Digital order and political disorder: thoughts about opposite effects of digital media on emerging societies

Eduardo Villanueva-Mansilla

Department of Communications, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. Email:

An emergent pattern of conflict appears as one of the characteristics of the age of disorder, as some commentators have called the current years. The conflict is how to govern the emerging networks of economic and social relationships, existing "in real life" as well as those facilitated by telecommunications and digital media. Both sets of networks reflect a world that is simultaneously more connected but also more confused regarding its direction, with clearly critical issues not being taken care of, while new forms of association and identity appear to turn around what were believed to be certainties.

If there is one development that can be considered as a main cause of the first set of economic and social networks, as well as a significant catalyzer of disorder, it is the Internet. A collection of telecommunications and computer protocols designed in a very specific, non-commercial context (Abbate 2000, Denardis 2009 and 2014), its widespread adoption by corporations, individuals and communities has brought economic changes and positive social transformations as well as conflict and the aforementioned disorder. It is part of the Internet's nature to provide opportunities to a wide variety of interested parties, and also to allow for those interests to affect social and cultural patterns beyond the reach of nation states, the traditional arbiters of media diffusion and ownership. At the same time, the forms of communication that the Internet has permitted are pointers to a different set of conflicts, those at the base of the notion of an age of disorder.

Let's begin with the basics: the Internet empowers individuals as no communication technology has ever done before. A bright idea can reach millions quite fast and be turned into a creator of wealth and value, affecting lives through labor and consumption all around the world. Of course there are different patterns based on the economic, regulatory and political environments where the ideas are first conceived, but it is clear that innovations like Skype, engineered in Estonia; Alibaba, created in China; or the smartphone as a hold-all device, as established by Apple in California, are powerful examples of the way the Internet may change lives through connectivity everywhere in our world. At the same, Skype being now part of a large corporation, Alibaba's recent IPO, and Apple's status as one of the largest corporations by market capitalization in the world, point towards capitalism's good health and its power to penetrate and capture innovation in the global economic system. This duality is critical to an understanding of the current situation faced by smaller, developing countries.

Returning to the personal level, it will depend on the interests and capabilities of the individual to define how their own agency will be affected by the Internet; but structural conditionings cannot be ignored or assumed to be irrelevant thanks to the Internet. A technological determinist argument positing the Internet as empowering by itself has been at the basis of many proposals for investing in it, especially directed at governments: more investment and the creation of an enabling environment, will bring increased usage of the Internet, which will make creativity flourish and wealth to grow. Besides being a circular argument, it belies the evidence accumulated in about 20 years of Internet expansion: for instance, while a business idea may thrive in capitalist countries, conditions in developing nations may hinder success; political action and reform may be brought forward in authoritarian regimes, but democracies may have entrenched institutional arrangements impeding change.

In between these two dimensions, peoples exist. That is, communities and societies as in old-fashioned countries, living under nation-states, that are part of globalization but not necessarily its beneficiaries. The Internet provides wonderful tools for any potential development, at the national, community and personal level, but it is not inherently a tool for a specific kind of development: it has to be turned into one by specific actors, intent on achieving specific results.

The potential to associate and empower individuals exist, and can be turned into a new form of collective action, even at small scale in the most varied contexts. What happened with Rangers' fans in Scotland shows: the Internet served as the glue that connected a rage against mismanagement and greed that had almost destroyed a beloved institution, and it was the fans that forced the salvage currently being executed, allowing the club to slowly but much more solidly return to the place it held for decades not just in the Scottish football environment, but in the actual social fabric of Glasgow (Anderson 2013). Thus, communities in the late 20th century-early 21st century can use the tools brought by the Internet to oppose and win over financial powers; they only need access, know-how, leadership, clarity of purpose and dedication. All of these can be provided by themselves, not by the Internet: even access is dependent on financial means, and this can be shared among many if needed.

Thus, enhancing and empowering individual agency, allowing associative clusters that may drive towards specific forms of collective intent, which may turn into collective action (Mueller 2010); that is something that the Internet may provide. I'm stressing the "may": it is not a given, of course, just as economic growth and positive, social transformation are not a given. It has to be through the action of individuals that the potential is brought to bear, but those individuals have to face the limitations of their political environment, including the need to convince a larger number of fellow citizens of the benefits of change. The passion and dedication of individuals may sustain ideas and intent for a while, and connections may bring enthusiasm and support from around the world: but in the end, national and local conditions, institutional, political and social, may determine the real world impact that individual drive may have in the social arena. Witness the enthusiasm about the Arab Spring, or the hope brought by the various Occupy... movements (Castells 2012), and contrast their modest outcomes, as signals of the limitations of digital media to sustain a thrust for change.

