Civic Cyborgs: Revamping Democratic Participation via the Smartphone and Mobile Internet

The Internet has broadened not only the way people think about the world and themselves but also their belonging in communities. From India to Brazil, the Internet has also enabled the creation of a virtual space that allows youth to gather and create content. While online space remains an accessible channel for information gathering, another tool is shaping the way people access—and create meaning—around these spaces: the smartphone. In fact, the smartphone has given youth the power to mobilize and coordinate political actions. Some even argue that the smartphone could prove to be the most important innovation for journalism since the development of satellite uplinks.[1] Although mass media tend to cover smartphone culture and mobile Internet as potential barriers for attention span, interpersonal relationships, and community building, I argue that there is an enormous potential to consider their use for democratic participation and civic media—that is, the use of any medium which fosters or enhances civic engagement.[2] To demonstrate that, I explore the notion of mobile technology as an extension of our civic identities, one that has the potential to influence democracy. In order to accomplish that, I refer to the recent impeachment trial against Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first woman president, as a study case along with most recent data concerning the use of smartphone and its impact in online and offline spaces.

In unveiling the identity of the X-Men character Wolverine, Paul Lucas describes the symbiotic and intimate connection between nature and technology. While the natural feature defines Wolverine’s condition as a genetically-determined mutant, the technologic enhancement is defined by the adamantium that is grafted to his skeleton. Both the natural and the technologic spheres of the character’s condition play an influential role in the plot development, as it helps understands the character’s survival conditions as well his encounters with other mutants in the film series. The author’s analyses concerning the underlying relationship between ‘natural’ and ‘technologic’ elucidate the processes in which technology acts as an extension of the human body and, consequently, the human abilities.[3] In expanding such individually enhanced ability to a more collective scope, it is worth observing the role that media technologies are playing not only in our individual routines but also in our civic lives. In a global society increasingly connected to the mobile Internet via smartphones, it is imperative to understand how the deployment of civic media for social change is challenging democracy and what it means to be politically active.

Media technology and democracy are intrinsically related. It is widely agreed that democracy relies on freedom of speech; thus, the ongoing development of media technology continues to shape the way citizens participate in democracy. In fact, democracy’s central idea means “rule by the people”, as it first emerged in classical Greece.[4] However, today’s democracy does not solely include fair elections; it is also meant to incorporate other forms of civic participation. Technology, within this context, is rapidly changing such civic participation on a global scale. Since there were no smartphones or mobile Internet in the past, mass media played an influential role in determining the public opinion and, therefore, the democratic process. Even though it was in a different format, it can be argued that old media technologies also acted as an extension of our civic identities.

In Latin America, the technologic development of television paved the way for the forging of national identities, before and in the aftermath of the military dictatorship. The establishment of a democratic system in Brazil, for example, is also largely contingent upon how the government imposed its views on the people via the monopoly of a conglomerate mass media. In the burgeoning of the web, media technology entered a new era that offered different meanings to an existing—though recent—democratic order. As stated, “the challenges for today’s democratic citizen are to understand how technology is changing society and to develop the skills needed to use these technologies effectively.”[5] Despite the fact that this was written before the popularization of the mobile Internet, its core message is still relevant for contemporary discourses around civic participation. Unlike in the past, citizens now have access to a powerful device that allows them to engage in discourses that were not possible before.

This is relevant because technology grants people the opportunity to engage in virtual spaces but also require a fast-evolving set of literacies that are often ignored by people and media outlets. In the past few years, studies have shown that online civic participation is largely possible due to the uptake of the smartphone culture and the expansion of the mobile Internet. Recent examples of this relationship frequently refer to the Arab Spring in 2010. Despite the opposing arguments concerning the role of the smartphone and the mobile Internet during the revolutions, there are seemingly good reasons to believe that the smartphone not only enhanced the civic spirit of change, but also gave democratic meaning to the revolution—meaning not only to the local communities but to the whole world.

Although the smartphone itself did not trigger the revolution, it allowed youth to create, circulate, and consume media that would not be possible otherwise. “Digital networks have acted as a massive positive supply shock to the cost and spread of information, to the ease and range of public speech by citizens, and to the speed and scale of group coordination.”[6] The debate is arguably controversial, but it is lined up with McLuhan’s interpretation of the medium as an extension of ourselves. It is what young Arabs did with the smartphone and social media sites (SNS) that created meaning, and not the smartphone itself; after all, the smartphone did not substitute for people’s determination and will to bring about the change. With the revamp of smartphone technologies and the Internet penetration around the globe, it is becoming even more relevant to discuss the future of smartphone and its relationship with democratic systems around the world.

According to the most recent report by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), UN specialized agency for ICTs, young people are at the forefront of today’s information society, with 830 million young people representing more than 80 per cent of the youth population in 104 countries are online. The most recent data also indicate that “mobile broadband subscriptions have grown more than 20 per cent annually in the last five years and are expected to reach 4.3 billion globally by the end of 2017.”[7] Particularly relevant for this paper, “mobile broadband is more affordable than fixed broadband in most developing countries.” Despite the prevailing digital and socioeconomic gap, this indicates a potential for the growth of smartphone usage and access of mobile Internet—and, perhaps, civic engagement.

