New Media for Global Citizens? the Future of the Digital Divide Debate

By Couldry, Nick | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

New Media for Global Citizens? the Future of the Digital Divide Debate


Couldry, Nick, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


WE OFTEN HEAR THE "global citizen" invoked, but it is far from clear who she is, what she will do, and what resources she will need to act. However, when we answer these questions, it is clear that new media will contribute importantly to the answer. How should we think about new media's relation to global citizenship? What issues do we need to address, and how do those new issues relate to digital divide debates from a decade ago, which asked how communication resources contributed to democracy?

A difficulty here is that many things are changing at once. Both the digitalization of media and the rapid expansion of global Internet use mean three things: First, that media are taking on many new and increasingly inter-convertible forms; second, that the global media audience's size and distribution is changing rapidly (China now has the second largest population of Internet users and is likely to overtake the United States in the medium term); And third, that what audiences can do with media, and where, is also changing, with new possibilities for non-media professionals to make inputs to media systems from home, work, or on the move.1 The term new media encompasses all of these dizzying changes, and the resulting uncertainties about what audiences can do with media are being overtaken by the greater uncertainty about what audiences will do with the expanding opportunities that media provide.

At the same time, uncertainty is growing about what global citizenship should be about and where it should be performed. Citizenship refers to the bundle of rights and obligations that, at some level, sustains members of a polity in participating in its decision making and public life. Sociologists increasingly question the validity of limiting the debates about politics and citizenship to the scale of the nation, raising the question of the global citizen.2 The nation-state remains important, of course, but the context of national politics is increasingly interwoven with global forces, partly through the agency of national government itself.3 Some argue that this requires us to rethink the range of people who have rights-generating ties of belonging to particular nation-states, thereby changing the boundaries of national politics.4 At the very least, we have to recognize with Saskia Sassen that citizenship has always been an "incompletely theorized contract between the state and its subject," and that contracts terms and scale are now being destabilized.5 Though we have few global spaces where we might observe the practice of global citizenship in action, the absence of a citizenship dimension to global affairs is hardly acceptable either, so the promise of the term global citizen, for all these uncertainties, remains important.

Any reflections about what new media can do for global citizenship must therefore be provisional, concentrating as much on opening up new questions as providing definitive answers. This paper will discuss two fertile sources of new questions: the ethics of communicative entitlement and recent research on political engagement. But first, it is useful to recall what the digital divide debate of the 1990s and early 2000s can still teach us.

WHY THE DIGITAL DIVIDE DEBATE is NOT CLOSED

The digital divide, put simply, is "the differential access to and use of the Internet according to gender, income, race, and location."6 But whether it still exists and how much it still matters is disputed. One complexity is that there are at least two digital divides: the gap in communications resources between nations and the analogous divides within nations. The first is concerned with absolute differences between countries' telecommunications infrastructures, information transmission capacity, aggregate numbers of computers, website hosts, telephone users, and the like; the second is concerned with the gap within one nation between those who have effective access to its communication resources and those who do not. …

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