Civic technology should empower us as citizens. Despite its breadth as a field, civic technology often takes its lead from Silicon Valley companies that espouse design goals potentially hazardous to participatory democracy. In this dissertation, I explore: How might we design civic technologies for citizen empowerment and evaluate their impact on this goal?
With their growing role as mediators of democracy, it is insufficient for civic technology designers to evaluate their designs in terms of ease of use and increased engagement with their platform. Research from political and developmental psychology shows the importance to lifelong civic engagement of learning experiences that cultivate a citizen’s perception they can make change (political efficacy) and their belief in having responsibilities to the public good (civic identity). To achieve these positive feedback loops, we need a richer framework for civic technology design.
This dissertation proposes two solutions: 1) empowerment-based design principles for civic technology and 2) a prototype toolkit for evaluating the impact of civic technology on political efficacy. Because empowerment is contextual, the proposals here focus on tools and platforms built to support “monitorial citizenship,” an increasingly popular form of civic engagement aimed at holding institutions accountable. To see these solutions in action, I report on a case study of SeeClickFix, a civic technology company that builds tools enabling citizens to report infrastructure problems to local governments. Two surveys of political efficacy and a randomized experiment with active users of SeeClickFix, followed by interviews with SeeClickFix staff, indicate the validity and utility of evaluating political efficacy as a measure of empowerment as well as the limitations of testing for incremental improvements.
The text of Section 1.3 Research Questions in the submitted dissertation was missing. The proper text for this section is included in the revised version of the dissertation on this site. Note: this errata has not been submitted to MIT’s archive for approval.
This is a powerful book. Though still young, adrienne maree brown has evidently lived many lifetimes at the vanguard of contemporary social movements. And she has earned a lot of wisdom through tough trials, a world of mentors, and deep reflection and practice.
Part call to action, part self-help book, part memoir, part transformative justice toolkit, Emergent Strategy is as intersectional in its genre and dimensions as it is in its politics. And these overlapping qualities embrace the concept of “emergence” at the heart of its narrative.
brown quotes leadership guru Nick Obolensky’s definition, “emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.” She combines this concept and the underlying examples of emergence and chaos theory from nature with stories of movement building and her own deep study of Octavia Butler’s science fiction. Butler demonstrates for brown a way to use “visionary fiction” to articulate a vision of the world in which we practice a strategy for survival that is radically inclusive, democratic, and cooperative, counter to the hierarchical, competitive, and militaristic articulations of post-apocalyptic societies that generally dominate such literature.
Sharing the stories of her own work as executive director of Ruckus Society, facilitator and organizational change strategist, doula, and dear friend and sister, brown illustrates the principles and protocols of emergent strategy: fractals (the relationship between small and large), intentional adaption (how we change), interdependence and decentralization (who we are and how we share), nonlinear and iterative (the pace and pathways of change), resilience (how we recover and transform), and creating more possibilities (how we move towards life). Having shared an early version of the book with colleagues, mentors, and friends, brown incorporates their wisdom and stories offered in response, which serves to strengthen and underline her arguments for how the personal and community capacities for emergent strategy can make the difference between growing movements and stifling them.
While there are several “how-to” sections to the book that offer specific “spells” for personal growth or tools for facilitation, Emergent Strategy is much more than a how-to guide and deserves to be read as a series of meditations. Really, this is a book about developing a visionary orientation. How can you change how you see the world and help those around you change how they see it? How can you build the relationships that make it possible for us to live and work together toward a better future? How can you be honest, humble, and willing to keep learning and practicing?
Too often activists and organizers are looking for tactics, when they need to be developing strategy. At the heart of organizing is the use of relationship-building to develop the capacity of individuals and communities to find a common ground strategy and make change when the moment demands it. The messy process that births a social movement is emergent strategy. While there has been a lot of terrific scholarship on social movements like the Civil Rights Movement, it’s still incredibly hard to put a finger on what makes something like that work—there is so much complexity. But our capacity to respond and iterate through that complex landscape and handle the chaos of real humans working at massive scales are skills we can develop intentionally. And perhaps the best starting point will be brown’s book—a must read for students of civic and political engagement.
In Talking to Strangers, political philosopher Danielle Allen diagnoses the persistent problem of interracial distrust in America as a problem of defining and realizing democratic citizenship, i.e. how we are meant to act within our democracy. This is something that our country struggles with from its founding but is brought out most strongly by the Civil Rights Movement. Allen tells the story of how we developed this collective anxiety, diving into the choices of language, philosophy, and values that have led us here.
Starting with the iconic 1957 photograph of Black high school student Elizabeth Eckford being cursed by a white woman in front of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Allen illustrates how the civil rights movement marked a change in the experience of democratic citizenship among Americans. Brown v. Board of Education and later the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act upset a status quo preserving de facto and de jure White dominance. This represented a clear loss of power for Whites, especially in the South. The new law of the land demanded that Whites respect the rights of their fellow Black citizens and curb their deep-set norms of racial inequality. Arguing the Civil Rights Movement was effectively a civil war in the South, Allen suggests that social trust and political friendship at the core of democratic citizenship never recovered. Trust in the federal government declined after it was seen as usurping state and local control by Whites, and trust in fellow citizens declined as the polity was recast as the heterogenous and equal mix it was always meant to be.
