Politicization in the age of the digitization of communication

Presentation during the “Media, Communications System and Sustainable Development” conference. Panteion University. Athens, May 6, 2015.

    

[Original video published on Youtube in 2016]

   

Politicization is defined as the individual’s involvement in the so-called “public sphere”. Part of this politicization is to be informed, to express yourself publically, to debate matters of common interest, to be active in common goals. Aristotle has described the human being as an animal which is by its nature political, meaning that its participation in society is not casual but rather necessary for its actualization.

 

CHANGING THE RULES

Although the concept of society remains the same with the passage of time, its structures change along with the evolution of the human race. Technological inventions are the main cause of these changes.

 

INVENTIONS

It is not random chance that the introduction of most inventions throughout history is followed by a regulating framework. Automobile has brought along rules of driving behavior and the traffic police. The invention of the light bulb brought electricity in every home, making it so important that today there are special authorities which study a country’s energy policy and guarantee that the public interest is served. In the field of medicine, the use of a drug is always proposed by specialized doctors, so that no new tests are needed to use new antibiotics such as penicillin.

 

INTERNET

The Internet is the most important recent invention which brought, as did the previous ones, great changes in society. This intangible invention has influenced, through the digitization of communication, many aspects of our lives, including even our systems of governance, the highest collective way of governing we have.

 

CONVENIENCE

Convenience is characteristic of digital communication. For example, back in 490 B.C.E., in order for the Athenians to get word on the outcome of the battle of Marathon, a distance of 42 kilometers had to be covered on foot.

In contrast, after the Internet a few simple hand gestures are enough not only to communicate the results of the battle but also to transmit video feed in real time from the field of battle to the whole wide world at once.

 

FLEXIBILITY

The mass media themselves are affected, since, in order to cope with the capabilities of the Internet, they have to reduce their “red tape”, both in documenting and composing a news item.

The Internet and the advanced devices that allow us access to it offer a soapbox to all of us so that we can communicate with tremendous flexibility everything that happens around us. Wherever there is a person, potentially there is a medium of documenting and promulgating the news.

 

PRIVACY

On the matter of private data, huge contradictions are evident in the way they are dealt with. For example, in 2009, after a protester won their case in court, there was a law voted which forbids photographing the Syntagma Square in Athens, Greece without the written permission of all persons depicted. Passing this law makes the photograph which was published by a tourist illegal.

On the other hand, this video of the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine, documenting the killing of a citizen, is not illegal. This Frenchman’s momentary “mistake”, as he called it, sharing with his friends via Facebook the shocking moments he experienced looking from his balcony, was enough for millions of people all over the world to violate the most private moment there is, that of death.

 

DATA

In Great Britain during World War I, 12.000.000 letters were being sent on a weekly average to the soldiers. The handling of this volume of data was a feat requiring huge mobilization.

In the age of digital communication this problem does not exist. Freedom from the constraints of the material world has created an unprecedented production of data. In 2010, Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, said that every forty eight hours we produce content equal to that which had been produced in total from the dawn of civilization until 2003. Five years later, the rate of data production is estimated to have grown even more.

The amount of data is slowly beginning to become useful. For example, a new application uses the data published by Twitter users to rate restaurants, performances and everything around us. It was not a platform that asks you to create an account and share targeted information, but an application that aggregates tweets published at an earlier time and uses them to extract information.

 

INFORMATION

The Internet has allowed the widespread use of photographs and video. Compared to the written word, these forms of information are richer. It is not accidental that we’d rather watch a video than read a text. We have the capability of observing the body language, the clothes, the expressions and much more that help us evaluate more fully the situation.

 

Never before in history had the recipients of a message so much data to judge by themselves, with their own critical faculties, the message that was conveyed to them, without depending on the opinion of an intermediary.

 

DIRECTNESS

The use of social networks has contributed to the demystification of leaders who are almost competing in trying to become more approachable. By making public their private moments, they attempt to become more down-to-earth, investing in a different kind of relationship with the citizens.

Undeniably, political speech has become much more direct, exposing politicians’ personal views, which prove to not always be insightful or accepted by the general public. For example, Sarah Palin, ex-Governor of Alaska, USA, used these photographs to praise her son’s inventiveness in conquering higher goals, causing many reactions based on ethics and animal abuse.

 

PARTICIPATION

Digital communication has also provided a soapbox to the audience. It used to be that the audience’s applause and the acceptance of public speech were taken for granted. But not anymore. Everyone has access to videos, photographs or texts published on the Internet, so you should anticipate comments by the opponents.

But for the first time comments have become part of the message, adding another aspect to communication. For example, every video carries with it likes, shares and, of course, comments. No matter what you say in a video, if the meaning of your message gets overpowered by the response of the users then your whole attempt at persuasion will be undermined and the very existence of the message will result in negative publicity.

Taking participation one step forward, Internet has brought the capability of mass volunteer mobilization in collective goals. The Diavgeia (“Transparency”) program is an attempt of the Greek state at crowdsourcing. Publishing official acts on the Internet makes it easier to check the actions of state authorities, allowing those interested to devote time in discovering violations of the law.

 

AGORA

Those who detest politics in the wider meaning of Aristotle, were called “idiotes", “private persons”. “Idiotes” were the people interested only in themselves, who were secluded and isolated and did not participate in the “Agora”, the Forum. The “Agora” of the times has many things in common with today’s Internet.

 

NETWORKING

What did agora mean? The place where citizens participated in common causes. It had a double meaning. It was the agora, the market as we mean it today, in the sense of commerce, and also a way of public gathering – a meeting. Economics and politics were connected concepts. What else do we do on the Internet but participate in a colossal Internet meeting and become part of an Internet market?

 

IN CONCLUSION

Although we Greeks delayed a lot in understanding the worth of the Internet, Greece in 2001 was only the second country in the world which legalized Internet access as an individual’s constitutional right.

The Internet has changed the ways we communicate, get information, participate in public life, take action, and it has also changed the means through which we become political, influencing the way our systems of governance work, and making this invention perhaps the most far-reaching in history.

As is the case with many other inventions, I believe there is a vital need to find the proper mechanism that will make the Internet less uncontrolled. Perhaps the children growing up will get a degree to use it, or perhaps the jurisdiction of special authorities such as the Cyber Crime Unit or the security companies dealing with digital intrusions will be expanded, but it is certain that at some point the Internet will function through specific standards, protecting the important achievements of our society that today are vulnerable to the malicious use of this new invention.

   

[Translated in English by Chris Litharis for the purposes of this website]