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'Parallel Poleis': Towards a Theoretical Framework of the Modern Public Sphere, Civic Engagement and the Structural Advantages of the Internet to Foster and Maintain Parallel Socio-Political Institutions


DOI: 10.1177/1461444813487953

Lagos, T G, T M Coopman, and J Tomhave. “‘Parallel Poleis’: Towards a Theoretical Framework of the Modern Public Sphere, Civic Engagement and the Structural Advantages of the Internet to Foster and Maintain Parallel Socio-Political Institutions.” New Media & Society 16.3 (2014): 398–414. Web.

p.398: The role of the internet in large-scale demonstrations, as witnessed in the Arab Spring, has been debated and reflects continued interest in the intermingling of social movements and digital technology. Yet behind these large photogenic events stand other less obvious social activities that may be equally profound, particularly in the form of alternative institutional frameworks that better meet the social needs of individuals than current models. We categorize these “dissident” frameworks as “parallel poleis” as developed by Czech philosopher and activist Vaclav Benda and offer two case studies to support this contention. At the heart of parallel poleis lies the notion that digital technologies are uniquely positioned to reflect and facilitate the political expressions of individuals due to low-cost transactions, ease of use and large social network reach possibilities. The sociopolitical ramifications of a parallel polis as conceptualizing the social–technical interaction warrants further discussion. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.399: Dourish (2006: 6) sees the meeting point between technology and civic expression, or what he calls “space” and “place,” as the emergence of “new cultural practices” that “open up new forms of practice within the everyday world, reflecting and conditioning the emergence of new forms of environmental knowing.” Dourish establishes a mechanism for how human beings utilize technology for their own specific social ends. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.400: If, as these theorists posit, cognition is not simply in our heads but involved interaction with our environment, then the creation or adoption of new institutional frameworks, or parallel poleis, is simply another way of human beings interacting with their social environment to provide solutions to their perceived needs not being met by existing social forces. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.401: Benda advised his fellow dissidents that, rather than overthrowing the oppressive Communist regime at the time, individuals create new social institutions. While he specified the suppressive communist state, any system that is unable or unwilling to meet the sociopolitical needs of a vast number of the public can be avoided in favor of alternative institutions. He referred to these alternative “second cultures” collectively as parallel poleis. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.402: Coopman (2011) has proposed the idea of infrastructural movements whose primary purpose is building alternative systems to meet community needs, such as the Micro Radio Movement and Indymedia (see below). These networks of dissent, or “dissentworks”, are action-oriented, relational, heterogeneous networks comprised of homogeneous networks/nodes (individuals, groups, or organizations). These emerge via an unofficial consensus on the failure of existing institutions (state or private) or regimes of control to meet community needs enabled and magnified by digital technology. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.403: The IMC was established as a media hub and support center for the 1999 World Trade Organization(WTO) protests in Seattle. The popularity of the concept quickly spread. In the first two years two dozen IMCs appeared around the globe, and by January 2006 there were 150 IMCs in 50 countries on six continents (Pickard, 2006a). Operating on open source software, run by volunteers, and emanating from donated servers, the IMC network is easily the largest alternative media project ever undertaken. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.403: This system is unique, as the collectives that keep them functioning are not the source of most of the news and postings. Rather, the websites form an infrastructure for independent citizen journalists and activists. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.403: As Pickard (2006b) notes, dedication to a radical participatory democratic process is a normative hallmark of the system. Finally, the very nature of the network is predicated on the creation of public goods as the movement itself is designed to facilitate actions by sympathetic activists and to provide an alternative source of news and analysis to the public at large. A parallel media system, if you will. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.404: The mainstream press has also showed interest in Indymedia, as a curiosity and an information source. There have been numerous cases of the appropriation of content from Indymedia sites by mainstream media or in clearly challenging the mainstream media parroting of authorities’ portrayals of events. In the 2001 San Francisco protests against the National Association of Broadcasters Radio convention, local news outlets ran footage shot by IMC journalists. Most famously, the police’s contention that they were not using rubber and capsicum bullets on protesters in Seattle were clearly shown to be lies by evidence documented on the Seattle IMC website. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.404: Finally, although less overt, the trend toward the popularity of blogs and other forms of “gatewatching” media (Bruns, 2005) in the years following the launch of the Indymedia network are clearly part of a broader socio-cultural trend. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.405: Saxton’s (2003) examination of 19t 9th century democracy in the United States suggests that, while rooted in a liberal ideology that was based on enlightenment, the government operated and promoted inequality based on exclusionist notions of race, class, and gender while extolling the virtues of being an inclusive democratic society, and perpetuated these notions through print media and theater that continue to inform us to the present day. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.406: Aufderheide (2008) points out that in the Video in the Villages project, which began in 1987 and continues to this day, indigenous-produced videos were initially rejected by the global North because the content created did not fit the audience’s expectation of what anthropological and ethnographic video were supposed to be. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.408: Since the online world has, from the beginning of its creation in the 1960s, modeled under “open systems” in academic and military circles where participants shared information with each other (after all, that’s how the internet system itself got started), having an open system is a key feature of the parallel polis. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.408: The internet allows, as Castells (2004) argues, access to not only greater sources of information, but human expression never before conceivable on such a grand scale. It is this scaleability that, along with sustenance and appropriation, make up what we term the second category: “digital infrastructure,” and provides the backbone to a parallel polis. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.408: Because parallel institutions such as Indymedia fall outside traditional public or private models of the socio-economic of maintenance, they can be more flexible in how their community works. Indymedia began with borrowed or discarded equipment, with sweat equity as a guiding principle rather than capital underwriting by financial firms (although several technology companies provided donations). -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.409: An alternative group’s social stigmatization by a powerful social or political organization (usually the existing government) is indicative that some social influence has taken place that warrants its oppression by existing mainstream entities. This impact is often hard to quantify, since alternative organizations hide themselves in the face of threats from the outside. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.409: The public sphere, “or in more traditional terminology, ‘public forum,’” is of particular relevance, since this Habermasian (1962/1989:91) notion captures, perhaps more in normative fashion that in descriptive form, the interplay between media and political participation. The suggestion here is that public sphere, and by extension civil society, are harbingers of sustainable democratic or “classical liberal theory” (Curran, 1991: 29). Civic engagement cannot exist, either in normative or descriptive form, without the stimulus provided by media: -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.410: the concept of parallel poleis offers intriguing possibilities for a sociopolitical explanation of the dynamics of the internet, both in political and structural terms -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014