The hallmark feature of civil society in a democracy is its (at least, theoretical) independence from governments and markets. Civil society is meant to be a “third space” where we voluntarily come together on the proverbial (or literal) park bench to take action as private citizens for the public good. Our use of digital data and infrastructure blurs these distinctions and complicates these relationships for a simple reason: Most of “digital space” is owned or monitored by commercial firms and government.
|Illustration by Ben Crothers|
The conditions that support civil society’s independence have been weakening for a long time and for many reasons. Support for research from conflicted interests has tainted universities and nominally independent research centers for years. News organizations sustaining themselves via ad and subscription revenue are mostly a thing of the past. A small number of big donors have been shown to shape political campaigns, legislative and legal strategies, and the charitable nonprofit landscape. While crowdfunding and crowdsourcing get a lot of press attention, the other end of the scale is shaped by large concentrations of money from a few interests.
Today we must attempt to understand both the analog and digital relationships between these actors. We must examine how these relationships shift when organizations and individuals become dependent on digital tools, data, and infrastructure. These dependencies do much more than accelerate and expand the reach of individuals and organizations. They introduce new forms of activism such as hacking and raise new questions about authority and control between individuals and the companies that run the digital platforms. Most important, these dependencies bind traditionally independent civil society organizations and activities closely to marketplaces and governments in complex and problematic ways.
Our daily use of the most basic tools of the digital age, such as cellular phones, email, and networked printers, means that our activities are bounded by and reliant on the rules and tools of the companies that make the gadgets and wire the world. As we use these tools, our activities are also monitored by the governments that surveil the digital spaces in which our tools operate. Our actions in this space are shaped by the values of the companies that make the tools (even as the companies seek to deny this) and by the way we respond to being watched by both corporations and governments.
|Illustration by Ben Crothers|
These digital dependencies significantly challenge civil society’s independence. This matters to how individuals and organizations work within the sector. And it matters to democracies that have long relied on the “immune response” provided by a diverse and fractious space where minority demands, rights, and ideas could thrive with some degree of independence.
It is no coincidence that experts see signs that the space for civil society is closing, that those monitoring Internet freedom see rising threats, and that those monitoring the health of democracies fear for the future. We can’t decouple these pieces. Efforts to “save democracy” will depend on understanding how digital technologies have changed the relationships between sectors. I discuss this in more depth in the section on digital dependencies.