With an increased access to the mobile Internet and the cultural connection with the smartphone, it is possible to imagine a future where human-computer interaction (HCI) is becoming increasingly more mobile-oriented and, conceivably, an integral part of one’s body and functions. Considering the fast-evolving nature of the smartphone and its uses in our everyday lives, media publications tend to create speculative stories with titles such as the following: “Don't Worry, We're Already Cyborgs,” “Got a Smartphone? You're Probably a Cyborg,” “Becoming Cyborg,” etc. This way, it is possible to affirm that such news stories tend to both include several framings that question what it means to be human in a somewhat pejorative voice, one that makes us fear the future or self-destruction by robots. Since the term “cyborg” is somehow fluid, anthropologists already argue that at the simplest level, “our use of smartphones makes us all cyborgs, since they allow us to interact with our social and cultural environments in a much broader way than humans could before.”[8] However, I argue that despite the entertainment aspect of smartphones and the critiques around its cultural usage, it can also serve as an extension of our civic lives, considering the increased access to the mobile Internet, media convergence, social media, and participatory culture.

One example that is relevant for the discussion around the smartphone, participatory culture and civic media is concerning spreadable media as a way to participate in political discussions. More specifically, the spread of Internet memes during the impeachment process against Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first woman president. Despite the humorous and superficial elements featured in the message, memes about the impeachment in Brazil often played a significant role in representing public discourses that are relevant to social realities. Functioning as a collection of texts oftentimes drawn from unrelated contexts, these memes appropriated high level of remakes, parodies, and imitations facilitated by participatory culture. Henry Jenkins first wrote about participatory culture in 1992, about twenty years before social media became present in everyday life in Brazil. Its broad definition embraces the values of diversity and democracy, considering that individuals can make decisions both individually and collectively.

A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).[9]

Regardless of the type of media produced, youth are the central figure for such practice. In fact, youth have dramatically represented the foremost group capable of carrying out social changes; moreover, they are the ones capable of breaking geographic and socioeconomic barriers to engage in discussions about societal issues. Social media use, which is deeply embedded in Brazilian youth culture, challenge dominant media practices because for the first time it allows a more inclusive civic participation. Most of this participation, would not be possible without the smartphone and, therefore, participatory politics.

Given the largely use of the smartphone as a cultural and technologic device, participatory politics is defined as interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern using new media.[10] In fact, participatory politics is a way to embrace user-generated content and media makers into public dialogue; however, it is challenging to create content worlds that foster civic participation in the real world at the same time it does in virtual communities. In creating content worlds using smartphones, Brazilian youth appropriated inventive ways to represent, critique, or recreate the public sphere during the impeachment trial.

One of the interesting aspects of Brazil’s social media use is that even though the digital divide prevails, the Internet exposure rate is intense—76% of users access the Internet every day an spend an average of five hours on weekdays.[11] In 2015, about 60% of the Brazilian population had access to the web. In 2006, that percentage was under 30%. In comparison to the neighboring countries in Latin America, the Internet penetration in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay is higher than the one observed in Brazil. However, according to data from ITU, the penetration of high-speed Internet in Brazil shows a different pattern from the one observed in other countries. For instance, the fixed broadband subscription counts for only about 13% of the population, whereas in the U.S. the subscription is about 32%. This is observed partially due to the high price of broadband costs in Brazil. It is, in fact, the mobile phones that drive the rapid growth of high-speed internet service. As a matter of fact, 41% of Brazilians use the 3G technology, and there is a strong tendency that the 4G connection will continue improving.[12] Such configuration reflects Brazil’s rapid ICT development and uptake of the latest technologies including the mobile phone, making it the 5th largest market for smartphones in the world[13] and where mobile will make up 56% of total internet access revenue by 2018.[14]      

The rapid development of ICT infrastructure and the openness of the culture in following new global trends help demonstrate the centrality and significance of online-based social media platforms in Brazilian culture. Additionally, reports show that  90% of Brazilian youth between nine and seventeen years old are connected to social networks.[15] The social media impact on popular culture is so prominent that Brazil has been labeled as the “Social Media Capital of the Universe.”[16] Furthermore, the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (IBOPE) published a report in 2015 indicating that over 70% of Brazilians access social media while watching television.[17] This particular behavior illustrates how monumental the social media engagement rate is and how new media practices affect and deeply transform the experience in consuming older forms of media—such as television or newspaper. As the ICT development continues to shape the development Brazil’s media landscape, youth have more opportunities to occupy virtual spaces with media messages that potentially can impact matters in the public sphere.

