[At-Large] [ALAC-Announce] Meeting Invitation - Civil Society Engagement Approach: Call to discuss Implementation

Garth Graham garth.graham at telus.net
Mon Dec 14 22:41:00 UTC 2015

> On Dec 13, 2015, at 2:06 PM, Glenn McKnight <mcknight.glenn at gmail.com> wrote:
> The  problem with the document starts  without a common definition of  What is Civil Society.  I have added a document  that  addresses that issue.  I fear that  if we  lack a proper  definition we will see  ATLARGE  being  outside the parameters  of this measure.

Here’s another way of looking at the definition problem.

It is the role of ALAC to”represent” the interests of the ordinary Internet user, not civil society.  I have an unconventional sense of what that means in terms of  ALAC/ICANN’s engagement problem.   Ordinary Internet users (that is to say individuals) are largely acting unconciously in a context where the definition of governance is changing.  In brief, the governance of an ecology is not the same as command and control.  In an ecology, the functions of governance are “distributed,” and that makes all the difference.  The Internet’s existence is an expression of that change.

The panic of nation states over control of the Internet is a sign that they are getting some of the message.  The ordinary Internet user, on the other hand, may need some help to increase their consciousness of what it’s going to take to defend practices they already use.  To me, that’s where ALSs and ALAC need to engage.

Civil society is a construct that occurs in the context of balancing political power as if nothing had changed.  In answer to the “what is civil society?” definition question, I have often quoted the argument of Martin Carnoy and Manuel Castells that global alliances of common interest among corporations and governments invented a construct called “civil society” to suit their purposes  They said:

 “The other axis of the nation-state's reconfiguration is its attempt to regain legitimacy and to represent the social diversity of its constituency through the process of decentralization and devolution of power and resources. This translates primarily into revitalizing sub-state national governments (such as Scotland or Catalonia), regional governments, local governments, and non-governmental organizations. Indeed, the dramatic expansion of non-governmental organizations around the world, most of them subsidized and supported by the state, can be interpreted as the extension of the state into civil society, in an effort to diffuse conflict and increase legitimacy by shifting resources and responsibility to the grassroots.”  …..

…..   “What emerges is a new form of the state. It is a state made of shared institutions, and enacted by bargaining and interactive iteration all along the chain of decision making: national governments, co-national governments, supra-national bodies, international institutions, governments of nationalities, regional governments, local governments, and NGOs (in our conception: neo-governmental organizations). Decision-making and representation take place all along the chain, not necessarily in the hierarchical, pre-scripted order. This new state functions as a network, in which all nodes interact, and are equally necessary for the performance of state's functions. The state of the Information Age is a network state.”

 …. “Thus, the state diversifies the mechanisms and levels of its key functions (accumulation, reproduction, domination and legitimation), and distributes its performance along the network. The nation-state becomes an important, coordinating node in this interaction, but it does not concentrate either the power or the responsibility to respond to conflicting pressures.”

 ….. “The second way to establish legitimacy in the new historical context is decentralization of state power to sub-state levels: to sub-national groupings, to regions, and to local governments. This increases the probability that citizens will identify with their institutions and participate in the political process. While nation-states cede power, they also shift responsibility, in the hope of creating buffers between citizens' disaffection and national governments. Legitimacy through decentralization and citizen participation in non-governmental organizations seems to be the new frontier of the state in the 21st century.

 Still, the state will have to respond to social movements' demands to avoid a legitimacy crisis.”  ……

(Quoted from: Martin Carnoy and Manuel Castells.  Globalization, the knowledge society, and the Network State: Poulantzas at the millennium. Global Networks, Vol. 1, Issue 1, pages 1–18, January 2001.)

From my perspective, the true role of civil society cannot be separated from the context of its dependent relationship with business and government.  I buy Carnoy’s and Castells’ argument that the state in the digital age “is a network state,” where corporations and governments have invented a construct called “civil society” in order to “diffuse conflict and increase legitimacy.”  The true work of civil society is not the delusional task of defending the public part of the public interest.  It involves outsourcing of the responsibilities that the other two partners don’t want.

But I don’t buy that “decentralization” is the means employed.  What Carnoy and Castells missed is that networks are complex adaptive systems.  The Internet supports systems that “distribute” functions, not systems that centralize (globalize), or decentralize.  What I fear is any attempt to block the intention of its design.

In my view of the nature of a digital age, the only possible stakeholder is the individual, or as ICANN’s euphemism puts it, the individual end-user.  The primary challenge of the digital age is not privacy or security or even social justice.  What is at stake is the individual’s autonomy to choose how to embody his or her self in the world.  Although we are defined in social contexts, the Internet was designed to support a way of connecting in those contexts that makes the choices about connection intrinsic to the individual.  

I take it as a given that the Internet’s existence symbolizes new drivers of change that destabilize all existing systems.  That includes the way that conventional political systems address the allocation of power, whether they act on the right, the center or the left.  For example, alarm bells go off for me when the left-leaning advocates of social justice set up the straw dog dichotomy of multistakeholderism versus democracy.  To me, what they are actually doing is defending the existing framing of political reality that justifies the continuation of their own existence.  The false dichotomy they are stridently defending is a reactionary tactic that uses Internet Governance as a means to other political ends.  The wonder to me is not that they would do this, but that other members of the framing it represents still rise to the bait.

What I’m unhappy about is the state of “governance” itself, and I am working to make “governance” in open distributed systems work better.  In those systems, the structural rules are intrinsic to all of their individual participants, not externally imposed as the conventional political systems still assume.  In the longer run, external motivation is never effective in changing individual behaviour.  The differences that make a difference in our behaviours are intrinsic to ourselves.

The problem of outreach is not just one of bringing new nonprofit agencies into ICANN’s orbit.  It’s one of turning outward to assist agencies that are supporting individuals in learning their way into a networked society.

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