on the theory and philosophy of democracy and alternative political arrangements, including a detailed look at the numerous interpretations of the key concept in democracy: freedom. It would definitely mean giving the core of the curriculum over to work developing a deeper understanding of the society to which we belong. And it would have to ensure that the school has its own system of councils that each and every student is encouraged to participate in.

Sir Ken Robinson wrote a book a while ago with the subtitle: “How discovering your passion changes everything.” A slightly more radical book (and one better addressed to the crisis of our times) might have the subtitle: “How discovering politics changes everything.” A real education for citizenship would have to be a self-consciously political education; not one that hides behind a smokescreen of supposedly apolitical, scientific neutrality measuring its performance by “objective” criteria of “success”.

If there is one damning feature of the discourse about digital citizenship, it is its aversion to the word “politics”. But a citizenship education without politics could only make sense in a democracy without citizens.

written by Torn Halves on July 18, 2014 in Edtech and education and pedagogy with 2 comments