eCitizenship, Empowerment, and Rights
Originally written and posted on Mike Caulfield’s blog. Mike is an instructional designer at Keene State College.
In conjunction with some other schools in the American Democracy Project we are hashing out what, exactly, eCitizenship is. And a lot of that has mapped on to the responsibilities of citizenship and civic participation.
Those are incredibly important things — there has been an erosion of citizenship in this country in the past 30 years to a set of rights — as has been noted elsewhere, people no longer refer to themselves as citizens, in fact, but as “taxpayers” — as if this one single responsibility is balanced against the rights, and determines in and out status to government protection. “Taxpayers” are essentially zombie citizens, and one of the primary goals of eCitizenship projects has to be to arrest that slide into national zombiedom.
But a thing occurred to me this morning that reminded me there are simple issues of rights also at stake.
OK, so I got a speeding ticket. The officer claimed I was going 61mph in a 40mph zone.
Except, I wasn’t. He clocked me in a 55mph zone, and even after following me a distance before pulling me over, he *still* stopped me so close to the start of the zone it was clear he couldn’t have possibly clocked me after I entered it.
What do you do? I had no camera at the time, I know that it’s the officer’s word against mine where he pulled me over and clocked me.
So I did what people like me do — I posted on my Facebook account and Twitter account what had happened, and asked if anyone had passed me on their way to work, and would be willing to sign a statement about where I was pulled over.
Within thirty minutes I had two eyewitnesses who could testify they saw me pulled over before the lower speed zone started. I had an additional response that suggested I could ask for dashcam footage from the car, which would likely show the 40 mph sign in front of my car. It looks like I can defend myself against this ticket.
Now I know some of you might be reading this and saying, hang on there Howard Beale, it’s just a speeding ticket (a $209 ticket, but still).
The issue is that I know how to do this, it comes naturally at this point. And I imagine quite a few of our students would use exactly the same tactics.
But not all our students would, which brings us to the conclusions of this recent study by Eszter Hargittai:
Overall, these findings suggest that even when controlling for basic Internet access, among a group of young adults, socioeconomic status is an important predictor of how people are incorporating the Web into their everyday lives with those from more privileged backgrounds using it in more informed ways for a larger number of activities.
I want you consider for a moment the coming disaster here. The United States already has a startlingly level of inequity in the justice system. And what it is starting to look like is Web 2.0 may *increase* that inequity. We will have one set of privileged students that know how to toss a Facebook or Twitter question out to their friends asking for informal legal advice, or searching for witnesses, or asking whether officer x has a history of harrassment.
And then we will have another, poorer class of people that will have access to none of that — not because they lack the hardware or internet access — but because they have never seen that sort of use modeled.
And traffic violations are just the start. It could be social services taking your kid away. It could be a nearby corporation asserting their right to build a generator next to your house. It could be you were beaten at a protest, and need to find pictures of the action.
In all these cases (and many more), your ability to effectively assert your rights as a citizen will be largely determined by your digital literacy, and more specifically, your use of digital literacy in the context of citizenship. And right now, that literacy is not a corrective to privilege, but more of a privilege force multiplier.
Does that scare you? It scares me. So it’s worth thinking about eCitizenship, I think, not just in terms of talking about issues, finding common dialogue, and increasing participation, but in terms of defending oneself in court as well.
I’ll let you know if I beat the ticket…