Category Archives: politics

Digital Social Contract, Part 1

digital social contract - the internet king
The Internet King

A lot of writers talk the web’s effect on how we communicate and collaborate and all kinds of other things. I’m more concerned with how the web is changing society and what it means for our future togetherness and apartness. Let’s drag up the old term “social contract” and stick the word “digital” in front of it.

I’ll paraphrase the Wikipedia definition: Social contract describes a group of theories that try to explain the ways in which people form states/countries and/or maintain social order. It is implied that people give up some rights to a government or other authority in order to receive or maintain social order through the rule of law.

The most popular social contract theorists (Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau) realized that it was better for a person to be threatened by a stationary bandit (a single king, parliament, ruling body) than by roving bandits (warlords, brigands, renegade counties). Makes sense – we sleep better if we have a short list of possible sources of death. The great thinker Max Weber gave us the notion of a “monopoly on violence” that characterizes modern states. It is more applicable, I think, to describe it as a monopoly of force or power.

People abhorred the “state of nature” before the formation of modern states. Life back then was, as Thomas Hobbes wrote, “nasty brutish, and short”, and to escape it we exchanged certain freedoms and status quos for protection and prosperity. It was simply smarter to be a part of a collective entity than to remain outside of it – you gained more by joining the party than staying outside. What does this mean for our digital lives today?

The basic idea is this: joining the internet/digital party (representing the social contract) is not absolutely necessary, but it’s certainly attractive. This goes for individuals as well as businesses. How many blog entries have you seen that list pros and cons of social media, or approaches for convincing reluctant supervisors to let you open a Twitter account for the company? One of the first big things that corporations learned on the social web was that the brand was no longer entirely in their hands. However, by joining the conversation and recognizing that a greater power is at work, those companies profit.

The same idea goes for us small people, too. Many of us work online in the knowledge economy, but even for those of us who don’t, the internet still provides ample opportunities to network, find new employment, and supplement one’s education. I’ve tried writing about this stuff before, speaking at first of what I used to call the digital contract, then discussing prescriptive analyses of social media and governance. Two other bits worth skimming are some quick thoughts about the modern nature of empire and the diffuse, scattered notion of authority at play in international politics.

So where do we see this going? Will the rush to the intertubes hearken the birth of a new digital contract, or will we return to the state of nature, where status updates fall in the forest with no one to hear?

Terrorism, poverty, and violence


It’s not that poverty doesn’t move them, but more correctly it is an interpretation of poverty that radicalizes (and is itself radical).

When I started my studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, I made the mistake of joking with a German colleague. We were discussing “terrorism” as a theoretical construct and I parroted the oft-repeated line that views terrorism as an outlet to poverty. This particular interpretation (which, I must be clear, I do not believe), is that for people living in poverty, the promise of money, power, and most importantly, food, can drive people to do horrific things. My colleague’s response to my joke: “That’s bulls***. It’s a fortune-cookie truism, Tim. Too simple.”


We now know that petty criminals and regular foot soldiers are definitely susceptible to offers of money, guns, and stability. Look at how successful the Somali pirates are. They provide something to people who don’t have much. But we also know that many high-profile evildoer types are far from poor. Osama bin Laden has some kind of advanced degree. Many of the 9/11 hijackers were no strangers to the classroom. Much of the theory that surrounds extremism in all its forms comes from the halls of academia.

So it is with the Underpants Bomber [because I can] Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who certainly did not come from a life of poverty. For me, the quotation that begins this post is the most telling and complete explanation of the lure of extremist viewpoints in the modern age. Not poverty but an interpretation of poverty is the recruiting tool. I’m reminded of Archbishop Camara of Brazil, one of the central minds of liberation theology, who famously said:

When I feed the poor, they call me a saint.
When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Yan Boechat.

Five myths around disaster relief

Edward Brown, relief director for World Vision, debunks five myths around disaster relief. I offer my thoughts on each point in place of Brown’s remarks. This came in the form of a Facebook note:

