Steven Livingston, 2012 Conference
ANN-SONIC Fourth Annual International Seminar on Network Theory:
Networked Social Movements and Network Theory
Networks in Areas of Limited Statehood: An Alternative Mode of Governance?
Presentation summary by Martin Hilbert and Jieun Shin
Steven Livingston (Ph.D., U of Washington) is Professor of Media and Public Affairs and International Affairs at The George Washington University and the director of the School of Media and Public Affairs’ Political Communication Program. He also holds a joint appointment in the Elliott School of International Affairs, is a research professor in the Political Science Department, and is a Faculty Associate in the Space Policy Institute. Livingston’s research and teaching focus on media/information technology and international affairs. He is particularly interested in the role of information technology and media in national security policymaking.
Steven Livingston began his presentation by showing a 2*2 matrix (four quadrant map) that classified statehood as weak and consolidated on one axis and information abundance and scarcity on the other axis.
|Information Abundance||Information Scarcity|
His research focuses on quadrant 1 where the state is weak, yet the degree of information is abundant. He argues that, due to the massive diffusion of digital ICT, a considerable part of the world’s population now lives in these so-called “areas of limited statehood” where the state is incapable of governance, but information is abundant.
Then he introduced a BBC news report tracing buying trends in mobile phones around the world. In 2010, there were more than 5 billion mobile phone subscribers around the world. Of these consumers, Africans are buying mobile phones at a world record rate, and over one third of Africa’s entire population owns and operates a mobile phone. Because today’s mobile phones enable social communication among users (text messaging, Facebook, Twitter), citizens can share information which can unite people in creating political movements. Consequently, the world has begun to witness mobile-phone-driven social movements in Africa, Latin America, and other developing regions. Livingstone referred to this phenomenon as technology-enabled collective action.
Despite its power, information sharing can only do so much if the government is not available to respond to crises. Livingston expressed this using an analogy relating bits to atoms. In his example, if many bits (information) are available but no atoms (governance) exist, then the bits are useless without government support regardless of the amount of information. For instance, Columbia University launched a SMS-based information alert system called the Voix des Kivus project in Eastern Congo. The project provided residents with cell phones so that they could text real time information about events that take place in hard-to-reach areas. However, since there was no efficient governance for these areas (no moving atoms), the situations did not improve much. In other words, even in cases where technology provides public goods, accountability and responsibility issues remain unsolved.
- Q: I think the conceptualization of governance may need to be broadened. States provide police service, health care, and so on. Aside from state governments, other organizations such as NGOs, UN peace keepers, and self-organized local communities can also provide similar services. I believe that your idea needs a lot of stitches to work alongside governance.
- A: I am not optimistic about the capacities of NGOs. Vast regions of countries are still untouched by these types of organizations. Clustering of NGOs is quite interesting. They cluster around hot spots and only certain areas. So it is difficult to classify them as official governance.
- Q: On the bits and atoms dynamics, if you free yourself from two variables, I think you will have much more interesting dynamics. For instance, does it have to be states or official statehood? There is self-organized police security in Mexico. They have strong accountability.
- Q: We can think of instances where information abundance is a result of weak statehood. Because some states are incapable of regulating telecommunication, commercial mobile companies are able to grow. Strong governance may dampen business sector activities.
- A: I agree that weak state can introduce business opportunities. I think it’s a good observation.
- Q: What kind of role do private actors play in your model? My sense is that even in consolidated states, private sectors such as private security will become bigger and bigger. Now, people protest against Wall Mart before they protest against states.
- A: I am interested in understanding how advancement of information in weak states facilitates and achieves public goods. My focus is not on the protest model.
- Q: The distinction between weak state and strong state is ambiguous. Most people in the world do not think they are governed legitimately, even in the countries that are considered consolidated. How should consolidated states be defined?
- A: Almost two thirds of the whole population lives in the weak states. States lack legitimacy more and more all over the globe. If that is true, we are forced to relax the assumption of consolidated state. Then we are really placing value and meaning on technologies.