Strasbourg, 10 November 2011







15th meeting
29 November to 2 December 2011
Council of Europe, Agora, Strasbourg
(Salle G01)

Discussion document

2nd Council of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for
Media and New Communication Services - 2013

prepared by
Ren Reynolds, Founder of the Virtual Policy Network


Humans are political animals - we do politics all time. In our choices to act or not act there are political dimensions to how we live. Traditionally this has been recognised as politics when it takes particular forms, such as voting or making publics stances on issue. The processes of representative democracy are an asymmetric aggregation of these acts using a contingent set of technologies: voting at a specific place and time, debate in a chamber, etc.

The social connectedness of the Internet means that the digitally included do politics in a different way: they debate, influence peer groups, and publish to potentially millions - all from their home, office or mobile phone; it's something that ebbs in and out of the flow of their lives, not a discrete act. These practices present a radical challenge to traditional politics - not necessary because they are in conscious opposition to existing structures and practices but rather because they are often oblivious to them.

To apply social theory we can say that the old Foucauldian notions of defined power asymmetries are coming into contact with Deleuzian rizomic processes. Movements such as the Pirate Party, Anonymous, the Tea Party and Al-Qaeda are often mistaken for this new politics. To use an analogy these movements are more like photographs of waves in a river, the new politics is the flow of water.

To take a step back - let's look what characterises people's use of the Internet. Generally people use the Internet for a set of purposes – they have agency, which produces results, rapidly. For example: forming a social connection, shopping or expressing an opinion and gaining feedback. They often do this in group settings where they have an identity, this identity may be specific to the group and they may move to another when that has served its purpose (entry and exit costs are low to begin with), what's more group members may only share a specific characteristic in common e.g. an amazon reviewer, a member of Google+ circle or an open source project though some groups, such as high level raiding groups in World Of Warcraft, take more logistics and dedication than the average corporate project.

The popular media and politicians struggle to characterise the movements that emerge from these processes. They either impose a presumed structure on them or dismiss them because of their lack of structure. The fact that the US and its allies have claimed multiple times that they have killed the No. 3 in Al-Qaeda merely demonstrates that their public position denies what Al-Qaeda fundamentally is - as the reality is politically impossible to deal with.

All these movements are structurally very similar: they tend to have an ideology that is simple to state under which individuals self-organise and act in the way they determine. More importantly, we must see them in the wider context - they are just a moment in the process; as soon as they are formed many of the members will have moved on to another issue - like a wave hitting the coast they can be simultaneously incredibly powerful and without structure. This is problematic if one opposes the organising ideology because these movements can't be beaten in any conventional sense - the elements that remain cease to be part of the flow, they may gain some conventional political traction but will be left behind by the mass.

Voting figures demonstrate there is a gradual disengagement with certain political processes - politicians often characterise this as a lack of interest in politics. If we understand politics in the way outlined above, it's quite the opposite: it's politicians that have disengaged, not citizens.

The radical challenge that this flow-state model of politics represents is a reconfiguration of politics. In the short term politicians need to examine what engagement with citizens means for them. In the long term - we have the technology to enable everyone to vote all the time, people are likely to become even less tolerant of only being asked to votes once every few years - so there may need to be a new bargain between representative and direct democracy.


Further Reading

Anderson, C., 2006. The long tail: The new economics of culture and commerce, London, Random House Business books.

Castronova, E., 2007. Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality, New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan.

Cohen, S., 2011. Folk Devils and Moral Panics 1st ed., Routledge.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F., 2004. A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and
schizophrenia, Continuum International Publishing Group.

Foucault, M., 1991. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison New
Ed., Penguin.

Leadbeater, C. & Powell, D., 2008. We-think: The power of mass creativity, Profile Books Ltd.

McGonigal, J., 2011. Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world, Jonathan Cape.

Shirky, C., 2008. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organisation Without Organizations, Allen Lane.

Sunstein, C.R., 2009. 2.0, Princeton University Press.