Why We Need a Global Civics

When I think of “civic tech,” I think first of the expanding definition of what it means to engage in civic action today.

To kick off our coverage here at Civicist, we asked our contributing editors to share their thoughts on “What is civic tech?” We’ll publish their answers as they trickle in, and look forward to continuing the conversation in the weeks and months to come.

umbrellamovement.stickynotesOn a recent trip to Hong Kong, I passed through the stronghold encampment outside the Central Government Offices. Though most of Occupy Central had been dispersed by police months prior, a core group of protesters continued their occupation. I wasn’t the only foreigner who visited; there was a board filled with affirmations of support written on sticky notes. Most appeared to come from peers, but a number were from Taiwan. I even saw a few in English: “Big support from Vancouver and Halifax. We are in solidarity.” “The world is watching and supporting you. Never give up!”

These messages reflect Hong Kong’s status as a global city, one filled with international travelers for business and tourism. But it was just one way people from around the world have found ways to show their support for the Umbrella Movement. For every sticky note on that board, there have been countless tweets, status updates, and other short notes of support sent via the internet.

When I think of “civic tech,” I think first of the expanding definition of what it means to engage in civic action today. The word “civic” is anchored in the Latin for “citizen,” which has historically implied formal citizenship in a city or nation-state. But as Hasan Altinay argues so eloquently, we need a global civics that acknowledges our interdependent world.

This is critical to keep in mind with regards to technology. The hardware we buy and throw out relies on global shipping, manufacturing, and disposal networks that span continents and countries, and the software we rely on is often made possible thanks to globally-distributed teams, outsourced labor and complex infrastructure that crisscrosses oceans and orbits. Likewise, the civic technologies we build can have both intentional and unintentional impacts far from where they were originally designed.

The costs of international travel and communications have dropped precipitously, and social networks are forming across broad and diverse geographies and cultures. In other words, tech has played a key role in expanding many people’s notion of civic participation to include broader swaths of the globe. Developing a deeper understanding of what global citizenship can look and feel like in the 21st century should be a key part of developing responsible and effective civic technology.

In this regard, when I think of “civic tech,” I think secondly of the pairing of these particular words. Referring to new technologies as civic makes clear the intentions of the makers—that those building tools or processes have the intention of facilitating actions for a public good. They could be small, symbolic actions—posting a selfie to show support for a cause—or large, potentially long-term actions—helping transform city data models to support open APIs.

Importantly, understanding intent gives us a framework to evaluate the success of the project. In other words, not only should a civic tech project meet all the usual standards by which we can evaluate successful implementation—e.g., quality user experience, stable code, sustainable business model, etc.,—but it should also facilitate people’s ability to engage in civic action, however broadly that might be defined.

For many in the civic tech space, this might seem obvious, but much of the technology industry operates with a techno-optimistic mythos. This mythos carries the assumption that what we build with new technologies will necessarily change the world for the better. Yes, tech has certainly changed the world, but its positive impact is by no means a given. That which gives power to the powerless can also reinforce the very social, economic and political structures that serve the powerful.

Every time I check my social media feeds, I see global solidarity networks developing rapidly for any number of causes and issues, from racial justice to queer rights to net neutrality. Altinay argues that universities should be a key site for fostering global civics, and I think the technology has a key role here, too. Tech in general has allowed us to participate online with movements halfway around the world and in different parts of the country, whether through symbolic and important gestures of affirmation and or through loose coalitions for support and advocacy. What is the role of civic tech in this space? How can it help foster a broader sense of public good and a global sense of civic engagement?