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Political thinking often assumes an antagonism between state and society. Just as often, the role of technology is fundamentally ignored. However, modern information technologies such as the internet bring about changes in the public debate. The essence of the ‘public’ that constitutes society is an imaginary connection within a group of people, where technology plays a mediating role. If this is not properly understood, ‘retro-nationalist’ movements have every chance to flourish. It is therefore important to develop a better understanding of how state, society and technology interact, since technical networks do not straightforwardly coincide with national borders.
In our thinking, democracy is a nice and well-arranged system. There is the ‘state’ that provides the laws to which we must obey. This is legitimate as, in turn, the state obeys the wishes of the citizens who form the free society – or the ‘public sphere’ – together.
In this scheme in which opposition to society is placed, a number of variants are possible, all of which are democratic because society is ultimately in control. For example, you can state that society precedes the state, as classical conservatives argue. First there are laws and then standards. Progressive thinkers argue that there are too many inequalities of power in such a society, because norms soon lead to exclusion and discrimination. It is up to the state to correct those inequalities. Yet in progressive circles the state is not automatically seen as a savior. For many, it is a part of the ‘system world’ that not only imposes rules, but also standards, which society can hardly escape.
All these ideological variants have their own vision of what the problem is that needs to be solved, a problem that is sought in the unwillingness or inability of the state to act according to the wishes of society. That there is a much bigger problem behind that, namely that it is impossible to know what that society exactly is and what society exactly wants, seems to be properly ignored. In fact, the anarchist principle is that society exists separately from the state and could actually exist without such a state.
You can make a similar point about the role of technology. In the scheme presented above it seems to be separated from both state and society. This makes it possible to describe the role of technology at will. You can ignore the role of technology and pretend that we are stuck somewhere in the nineteenth century. You can say in a dystopian way that new technology will lead to state repression, for example by pointing to the surveillance techniques that scrutinize everything we do. On the other hand, you can argue that technology is precisely the means for the citizens to withdraw from the power of the state. Consider the possibilities of the internet to raise your voice as a society, without the state having anything to do with it. A bit more modest, but ultimately just as utopian, seems to be the idea that the citizen will finally be fully informed. You can also say that technology is part of the system world that the state is already part of: something that is outside of society and about which we have little to say, but something that determines our lives to a great extent.
What these ideas boil down to is that technology is not necessary for a society consisting of free citizens to exist. Moreover, they imply that a free society is conceivable without a state. This scheme is attractive for the sake of clarity, but at the same time it is naive and incorrect. State, society and technology cannot exist without each other: on the contrary, they make each other possible. Without the laws of the state, citizens would not be able to mobilize themselves as citizens, they would not know who they are as a group and what they have as a common interest. Without technologies that enable the exchange and processing of information, there would be no media by which the state and society can communicate with each other. This not only concerns old and new forms of ICT, ranging from pigeons to super computers, but also infrastructures such as stagecoaches and satellite connections. We need them to see ourselves as citizens who can decide for themselves what is good for them.
To substantiate this argument, a good understanding is needed of what ‘citizenship’ precisely is. Step one is that citizenship involves a group of people who recognize themselves as a group. Step two is that the group comes to discuss the issues that are of value to them. This idea of citizenship originated in ancient Athens and re-emerged two millennia. However, this happened in a world in which most citizens did not know each other – the bond between citizens is an imaginary one.
To support this imaginary connection, the idea of nationalism grew in the nineteenth century. The notion grew that cultural norms coincided with the boundaries of a nation state. These standards were based on a shared history and a shared destiny. The nineteenth century became the era of ‘invented traditions’ that ensured coherence of the imaginary citizenry. Myths like the Batavians who were autonomous in the Low Countries while the Romans dominated the rest of Europe. Symbols such as Scottish kilts with the tartan referring to former clans which had always resisted English rule (a tradition invented by a smart manufacturer of plaid fabrics from Manchester). Bloodthirsty Vikings who wore never existing horned helmets. And on and on with such invented examples.
This type of story has been of great importance in the creation of a folk identity. But more than stories, information technologies and role have played to create, reproduce and further shape the imaginary connection between citizens. In particular, the ability to print and distribute newspapers during the early forms of citizenship ensured that people could stay up to date with what they were concerned about, it made them recognize news as news that was important to them as a group. If people do not know each other, modern citizenship can only exist thanks to the presence of communication technology and media. In his classical analysis of publicness, Jürgen Habermas describes how newspapers and coffee houses were central to the formation of an audience that spoke about the issues that were important to them as an audience.
Citizens discussed the plays they saw and the books they read in the cafe. Newspapers wrote about it. In this way a ‘public opinion’ arose, an opinion that was not traceable to the sum of individual opinions or preferences, but the opinion of individuals who imagined what the opinion of the public as an independent entity could be. This way the audience pulls their own hair up.
Later we got radio, television and internet. But all these technologies do the same: they allow people to have concerns about things that don’t seem to concern them personally.
As in a democracy, the state must obey the opinion formed by the imaginary public, that opinion usually is about what the state should do. There is no issue as public as the affairs of the state. The boundaries of the public debate therefore often coincide with the administrative boundaries of the state.