In the end, the Internet needs to continue to be an enabling environment for collective and individual agency, and to maintain that potential and foster that environment, access at all levels must be preserved as a way for all kinds of empowerment, not just individual, commercial-oriented one's. That is the lesson of many examples of community organization through the Internet, as well as the limitations shown by the many attempts to coalesce many latent global interests into something approach a global civil society.

Then again, most of the empowering potential of the Internet is not used with collective intent. A large number of Internet users all around the world just access it for cultural consumption, trade, and personal communication. This is most certainly appropriate for many, and indeed it may allow for better quality of lives, or at least a perception of better life quality, built on top of access to the riches of developed nations from the most varied collection of places. But all these potential benefits have to be put in context, especially with consideration of the transformation of the role of the State as a custodian and enabler of certain forms of cultural consumption, trade and communication. Further exploration is required as to the consequences for internal, nation-state level governance, since the political and economic effects of such an enhancement are significant and not necessarily compatible with existing nation states' policies regarding their own well-being. I'll use the case of copyright transgressions to explore the conflicts arising from empowered individual action through the Internet.

Since Napster, almost 15 years ago, the reality of cultural consumption has been one of control shift: from corporations to users and then back to new corporations, like Apple or Spotify, with darknet services like BitTorrent not losing their centrality as means to access and enjoy what used to be expensive and in some cases, scarce goods. What some may call "piracy" includes criminal-intent as in rings or gangs selling pirated copies of digital goods; "alternative" business models such as those of digital lockers systems; and simple users sharing and using material that for many different reasons has lower availability, or at least less perceived availability, than what they desire. Digital technologies and the Internet have made it possible for these three sets of actors to have new or a very much enhanced roles than previously (Mattelart 2012; Meng 2012).

Thus, individuals have more choice, notwithstanding the origin of those choices; even though copyright regulations are designed to restrain and frustrate individual agency (Gillespie 2006), both the emergence of peer-sharing networks and the market responses to the transformation of music and cultural trade have expanded the options available, and given users a different kind of agency, as sharing and sometimes transformation of content become usual (Gardner & Davies 2014; boyd 2014). At the same time, governments around the world face the need to enforce current treaties and statutes on copyright, which demand that protection for copyrighted material should be extended both in terms of time coverage and individuals involved; that all material defined as pirated should be prohibited; and that the sale of such material prosecuted to the full extent of the law (Correa 2004); this is particularly true for developing nations (Biadgleng & Maur 2011). The convenience of such an arrangement is not a matter for discussion now; instead, it is important to focus on copyright as a political issue, with political consequences at various levels, stemming mostly from enforcement demands; and these consequences of enforcement need to be understood as a policy failure.

If we define a "policy failure" as a policy designed in such a way that implementation or enforcement is too expensive, at any level, to actually occur, copyright policies can only perceived in this way.judgment. It does not matter that the policies are harmonized across borders or that a collective decision has been reached demanding them: the fact remains that states around the world have neither the resources nor the staff nor the social legitimacy to change significantly the actual behavior of their citizens; also, the level of compliance with legislative arrangements is quite varied across countries, depending on social mores, state's capabilities, and collective measurements of cost, risk and opportunity. There is no single pattern that fits each country regarding the predominant attitude concerning irregular access to media products, thus requiring that the one rule that emerges is that no single, global regime will work.

Of course, copyright regimes are framed as benefiting creativity, creative people and only then, cultural industries; those not complying are presented as criminals or at least as immoral citizens that prey on the work of others (Yar 2008). There is very little evidence to support the notion of individual creators being benefited by increased protection and global trade rules; rather it is corporations, mostly global and conglomerated, that are trying to sustain business models established under the old access and distribution regimes (Schweidler & Costanza-Chock 2009). Of course, corporations create wealth, but even if that is accepted a principle must not be forgotten: it is a democratic right to establish local regimes of governance that define levels of taxation, and even of profits, according to local debates and local priorities. We are not allowing this to happen, and in the process we are benefiting a very small set of people already controlling a large part of the world's wealth. A global regime that conflates individual wealth with collective welfare is demanding that states dedicate their rather skimpy resources to support them, without the common courtesy of consulting those actually paying for the resources, that is the taxpayers of each country.

