Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Citizenship in spite of… #DigCiz

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So I’ve been thinking about this for a few days… a discussion on Twitter re #DigCiz where I asked whether we’ve interrogated “citizenship” before the “digital” side of it. And as this discussion unfolded and other things came up on Twitter and on Slack, I realized something. Here I am talking about citizenship with a network that is mostly people in North America, or at least in some Western country, and their understanding of citizenship will be so vastly different from mine simply because our experiences of citizenship are so vastly different…

Even though much of how I theorize citizenship and digital anything comes from Western modes of thought, I want to focus on how I experience citizenship.

We Love “In Spite Of” not “Because”

But first, this: it is possible that when we are in the process of falling in love with someone, we have reasons, we love them “because” or “just because”… but then we get to know them closely, and if we’re lucky that the love continues, we get to know a lot of awful things about the person if we spend enough time with them, we see their ugliest side, and we love them “in spite of” this.

Our parents, our children, whom we don’t “choose” per se, usually. Unless there’s a huge problem, we usually love them “just because” (even if they have great qualities). But more than that, we love them “in spite of” everything we know about them that isn’t beautiful.

I think that for me, and many others, we tend to love our country “just because”. I don’t love Egypt because it’s beautiful, even though a lot of it is. I love it “in spite of” what’s ugly about it, and I see that ugliness because I’m here much more than I did when I was growing up in Kuwait. And I see the ugliness more because I love it.

We don’t all have choices related to our citizenship. We are born into one (or more, or none) and we may make choices that give us other options, but so often those options are not even on the table for some of us, and many are blocked to us. And yet, I have made decisions time and again to stay here in Egypt. I’ve lived elsewhere and considered immigration, but I’ve stayed. And I’ve stayed for two main reasons: For the people here, and for the country. The people are the key thing. I stay for my extended family. I’m an only child with an only child – my extended family matters to me and to my child and I cannot imagine leaving them long-term. Even though I grew up in Kuwait before the internet age (so we only used to call our family in Egypt once a week or so) I had enough family who lived in Kuwait, and my grandmas visited often enough, we visited often enough, that I still felt part of my family.

But I also love Egypt itself. Which makes very little sense, really. I stay not because Egypt is wonderful, but in spite of all that’s wrong with it – and for some reason I want to help fix anything I can, even knowing that there is sooooooooo much to fix, whatever I do is probably going to be a needle in a haystack, but I want to try. Even a little.

When people talk about digital citizenship and express critiques on surveillance, I remember how surveillance is the fact of everyday life here and is not veiled at all. When people talk about freedom of expression, I’m not really living a big oppression on that, because I self-censor before I even speak. When people talk about all kinds of political and civil rights, they’re talking about something completely different from my experience. My digital freedoms and rights seem to be so much more than my actual ones… in many ways it’s easier to be a digital citizen for me.

And yet, I’m a digital citizen in spite of all the risks and potential ugliness it brings. The more I stay, the more I can see this, but I stay. We have much more mobility with our digital presence than our physical presence, don’t we? And yet I stay for the people. And maybe, just maybe, my staying some place will make a difference, no matter how small.

So maybe a digital citizenship of hope…

Thinking about my upcoming course with digital literacies focus, I think of this article by Autumm Caines, Sundi Richard and others on digital citizenship where they conclude that “successful initiatives will build on local interests, opportunities, and needs” – and how I would need to focus on how digital literacies/citizenship has worked for Egypt in the past – during the revolution, before and after it, and how different and similar our citizenship is to that of other countries and contexts. And then how that affects how we interface with the digital.

3 Comments

  1. Your post makes me wonder on what we give up when we stay in social spaces we don’t particularly agree with or worry about, and how those compromises (do I trade my privacy and data for connection?) is the underlying element of these conversations. Sometimes, we don’t know about what have given up until we are knee-deep into it.
    Teaching young people about those trade-offs (when you post your picture to Instagram or Facebook, you are sharing with others but you have also just given Zuckerberg and company ownership of your photo, your face through facial recognition and the ability to track and sell you to advertisers who will now target you) is a key bit of teaching we all must be doing.
    Kevin

    • I agree, Kevin. Bringing that murky bargain into awareness again and again is a necessary effort. Every action we take on the open web has costs. There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch = the way of the world.

  2. Maha, every time that you write about Egypt, about living in Egypt, being Egyptian, I realize that it is a reminder. A necessary reminder. Because as you say most of your connections having conversations about digital citizenship are residents of North America or another Western country. When we’re in conversation, especially online, sharing a common language and recognizable sets of assumptions, we can forget. We forget quite literally, *where* people are coming from. We forget to acknowledge that some or many or perhaps none of our assumptions about what citizenship means may apply to or for our conversation partners. So thank you for bringing this aspect of your perspective to the fore.

    One thought that struck me here: “We have much more mobility with our digital presence than our physical presence, don’t we?” And I think mobility, yes but I wonder about presence. In fact I wonder if our digital presence over time becomes more ephemeral instead of less. Our presence can be fleeting and so transitory considering how easily so much could disappear if a few corporate behemoths decide to close up shop and take our data with them. But this unceasing mobility – to rise, fall, spread, reach – perhaps this is what we will keep, what will hold our fascination and keep us in the game, even as our actual presence (and potential permanence) dissipates before we really notice.
    That’s just what came up for me right now. No guarantee that this will all make sense to me when I read it again tomorrow or in two weeks. Perhaps it will offer you something anyway.
    Sherri

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