In this same historical moment, Allen notes that the Pledge of Allegiance was revisited adding “under God” after “one nation,” emphasizing the idea of oneness. The success of this re-wording effort is more than just about religion, Allen argues, it put forward a strong vision of a homogeneous nation. (In the same way, the original pledge was developed to spur national identity during the rise of immigration in the 1890s.) Allen argues that the American predilection for oneness (cf. E Pluribus Unum) ultimately hurts the cause of democratic citizenship and interracial distrust. Because it matters “how democratic citizens imagine ‘the people’ of which they are a part” (p. 17). Customs and practices follow from this imagined body. Allen prefers “wholeness” as the metaphor we should be striving for because it allows for multiplicity, heterogeneity. The toxic reaction to Eckford’s attempt to attend her desegregated school illustrates a desire to reassert oneness.
Part the practice of citizenship as either oneness or wholeness is sacrifice. Voluntary sacrifice is a virtue of democratic citizenship. We give some of our liberty to the state for protection and accept policies and decisions that serve a majority we may not be a part of. To paint this picture in the age of oneness, Allen dives deeply into Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, reading its political philosophy as a meditation on Black political sacrifice. Eckford’s ordeal in Little Rock represents this same type of sacrifice. In her case, she gives her dignity in that moment to the cause of the larger civil rights movement. There is a long tradition of such sacrifice in the Black community. During Jim Crow, it took the form of subjugation to the domination of Whites. This is an involuntary sacrifice. In this form of citizenship, oneness is preserved through the unequal treatment of the minority. But as Allen argues, sacrifice should be seen as a virtue; it should be respected. A more just and productive form of democratic citizenship respects the sacrifices of others in a polity. Citizens in this case should let sacrifice be a guide to a more mindful politics; they should honor it by finding solutions that listen to the voice of the minority and seek justice for them too.
This is the foundation of trust and what Allen calls political friendship. She suggests that friendship should be our guide to what citizenship ought to look like. A friend would listen to another friend even though they don’t agree with them. A friend would consider their friend’s feelings and well-being when making a decision. When a citizen can generally count on another citizen to look out for their interests, this reciprocity is the foundation for social trust and for democracy. This requires that we change our cultural norms to embrace this ideal of citizenship. It also requires that we transform our institutions to enshrine this respect for the wholeness of our nation. Unfortunately, America has yet to change its norms and transform its institutions in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, we have retreated to ideological, and in many cases geographical, enclaves and maintained or developed postures of lost oneness.
Between these bookends, Allen develops a cogent philosophical critique of the underpinnings of American democracy. She finds a fatal flaw in Hobbes’s formula for government of the people and goes back to the Greeks and to rehabilitate rhetoric from its ambivalent reputation. Across his various writings, Hobbes successfully diagnosed the problems of human nature and politics and even points to how a culture of reciprocity might aid the effort of political agreement (p. 97). However, his prescription for the Leviathan form of government oriented citizens toward the sovereign institution of the state rather than toward one another, which is clearly illustrated in the frontispiece from his publication, wherein citizens’ heads are turned toward the sovereign.
This conception of the people—subjugating their own power to the sovereign in the interest of security and stability—contrasts with a one of equal, empowered citizenship. In American democracy we imagine the will of the people arising from equitably powered citizens themselves rather than the unitary voice provided by monarch or court. Locke and the founding fathers rejected this form of the social compact in which the people are ruled by the sovereign, and instead adopted a system of limited government. However, the perfectibility of Hobbes’s system is still seductive in light of his social analysis that consensus of the multitude’s wills is impossible. For Hobbes, stability and security can be achieved through repression. Alternatively, the promise of American democracy is that popular engagement may secure trust between the multitude and the institutions of government. And most often we see this as being through pure rational discourse among equals.
At this point, Allen goes on to propose a possible antidote to distrust and Hobbes’s view of the people. She defends the art of rhetoric, following Aristotle’s rejection of Plato’s model of a perfectible republic, arguing for the fundamental imperfect nature of politics among individual citizens. In this, Allen also critiques of Habermas’s ideal of dispassionate, consensus-based political discourse. While having such a utopian vision is an important goal to strive toward, Allen notes that unanimity in consensus “idealizes the wrong thing and fails to establish evaluative criteria for a crucial democratic practice—the attempt to generate trust out of distrust” (p. 85).
Aristotle offers a favorable comparison between a rhetoric and medicine: “a doctor aims not only to cure as many patients as possible but also to treat properly ‘even those who recovery is impossible.’” “So, too, a rhetorician seeks not perfect consensus but maximal agreement coupled with satisfactory treatment of residual disagreement and those emotions in which it is often registered: anger, disappointment, and resentment” (p. 91). Allen concedes, that the utility of rhetoric can be used for good as well as for ill, just like medicine can be—the Greek debate over sophistry comes from concern over how rhetoric can exploit trust and distrust. However, without rhetoric we lack the foundation for an intersubjective experience of democracy—for reciprocity—whereby we consider the interests of others and appeal to both majority and minority, crafting our arguments through negotiation and affective feedback.