But governments are driven to comply with the illusion of a global regime, established through a cluster of transnational arrangements mostly outside of the national democratic governance model, with little actual supervision by legislatures and certainly almost no public debate. Under a banner such as free trade, access to markets or simply capital's demand for less regulation as an axiomatic component of development, governments around the world submit to the narrative that private benefits are public welfare. Even if that were so, the question arising is how to fit this narrative and its consequences into the demands of actual local development, of independent and burgeoning cultural industries, of a good life as defined in each country, no matter how vaguely, nor how differently. Meanwhile, the illusion of individual power is enhanced by digital riches and increased chatter, a perception of global village in rather friendly terms, with everything at hand and cheap (Andersson 2012). Far too many gaze from outside, noses digitally pressed against a window made of Windows; the Internet and its darker corners allows for sneaking into the store and rampaging for candy, but does not solve any fundamental problems.

Even the Internet, which finally is just a tool for people to use for different intents and purposes, is framed as a "global community": a collection of "representatives from government, business, civil society, non-governmental organizations, research institutions and others from across the globe" (ICANN 2014), apparently, created by their collective interest and selected through democratic means to advance the Internet as a concern of all. The fact that ICANN is not seen by many as either representative or democratic is not taken into account when the notion of a global community, created by self-selection and empowered to steer a common resource, is presented as a fact. It may be the case that most of those using the Internet do not really care about its governance (Abril 2006), but equally organisms like ICANN do govern the Internet while at the same time existing beyond any potential democratic framework.

In the end, there is a governance model in place: one that exists in a lofty, almost untouchable space of technocrats, corporations and international organizations, where decisions about the collective well-being are taken without considering the actual nature of a plethora of collective well-beings existing in different realities around the world. Multistakeholderism run amok, where the only potential form of legitimate political decision, the nation-state, is replaced by the fallacies of globalization, free trade and GDP growth as the single measurement of success (Hafner-Burton & Montgomery 2009).

The result is a weakening of the state, through the creation of path dependencies (Vergne and Durand 2010: 237; see also Larsson 2011 for the European case), as the narrative of development as wealth creation through open trade becomes the standard understanding of public officials and international bureaucrats. A common sense is developed around the need to keep opening markets and surrendering nation-state's sovereignty that may create counter narratives inspired through "narrow-minded" nationalisms.

These path dependencies in this way increase political problems arising from the impossibility of enforcing the law and achieving a significant presence across the territory, or of controlling what needs to be controlled through police and enforcement action. This does not even begin to consider the cultural and social costs of internationally-backed policies that may be useless for internal development of a plural and rich cultural sphere in each nation-state. At the same time, using Price's (2002) definition of place and space, a conflict brews: state's area of control, the place, is the same, but the space that can be reached through media changes radically, with some "places" being able to overcome local "spaces" amplifying their own in the process, and thus overwhelming the cultural sphere with a larger, almost global space for cultural products.

The intellectual property model of governance is old, and has been deeply challenged by the Internet in a most indirect fashion: there is no single alternative system of governance in place, and the specific policy alternatives developed thus far, notwithstanding their valuable proposals and the capacity to integrate different, local approaches into one, loose global narrative (MacKinnon 2012) are of minor importance; at the same time consumers around the world have accepted the alternatives, legal or otherwise, brought by the Internet, and expanded their demand while failing, or not caring at all, to promote alternative governance. Certainly, it is not individual consumers that will look to change governance if their interests are satisfied by what appears to be a simpler, more fulfilling and almost risk-free alternative mode of consumption. It is their own states and governments that are tasked with the awful duty to try and enforce regimes that are useless to their citizens and unsatisfactory for the corporations demanding them.

A similar situation may be identified at various levels. For instance, media policy used to be the realm of nation-states, with television and radio access defined by specific regulations built around expectations of local industrial needs, cultural demands of voice and representation, or arrangements between the state and local elites. Not anymore, as the boundaries of cultural exchanges have almost disappeared for those able to use the Internet, creating new challenges across the different dimensions where media content may be of influence (that is, almost any aspect of social life). It is certainly a plus when considering the benefits of breaking monopolies in countries under dictatorial or authoritarian control, or those with stagnant elites benefiting from regimes created in olden days, negating changes and allowing for a milking of the media for their own purposes.

But at the same this global media fare brings very standardized, bland products to the masses, enriches a few corporations while debilitating local alternatives, and weakens local traditions. Again, football is a good example: the popularity of some teams from specific countries has completely turned the sport into a television spectacle while taking interest away from local and national championships, turned into leftovers for the quaint or poor, unable or unwilling to get expensive cable television or inexpensive but complex and poor-quality IP broadcasts of an irregular nature to catch the latest Champions League match. This feeds into corrupt organizations and corrupt officials, detached from any local or global governance and with little if any regard to the actual condition of the sport at a local level. Only those countries with strong, independent traditions of sportsmanship or solid attitudes of good management and organizational responsibility are able to survive the onslaught of easy money and bad practices.