The development of Brazil’s new media landscape paved the way for a networked sociality that opened a universe of media production, messages, and consumption among youth, which has expanded the way social capital is understood and practiced within a network of trust and cultural similarities.[18] Like social networks, “social capital is a way to describe an aspect of human behavior that had a rich history long before the internet came along, but is now an important part of the socializing that online media make possible.”[19] This includes the potential a single person holds and the collective potentials that can be deployed together for the benefit of a group or community. Particularly to the case of Brazil, this also has a profound impact on the cultural relevance of what it means to consume and appropriate a new media practice via SNS. Ultimately, the networked sociality is intrinsically pertinent within Brazil’s new media landscape because it helps us understand how the culture of Internet memes reflects an engaging youth participation through in a national level made possible through virtual communities. Therefore, popular culture and smartphone profoundly shapes the relationship between youth and politics in this study case. Within the impeachment context, I claim that Internet memes can functioned as a species of paratext that allowed Brazilian youth to deploy civic media for democratic participation. In doing so, Internet memes around the impeachment may have brought the attention to the need of understanding memetic media as an important tool to instigate a discussion that emerges in virtual communities and can motivate other forms of engagement in the public sphere.

All in all, the smartphone and mobile Internet demonstrate to hold potential for civic change, despite the negative side that is often associated with this emerging technology, such as slacktivism. The Brazilian new media landscape is just one of the multiple examples that sustain this argument. As the Internet becomes more mobile-based and a larger portion of the population is young, it is essential to map out the civic use that youth could utilize smartphone technologies for democratic participation. In the near future, it would be quite relevant to propose ways in which entertainment—and perhaps popular culture—could be more ingrained in these political participations. For example, can the smartphone and popular culture work together to enhance civic life the same way that adamantium enhanced Wolverine’s ability in X-Men? Overall, I believe this area holds enormous potential for further studies because it is dealing with a generation that is not only consuming content but also producing their own via participatory culture. To conclude, I often relate this perspective to my own personal background: I was born in Brazil but raised on the Internet.

 

[1] Duffy, Matt J. "Smartphones in the Arab spring." IPI Report: Media and Money. Vienna: International Press Institute (2011): 53-56.

[2] Jenkins, Henry. What Is Civic Media? MIT Center for Civic Media, civic.mit.edu/blog/henry/what-is-civic-media.

[3] Glenister Roberts, Kathleen. Communication Theory and Millennial Popular Culture: Essays and Applications. New York: Peter Lang, 2016. Print, p. 157.

[4] Some Basic Principles of Democracy. Stanford University, web.stanford.edu/~ldiamond/iraq/DemocracyEducation0204.htm.

[5] Glenn, Allen D. "Democracy and Technology." Social Studies 81, no. 5 (1990): 215-17.

[6]  Duffy, Matt J. "Smartphones in the Arab spring." IPI Report: Media and Money. Vienna: International Press Institute (2011): 53-56.

[7] “Press Release.” ITU, United Nations, www.itu.int/en/mediacentre/Pages/2017-PR37.aspx.\

[8] Cécile Borkhataria, Christine Low, Katya Berger. “Becoming Cyborg.” Scientific American Blog Network, 27 June 2017, blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/becoming-cyborg/.

[9]  Jenkins, Henry. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

[10] “Youth, New Media, and the Rise of Participatory Politics.” DML Hub, dmlhub.net/publications/youth-new-media-and-rise-participatory-politics/.

[11] Pesquisa Brasileira de Mídia 2015: Hábitos de Consumo de Mídia Pela População Brasileira. Publication. Secretaria de Comunicação Social, Presidência da República. Brasília: Secom, 2014. 47-64.

[12] "Fixed broadband subscriptions (per 100 people)." Fixed broadband subscriptions (per 100 people) | Data. 2015. Accessed November 15, 2017. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/IT.NET.BBND.P2?end=2015&locations=BR&start=1990&view=chart.

[13] La Nueva Revolucion Digital. Publication. Unidad de Innovación y Nuevas Tecnologías de la División de Desarrollo Productivo y Empresarial, Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe. Santiago: United Nations, 2016.

[14] Fenez, Marcel, and Estela Vieira. Brazil: Leading the Digital Media Revolution in Latin America. Report. PricewaterhouseCoopers . 2014. Accessed November 10, 2017. http://www.pwc.com/gx/en/global-entertainment-media-outlook/assets/brazil-summary.pdf.

[15] Mesquita, Bruna. "90% dos jovens brasileiros possuem pelo menos um perfil nas redes sociais | EXAME.com - Negócios, economia, tecnologia e carreira." Exame. July 29, 2015. Accessed November 17, 2017. http://exame.abril.com.br/tecnologia/90-dos-jovens-brasileiros-possuem-pelo-menos-um-perfil-proprio-em-rede-social.

[16] Chao, Loretta. “Brazil: The Social Media Capital of the Universe.” The Wall Street Journal. February 04, 2013. Accessed November 15, 2017. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323301104578257950857891898.

[17] “88% dos internautas brasileiros assistem TV e navegam na internet ao mesmo tempo.” IBOPE Brasil. Accessed May 15, 2017. http://www.ibope.com.br/pt-br/noticias/Paginas/88-dos-internautas-brasileiros-assistem-TV-e-navegam-na-internet-ao-mesmo-tempo-.aspx.

[18] Horst, Heather A. "Free, Social, and Inclusive: Appropriation and Resistance of New Media Technologies in Brazil." International Journal of Communication 5 (2011): 453.

[19] Rheingold, Howard. Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012, p. 217.