"The Genie is Out of the Bottle"
The Rise of the Network Society and Active Citizenship
Johanni Larjanko SSKH 2001
Manuel Castells spends a lot of time and effort arguing for the existence of a Network Society. The driving force in the new world order is a developed form of capitalism, networking rather than concentrating all economic decisions into a strict hierarchical structure. Whereas this broad picture undoubtedly helps in creating a framework for discussion, it leaves a lot to be desired when focus is moved from macro to micro. Firstly, the concept of network relies on an efficient machinery, at least if it is to be taken seriously. This requires a lot of technical coordination, but also, arguably, a degree of human input. Structuring and translating data is only partly a mechanical process. This is where active citizenship enters the macro perspective arena. Independent and flexible individuals form the grid in the human analogue to the computer network. A prerequisite of the Network Society is therefore the Networkers. These are the people inhabiting the Network. Not its builders, its inhabitants.
The Role of the State
In the traditional division of society into three sectors (Public, Private and Civil) the role of the State is usually to maintain the Public Sector, regulate the Private and to a various degree fund the Civil. According to Castells the division has become redundant, as it limits our thinking into traditional patterns. Active citizenship does not actually require a state to develop, nor public funding. As long as the same functions are being fulfilled by someone, private interests, transnationals, a federation of states or regions, etc, the concept of active citizenship can be nurtured. Of course, the aims will vary depending on who initiates the process. There is always going to be strings attached. The question is perhaps whose strings we most easily can accept. In the Nordic countries, actions of the state has traditionally been easier to accept than in other parts of the world. Up north the concept of citizenship is linked both to an idea of individual rights and individual responsibilities. In this context, citizenship becomes a tool to engage but also "enlighten" a nation's subjects. This would undoubtedly alienate others, and so a general strategy of implementing active citizenship in for instance Europe is problematic, to say the least.
Cleaning up the Mess
Changes is production methods during the last twenty years of the "restructutural phase" of our economy have changed many views on the concept of learning and the role of civil society. If, as Castells claims, the implementation of these structural changes are determined by the governments of nation states, and much of this change has been allowed to happen too quickly, a lot of responsibility have been, and is being put on the shoulders of NGOs and individuals. When it becomes clear that governments abandon former promises of full employment, even beyond the years of recession, a fundamental shift has taken place. The constant threat of benefit cutting aside, it seems obvious that no real alternative is given these excluded groups. In short, no one really cares what happens to you, should you happen to become redundant. Of course all kinds of training is offered, and social benefits allows you to survive, but there is little or no respect for you as an individual. Voluntary work in newly founded organisations offers a handy self-help solution. It may heal some of the scars, but not replace the mistrust, creating a social divide alongside the digital one. The cost for this policy may yet rise. How will this affect civil society?
Taking the case of the Nordic welfare state as an example, civil society largely used to be a legitimisation tool, neatly folded in between private and public sectors of the economy. A potentially larger role was suggested when Social Capital became a popular concept in the end of the eighties. The decline of social capital was said to weaken society, and various debates concerning measurements of social capital divided the field. During the last five years, the European Union has seen it fit to use concepts of active citizenship and civil society to strengthen internal ties in the union. This has given organisations a higher status then ever before, though perhaps less due to the issues raised by these organisations than to trends in politics. NGOs are to a varying degree given a podium, but for what? Firstly it is unclear whether anyone is really going to listen to SIGs (special interest groups) exempt of lobbying and political powers. Secondly the question remains as to the willingness of these SIGs to actively participate in legitimatising the current political and economical system. Obviously there is no definite answer that covers all involved. Partly it is a problem of who retains the right to set the agenda, SIGs or governments and/or supranational political structures.
Training in the industrial society has mainly focused on creating apt workers. Trying to predict the needs of industry has been a main concern for educational planners since the beginning of the industrial era. With growing fragmentisation and specialisation of work tasks coupled with quick changes in the markets planners have had an increasingly difficult task. In the dawn of the informational society we face a future with changing job descriptions, changing jobs, and a slew of new skills needed to cope in society (skills like functional literacy). The informational society stresses the ability of the individual to network, acquire skills as needed, and remain flexible. This has far reaching consequences for educational institutions, and might change our concept of learning. Lifelong learning is here to stay. Central in the understanding of this concept we find the changed role of the teacher to become a tutor, the learning process to be learner-oriented and the learning to be individualised. This shifts the focus from supplying learning to helping the learner assess needs. This in fact correlates nicely with the analysis of the network society to be one in which flexible, individual systems develop and flourish. But rather than looking at the macro-level of structural adaptations in enterprise systems, it lets us focus on the individual. Granted, the individual lives in a society and we need to balance our focus between the two levels. But my point is that you cannot have one without the other. The network society consists of individuals. The adaptations of our political and economical system to the demands of tomorrow becomes interesting only when referenced against the individual. In short, the system has no value in itself, its value is derived from what it can offer its subjects (if indeed we are subjects any more).
Central to the concept of Active Citizenship is the idea of Lifelong Learning. From the point of view of the European Union, lifelong learning actively helps 1) further economic competitiveness (derived from the analysis of Castells, but not something he mentions), 2) maintain and improve social cohesion (by actively engaging the socially excluded, unemployed, immigrants, women) and 3) promoting Active Citizenship. Liberal Adult educationists are constantly working on developing a framework for lifelong learning where the second and third point of EU policies are seen as crucial when discussing the future.
Is there a digital divide? Yes. Is there a social divide? Yes. Who should be made responsible? Clearly the state has given up hope of managing the situation. Blaming the market or globalisation and concentrating on "core" tasks is hardly a creative, if somewhat understandable, solution. Shifting the responsibility to each citizen then seems a good idea. Active citizenship becomes a la mode in Brussels. At the same time, NGOs everywhere is trying to engage people in society. During the eighties, coinciding with heavy criticism of the social costs within the capitalist system and the notion of social capital gaining ground, active citizenship gains new momentum and feeds into the new social movements. Using arguments like active citizenship is by them an attempt to break the political stalemate. Active citizenship is usually divided into two categories, defined from their starting points, the consumerist and the democratic. Both deals with widening participation and empowerment, but for partly different reasons. The consumerist approach is the most direct, and the one most likely to attract new activists. It asks for better quality products, better standards of service, more transparent supervision of production processes, and so on. You, as a consumer are more likely to get engaged whenever you feel slighted, than on a general principle. The democratic approach tries to address the perceived gaps in democratic processes. It questions the validity of applied economical theory and often argues for direct democracy in as many areas as possible. Both strands have been criticised for delegitimising current political structures, and favouring the needs of one interest group over another. In effect, NGOs building on one issue causes are short-lived and short scoped. But possible limitations in some of the actors does not diminish the validity of the approach. The shift from industrial to informational creates some new possibilities, in that we are dealing more with the perception of a situation. Reality has to some degree become a product of our imagination (this being true for the online part of the world, there are few positive examples in the offline part of the world, which remains poor and badly mistreated). In this situation we have been given an arena and some spotlight. For awhile the rules does not apply, and we are free to be active. What happens next is another story.
On Active Citizenship