As Gurstein (2013) says, no one is a foreigner in a global, interconnected world: every decision by a powerful nation-state or by a powerful global corporate player in the digital arena may impact everyone, but at the same time, neither individuals or communities have any recourse to the significant, diffuse and informal system of influence and lobbying that affects decisions by powerful nation-states. This system is in the end the final decision-making venue, but the dressing of such as system as a democratic, consensus building organization, as is the case with ICANN, obscures the actual absence of democratic representation. While the majority of users of the Internet may be willing to ignore such issues as their interests are served, as consumers and circulators of media content; for those with a different set of interests, including the preservation and strengthening of social and cultural ties in a community context, such absence of representation may be a serious issue. This dissonance is apparent in many recent political conflicts, where the demands for better consideration of popular demands is one of the salient points.

If our times are characterized by increasing dissatisfaction with governments and democratic governance, and the surging success of authoritarian regimes, it appears in the common interest to promote a transformation of sorts in the way politics and people interact. However, at least for developing nations and perhaps for consolidated democracies as well, the existence of a larger, non-democratic collection of governance arrangements is a serious issue. Without the autonomy and the policy levers needed to provide internally, governments have to accept the way of globalized governance; that is, an opaque set of networked institutions that lie beyond nation-states. This condition has been accepted by weak states as the global narrative of prosperity has been inflicted on them through what is known as isomorphic imitation, "the ability of organizations to sustain legitimacy through the imitations of the forms of modern institutions without functionality" (Pritchett, Woolcock & Andrews, 2010; see also Krause 2013 and Kuerbis 2014). Many of the developing world states can be considered as countries of low governmental autonomy, since their reach is qualifiable as a regime of feeble obedience (Medellin 2004), their capacity to create and promote new policy approaches is quite limited, and the acceptance of globalized governance is not the result of a consistently analyzed choice, but of pressures and needs too complex to deal with in the time available.

So, while governments and states fail to satisfy even the need for local searches of new forms to satisfy the needs of those governed, citizens opt to become free consumers, regular or otherwise, using the Net as a ramp to networked riches that are not controlled, literally or figuratively, by the state under which their citizens should lie. Citizens become a bit farther away from their polities and their democratic processes even as their consumption goes on. Communities get redefined as collections of consumption practices, and actual communities lose at both ends: members look for varied satisfactions through individualized consumption experiences while the relationship with the state is hindered by multilateral agreements that support individualism but weaken the ability of the state to develop new solutions.

Besides the actual effects brought by these processes, the main conclusion is that current models of governance are compounding a problem already large by itself. The potential of democracy is being shrunk each passing day as individuals detach from their polities, which are seen as shadows of their previous self's, providing only for the global, opaque narrative of collective success brought by open markets and financial dominance over any local objective. At the same time, states are relentlessly being coaxed into submitting to this global narrative, especially those of emerging / developing nations, that lack the resources to create alternative policies, not to mention alternative narratives.

Multistakeholderism is perhaps the gravest of all dangers: it pretends to expand democracy by including all the actors of an idealized political process while at the same time implanting asymmetric information and unequal reach and engagement as the rule for discussions about governing the common resources (Klimburg, Mirtl & Gjorgieva 2014). Developing nation-states are usually under-represented at any international organization or governance arena, not in a formal way but by lack of resources, human, financial and time alike. Decisions are taken under duress through pressures of achievement and absence of specialized consultants. At the same time, enormous global corporations deploy resources totally outside the reach of developing nations, surreptitiously controlling the process along the way.

Multistakeholderism equates corporate interest with the public good, as defined precariously by each nation-state. Democratic decision-making is lost completely and policy decisions are turned into business decisions, further inflicting a breakdown of the relationship between the represented and their representatives.

Individuals may smile and enjoy the riches that technology is providing, but the edifice that provides for larger, more substantial matters is crumbling, as if the woofer of an old stereo creates waves that debilitate delicate but inconsistent arrangements in a teenager's bedroom. Recognizing the perils of the duality just explained, as well as the connection with multistakeholderism as a remedy that endangers the patient is a necessary first step to start imagining a new way of dealing with global issues. These are demanding a global polity, not just a costume for corporate interests.


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