Space, Change and Citizenship
We exist in a constant balance of freedom and constrain. This is so in the physical space, in our spiritual and moral spheres, in our relationship with the economy, politics and the law, and it is the reality of our body in relationship with its surroundings. The outcomes of evolution and ecology are an expression of balances and trade-offs. Justice itself is a result of intentions and accidents.
All of these ecologies are subject to rules. Some are just natural and maybe inmutable rules. Most are man-made rules. Rules that we have conceived and tweaked during centuries of social, technological and political life.
If we follow the achitectural analogy of the Internet (W.Mitchell), we can surely say that in the last 20 years we have significantly changed the space in which a large portion of humantiy dwells. It is as if all of a sudden a new landscape with new and far away horizons had emerged. A lanscape that is at once strange and alluring, because it promises to realize some of the cherished dreams of old: incorporality, persistence, freedom, liberty. A new “cyberspace” beyond government control, as Barlow envisioned. The architectural analogy is very useful, because it also allows to account for the effect of exclusion that this new “city” brings. A great many people are not allowed to have a live behind its walls.
The new “space” has very interesting features. It seems to transcend nations and governments, it is enclosed by technological and not physical barriers. It allows for many forms of economic, social and political activity. It has become an extension of our physical dimension and personality. It has many of the characteristic features of architectural spaces: containers, roads, networks. Public and private spaces. It can allow for total control if mismanaged.
The most striking difference with the spaces we inhabit is that “cyberspace” claims to be free of control and regulation. To follow J. Zittrain in his (mostly technological) argument for generativity, the Internet has been created with only two rules to follow: procastrination and reciprocity. It is indeed the most basic ethical entente. But as a political system it is going to fail as the reality grows complex with every day. The barbarians are going to storm the city.
Among the many claims and justifications of the nature of cyberspace, the one that is most salient is the issue of freedom. This has interesting implications. Foremost the dissolution of the idea of citizenship. Once we move into cyberspace we cease to have a citizenship status. But this is only an illusion. We are digital citizens.
But what is a digital citizen, what rights and duties do I have as such? Up to whom is to define this? Should we have a Digital Constitution? Who has the authority to proclaim it? The Internet is a Commons, a New Commons. When we look at it this way we can start to think about the kind of regulation we would like to have, and by whom it is to be actuated. The authority should rest in the New Commons itself.
It is very important that we move forward to establish the groundwork for a digital citizenship and the corresponding authority. Otherwise we will face a “Tragedy of the Commons” scenario. A moment when a shared space is ransacked and driven to failure by the attacks and abuse from freebooters and reckless national governments. The idea of a Commons is to preserve the utility of the commonly held goods, while effectively defecting abuse and enclosure. The role of a strong digital citizenship will be pivotal in this endeavor.