In other words, technologies and myths may cause the experience of an imaginary unity, but nothing creates as much unity as the laws of the state. Ultimately, that is what citizens really share: they are part of the same jurisdiction. By the way, this unity of jurisdiction is a paradox, because it is about resolving conflicts. This means that unity is based on conflict and not on consensus – as it is often portrayed.
Not just existing laws, but especially proposed state decisions are important for democracy. After all, they initiate the discussion about what the state should do, the ideas of the state mobilize citizens as a society. The imaginary audience emerges as a reaction to the plans of the state. As John Dewey states: the public forms around the ‘issues’ with which they are confronted. A community arises when there are problems or concerns that are experienced as shared problems of concerns. Much more than stories, collectivity is based on the recognition that there are upcoming events that will affect everyone. This recognition leads to an imaginary connection, which in turn leads to the organization of numerous social initiatives.
In short, this means that the state makes society, because the state takes care of the events that transform individuals into a group. With the advent of radio and television, the mobilizing role of the state has only become stronger, because they have usually been established as national networks. At the same time, these media created a stronger focus on issues of national importance, so that the public more and more imagined themselves to be a national public. What art and artificial stories did in the nineteenth century, namely the stimulation of a national identity through a shared language and a shared history, came naturally in the twentieth century. It was only the internet that broke that automatic bond, resulting in the total fragmentation of the imaginary public identity.
First, let us go back to the state. Also the development of the national unitary state is based on technology. A complex administrative organization can only be achieved through equally complex means of communication.
It is no coincidence that the first written languages of the Sumerians, Phoenicians and Mesopotamians served purposes of accounting. Nor is it coincidence that statistics mean ‘science of the state’.
Not only the development of communication technology and accounting systems is closely intertwined with the needs of a forming central unitary state. The communication channels have also become increasingly efficient and ensure more and more national harmonization. A simple example: until the nineteenth century each city or region had its own time, depending on the clock on the church tower, the arrival of the railways caused the need for a uniform, national time. In this way, the inhabitants of a state came not only to share rules, but also time, space and language. State, citizenship and technology are also strongly intertwined here.
All this cannot be done without mediating technology. This function of technology, on the other hand, is not well recognized. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that technology is difficult for political scientists. But it is probably more important that the guiding principles of modern democracy were laid down at a time when technology was not so all-determining, just before the Industrial Revolution erupted completely. Montesequieu wrote his On the Spirit of the Laws in 1748, James Watt came up with the improved steam engine 20 years later. Both would conquer the world, but along separate pathways.
The Industrial Revolution was primarily a revolution that was driven by economic activities. The fact that the railways – one of the main products of that Revolution – also created an interconnected country was only an economic side effect.
Misunderstanding the role of technology is not only an academic problem, it is not the first time that political philosophers and historians have been wrong. The point is that technology concerns us all, it is a collective issue. However, because it is excluded from both state and society, we cannot speak of it as a public matter. It is a deus ex machina, something that happens to us – the only thing left to do is to have the state establishing laws aimed at making the effects of the technology less severe (or make it a bit better), sometimes even by prohibiting further technological development.
This is the wrong starting point. As I have stated elsewhere, we must see technology itself as a public matter and have a debate about the conditions that a technology must meet, not about the consequences of that technology. Here, I want to emphasize in particular how the current information technologies have changed the classical patterns of the imaginary audience. As stated above, the internet is an international network which has borders that do not necessarily coincide with those of national states.
No wonder we are looking for an imaginary collectivity in public debates. Few regions seem to be immune to forms of ‘retro-nationalism’. Such atavisms from the nineteenth century could easily be refuted, at least if the correct underlying relationships are known. Not recognizing the dialectical relationship between state, society and technology obstructs this knowledge. It is difficult to see that the internet shapes a public of a different kind if you do not know how the public works in response to the issues that concern it.
Not that I have the answer. However, I do know that it is necessary to get a good understanding of the new public debate in which society 2.0, a ‘new public’, is the starting point. This is not just a society that consists of different types of connections, but also a society in which other types of things are valuable. The values that are important here must account for the enormous socio-economic volatility and a new type of vulnerability.
We need to know how society 2.0 imagines itself and how technologies feed that imagination. Even more, we need to know what kind of state can be state 2.0 in the sense that it can obey society 2.0. In other words, which political constellations are able to respond to the wishes of the new public? Unfortunately I have not seen many answers yet that convince me, meanwhile we are stuck with countless countries where clowns, autocrats or a combination of both predominate.
These are difficult questions. The state that we know makes laws that apply within a jurisdiction, the officials who make those laws are mandated through national elections that are the benchmark for democracy – the public debate is above all a supplement to the system of an elected parliament. This is no longer the case in the state 2.0, this state is diffuse, unorganized and limitless. But with the right questions and the right understanding of the relationship between state, society and technology, we can at least move in the right direction.
Dewey, J. (1927). The public and its problems. New York.
Habermas, J. (1962). Strukturwandel der öffentlichkeit.
Hobsbawm, E., & Ranger, T. (2012). The invention of tradition: Cambridge University Press.
Pesch, U. (2019). Elusive publics in energy projects: The politics of localness and energy democracy. Energy Research & Social Science, 56, 101225. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2019.101225
Taylor, C. (2002). Modern social imaginaries. Public culture, 14(1), 91-124.