In practice, this is a citizenship of political friendship—an orientation toward each other, viewed as equals, and a willingness to empathize, to persuade, and to be persuaded. This also means an acknowledgement of histories of inequality and disempowerment, and an interest in pursuing a restoration of equity for our fellow citizens that can allow us to enjoy the wholeness of our nation. And Allen implores us to make this part of our everyday civic practice.
The last time you cast your ballot, did you get your #democracysausage? In his 2016 book Social Media and Everyday Politics, author Tim Highfield exhibits his #democracysausage Instagram photo from 2015 (p. 147). As he explains, the ritual of compulsory voting colliding with Australian culture and participatory media led to the emergence of the #democracysausage and #democracycake hashtags with detailed maps and dedicated accounts tracking the availability of such food at polling places across Australia. Alongside Highfield’s 2015 polling booth selfie in the introduction (p. 2), these personal examples illustrate the book’s central premise that social media-oriented practices of politics are also the practices of everyday life, performed and documented at the blurry intersection of the private and the public.
Social Media and Everyday Politics provides an extensive look at the state of political communication theory and Internet scholarship covering social media and politics. Highfield intends the book as “a lens for examining the ways that individuals engage with political and personal issues as part of everyday social media activity, and by extension what this means beyond the social media context” (p. 11). Not only does he touch on many of the key debates and findings over the past decade to shape this lens, but he also complicates our understanding of these practices with caveats that account for gender, race, and other social and cultural categories. As an introduction to the research and theory on the topic through 2015, this book is a welcome addition to the scholar’s shelf.
However, rating the book as a helpful contribution of new research rather than a textbook-like compendium is more complicated. As an emergent research area, the landscape of social media and politics is inherently understudied and undertheorized. Highfield’s approach to the topic emphasizes comprehensive coverage of existing theories rather than a novel, narrative argument. To summarize the findings we have at the intersection of private, public, and political lives played out on social media, Highfield borrows the concept of “everyday politics” from civic studies scholar Harry Boyte (2004). Highfield’s use of everyday politics provides a new frame to researchers conversant in this literature and binds together the ideas and research he cites. However, a deeper dive into the civic engagement literature would be necessary to explore Boyte’s vision of everyday politics more fully.
The internet is more than a scientific and technical marvel or a communication channel, it’s also a cultural space, an art scene, and a work of art itself. In her book Magic and Loss, critic and journalist Virginia Heffernan offers an aesthetic history and appraisal of the internet. She looks at the various media of the internet’s multimedia in turn, reflecting on design, text, video, and audio. But she also looks at it as a whole, as a cultural movement with recurring trends and flows.
In the preface, Heffernan lays out her argument and invites you into her own experience. She offers personal view of the internet—specifically, her view over thirty years. Though she doesn’t belabor the personal versus public collapse that occupies many internet social scientists (something she implicitly disregards in the last chapter when she invokes Richard Rorty), Heffernan was personally and publicly transformed by the internet many times in her life. And for her, those moments are entangled with intellectual, affective, spiritual, and ultimately aesthetic currents.
She feels the internet in the same way she has felt literature and television, the high and the low cultural canon, and she also believes in it. Spirituality and aesthetics have always been entwined. And in the internet, Heffernan finds that the sum is greater than the parts. The irony of cultural progress, however, is one of “magic and loss,” which gives the book its name. The enchantment of the internet and its new pleasures necessarily come at the expense of something else—and these losses are tracked down and highlighted in the author’s critique. But what separates Heffernan from the other critics like Nicholas Carr is that she doesn’t dwell on the losses. She argues that they are part of the aesthetic experience.
For people familiar with the history of the internet, especially the web and internet culture through YouTube and Twitter, you might be quick to dismiss her retelling of it. But even an internet culture researcher like myself appreciated the way Heffernan brought out individual videos or forms of experience in new ways. She marshals a deep reservoir of literary allusions throughout the book that are refreshing and thought-provoking. For instance, a meditation on Twitter as poetry would seem obvious from the surface, but her rich dissection of the topic repeatedly surprised me. It helped me to think about art, as well as the internet, differently.
For some readers, the tone might strike them as odd. As it takes the formal literary criticism style of the New York Review of Books and applies it to the most mundane parts of the internet. What makes it work is her earnestness and her journalistic flow. She loves this stuff and is clearly excited to share that passion with her readers and fellow digital culture aficionados.
In the last chapter, she becomes deeply autobiographical. The book shifts from cultural artifacts to herself as evolving subject. You realize by the end that this is not only a work of criticism but also a memoir. This is the key to Heffernan’s argument that the internet is art. Because she illustrates the internet’s affect and effect on her in ways only a deeply powerful aesthetic experience can provide.
You might not agree with all parts of her argument or how she arrives at her conclusions. Even so, this book is a brilliant reflection on how the internet operates as a cultural space and how it has changed the way we experience art more generally. I highly recommend it.