1. Collecting blankets, shoes and clothing is a cost-effective way to help – When I worked with The 1010 Project, we collected things like computers and notebooks for our partners in Kenya. In the aftermath of election violence in early 2008, we were able to provide materiel that aided in reconstruction and job training.
2. If I send cash, my help won’t get there – Sure it will! Even the most incredibly effective aid organizations have to “borrow” off the top of donations to fund operations. In the case of Haiti and other emergency situations, aid dollars are earmarked for immediate use, even if the funds aren’t technically immediately on hand. EG: The Red Cross has raised many dozens of millions of essentially borrowed dollars, but since the actual donations won’t balance for a few weeks, the Red Cross will essentially be working on borrowed money.
3. Volunteers are desperately needed in emergency situations – Yeah! Volunteer, just not in a disaster zone. Many nonprofits operating on the ground in Haiti need help recording donations and processing the flow of other donations. Help them out, or offer to handle other mundane tasks. Vacuuming an office during a busy week can make a world of difference. :)
4. Unaccompanied children should be adopted as quickly as possible to get them out of dangerous conditions – Unless you are a charity that deals directly with “orphans”, maybe you could just cool it for a little while. Let proper guardians step forward, and if none are available, then activate your networks.
5. People are helpless in the face of natural disasters – Absolute nonsense.  Give a social entrepreneur a dollar, and they’ll stretch it in a dozen different directions. Small-scale aid projects can be carried out by on-the-ground partners while larger orgs debate procedure and directives.

That being said there is still a lot that has to happen in Haiti to make reconstruction work. Let’s hope that we dump the disaster-emergency language and move towards reconstruction-help dialogue.

Just peacemaking

This might be a bit like stream-of-consciousness, but I don’t want to spend time re-editing this later. It’s a workshop on the just peacemaking paradigm.

Susan Brooks-Thistlethwaite (Interfaith Youth Core board member and former seminary president) gave us a brief history of the transition of the United Church of Christ into a pacifist church. The UCC already had commitments to racial and social justice, so combining pacifism was a short leap. From further conferences, a series of papers and documents about peace were released that not only promoted pacifism, but active peacemaking. At its simplest level, “just peace” means that more peace happens than war, and that people must work together in order to affect these changes.

“Just war” has abstract principles that people reflect on from many different perspectives, religious and otherwise. Likewise, “just peace” contains principles that are approachable from many different directions. They are not quite as abstract. In fact, they are what we call “practice norms”, or things that we must do. Katherine Schofield from Just Peacemaking in Chicago gave us the rundown:

  1. Support nonviolent direct action – strikes, boycotts, creation of safe spaces
  2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat – visible and surprising actions outside of slow bureaucracy, usually undertaken in a series of progressions
  3. Use cooperative conflict resolution – active collaboration of parties conflict toward creative solutions
  4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and  forgiveness – direct religious vibes here, countries apologizing for past actions
  5. Advance democracy, human rights, and interdependence – promote solid human rights and human progress within legal frameworks
  6. Foster just and sustainable economic development – cultivation of community growth and community organizations
  7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system – we can work together for a common aim
  8. Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights – these organizations can identify, prevent, and possibly intervene when necessary, but they also promote peace.
  9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade – reduce guns, reduce conflict
  10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations – make resolution and peace a bottom-up initiative

Just peacemaking is focused on practices. It’s not about making declarations about how wrong “other” people can be. You can’t provide people with weak abstractions about issues that are costing human lives anywhere on the earth. “A conflict that cannot be named cannot be mediated,” said Brooks-Thistlethwaite. We have to figure out what things are before we can really tackle them. It makes no sense to grab at ethereal straws – it wastes time and can be harmful to the process of peace.

– For most societies, on a day-to-day basis, living in peace is the NORM. Institutionalized violence like racism, sexism, and homophobia might exist, sure, but it’s worth pointing out that the reality of peacebuilding is that it is very, very possibly because it is very, very normal.

– Don’t ask “Why isn’t it working?” Find what’s working, and support it.

Kyrgyzstan Deux

Update: I’ve posted the Democracy in Kyrgyzstan research paper, in its entirety, on Google Docs. Given the current upheaval in the country, I thought it reasonable to finally get my keister in gear and display it.

The research apparently did its job – I received an “A” in the course. Now it’s a matter of diving back into it and seeing where I screwed up. There will obviously be many such locations.

Although the ouster of Akaev might not have been entirely expected by the opposition, those individuals involved did organize themselves as the opposition in a well-functioning democracy might, “by becoming cohesive, advocating for competition, and pursuing (and attaining) political goals (Akin 2007, 19). Still, the Tulip Revolution was more “a shift in power among clans than a democratic breakthrough.” The newly-elected parliamentarians were allowed to keep their offices after the revolution, which effectively eradicates the rationale for the demonstrations in the first place (Beissenger 2006, 22). This is perhaps the saddest(but at the same time hopeful) outcome of the revolution; it would be akin to the newly-created United States of America fighting their Revolutionary War and then installing King George III as President. It should be noted that the parliamentarians did in fact gain their seats legally, if not unfairly. Allowing them to keep their offices could be a mark of reconciliation.

Like most of my larger research projects, the findings did not entirely sync up with what I started with. I only find this moderately troubling. Watch this space for a full posting of the finished piece once it’s ready.