Academic Articles / Publications

Participation, Civics and Your Next Coffee Maker

This is the prepublication version of my response to the article by Ethan Zuckerman “New Media, New Civics?” published in Policy & Internet (2014: vol. 6, issue 2).  Final version, with Zuckerman’s essay and other responses, here.


Ethan Zuckerman’s essay on participatory civics offers a nice example of how to push ideas forward with both grounded and complex examples.  It’s a nicely crafted essay precisely because he offers some of the great instances of creative civic projects and reminds us of the larger number of stalled, failed, and low-impact instances of digital activism.

He also exposes one of the great ironies of political life in many advanced democracies.  The internet may seem to deepen democratic institutions, with ever more rich data about political actors, voter preferences, and the wealth of civic engagement tools that allow people to launch truly inspiring projects.  Yet the exercise of citizenship also seems thinner, because it is so easy to be politically expressive without being substantively engaged.  I also like the metaphor of thick and thin citizenship.  But important part of Zuckerman’s observation—and one he develops well in his book Rewireis thateven the light interaction with new political issues and unfamiliar perspectives helps people bridge contexts.  It would be silly to expect everyone to be engaged on every issue or to expect that real engagement is only something that can happen face to face.  But if an online petition, viral video, or potent tweet creates a new community of people interested in a social problem, that’s a positive outcome.

I agree with much of what Zuckerman says is valuable about the exercise of one’s political voice.  Yes, it is often the first step in engagement, and speaking up certainly does encourage other people to voice their opinions.  But does exercising voice set the agenda in quite the way he suggests?  Maybe—but probably not as often as we’d like.  So many digital activism projects stall or fail.  And unfortunately, there aren’t many times that civic expressions of voice actually set the political agenda.  There’s a lot of research in political communication demonstrating that even large issue publics have trouble setting the agenda.  Lobbyists, politicians who are already in office, established media organizations and ruling elites set the agenda most of the time in many different kinds of regimes.

Of course, the real test for his ideas about the role of new media and participatory civic is still to come.  It’s probably safe to say that there are many internets and that the internet has had several stages of life.  The Zapatistas used an internet of connected computers to project their values and agenda into international politics.  While they may not have achieved much for the communities around the Lacondon jungle, their online activism helped break international trust in Mexico’s tough, long-standing governing party and inspired a massively global, anti-globalization movement.  The Arab Spring evolved over an internet dominated by mobile phones.  Images of people who had suffered from state abuse cascaded over networks of family and friends, and eventually over international borders.  SMS helped with the tough work of synchronization.

The internet may change again in the next few years, becoming what some call an internet of things.  Projections suggest that by 2020 there will be 8 billion people on the planet and 30 billion connected devices.  Everyone will effectively be online, either deliberately or through the sensors and small devices that generate immense amounts of data about our economic, political and cultural lives.  If the rubric of “participatory civics” helps us understand something about political life so far, will it make sense for this next internet?

It may.  Or rather, I hope it does.  Ideally, most people, most of the time, will understand how the devices they acquire are generating data and opportunities for civic engagement.  We’ll be able to make informed decisions about who gets access to what kinds of data about our values and patterns of behavior.  We may not always be thinking about what politically valuable information is being collected and analyzed.  But if we decide to participate in civics through this internet of things I hope it will be structured in such a way as to allow that impact.

A very plausible scenario, however, is that the internet of things evolves as a network of barely interoperable devices and networks locked down by a kind of digital-rights-management-for-the-material-world.  The data collected over such devices may not be particularly controlled by us, and will be bought and sold by political campaign managers and industry lobbyists who seek to keep our participation bounded.  To help think this through, let’s imagine two scenarios for your coffee next maker.

Several manufacturers of pod coffee machines are already talking about ways to chip coffee machinery and the coffee pods themselves.  This would allow a company like Keurig to lock customers into their coffee supply chain.  You may have a favorite Haitian fair trade bean that is not available from the supplier—the coffee you really want to try might be “out of network”.  If you, as a consumer, try to slip in someone else’s coffee grounds the machine might refuse to give you your stimulant.  In this scenario, your attempted hack might lock up the device.  It might generate data for the manufacturer of the device, the supplier of pods, other devices in the household that belong to the same family, the coffee company’s political action committee and the industry association working on digital rights management for household devices.

If participatory civics is going to be a useful paradigm, we have to imagine ways that would allow you to commit valuable data about your coffee needs to the groups you want to support.  In a few years, it may simply not be possible to buy a coffee machine that is not equipped with an IP address and sensors.  It may not be possible to buy this device and ask it to stop sending data to its manufacturer.  But it may be possible to require that the industry produce interoperable devices, so that you can put other pods in the machine.  And it may be possible to tell the device to share your data with a fair trade alliance and even the Haitian collective that is producing your favorite roast.

However the internet of things evolves, it is safe to say that in a few years the theories we have for understanding civic will be tested and strained in ways we can’t anticipate.  If the sensors on your coffee data are sharing information over a network, and generating information that is useful on some political issues, has your coffee maker become media?  If it is intelligent enough to be tasked with sharing your data with the political groups you support, will it help you participate in civics?  How many people will actually be able to—with informed consent—encode their devices with their political values?  Obviously, Zuckerman didn’t seek to address these questions.  But his essay on participatory civics can inspire the reader to think of ways to make sure that participatory civics is possible when the next new media arrives.



About the Author

Philip N. Howard is Director of the Center for Media and Communication Studies and a professor in the School of Public Policy at Central European University.  He is also a professor at the University of Washington and a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.  Currently, he is writing Pax Technica, a book about civic engagement and the internet of things for Yale University Press.  He blogs at and tweets from @pnhoward.