I’ve been arguing for several years now that civil society is dependent on digital systems, which are not neutral, designed with civil society in mind, or inately democratizing. Our dependence on digitized data, commercial software and hardware, and global communications networks lays bare the fallacy that nonprofits/foundations, donations of money, community organizations, political activism, informal associational life, mutual aid networks, kinship care – any of the activities that take place in civil society – are independent from market or government forces. Not only are they not independent, they’re entirely dependent.
Those dependencies change the nature and boundaries of civil society, require us to revisit old assumptions (such as the idea that the sector is independent from markets or governments), and we need to build new technology, organizational practices, and attend to a different set of policy domains in this dependent stage.
This is the entire premise of the Digital Civil Society Lab.
This has become painfully clear to millions of people in the last weeks as they’ve tried to work remotely. The first step to doing so – after caring for family and finding a place and time to sit down – is to figure out how to get the tech to work. Whether it’s using conference calling software safely, figuring out where the “mute” button is, accessing the office server, using work email on your own phone, getting hot spots and functioning laptops to your staff – chances are you’ve been dealing with “work tech” lately in ways that make it painfully clear: your work depends on digital systems.
As the authors here put it,
“The pandemic also lays bare the many vulnerabilities created by society’s dependence on the internet. These include the dangerous consequences of censorship, the constantly morphing spread of disinformation, supply chain vulnerabilities and the risks of weak cybersecurity.” Laura DeNardis, one of the authors of that article, has a book called The Internet In Everything.
That’s another way of saying civil society is digital civil society.
We’ve written about the new kinds of policy advocacy that digital civil society demands.
We’re working with partners across California to help with nonprofit’s organizational capacity needs that start from these digital dependencies.