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The Peoples' Internet

Semper Ardens forskningsprojekt | 08/06/2016

Market, State, and Civil Society in China, Europe, and the United States

The internet is among the most flexible and universally applicable technologies ever invented by humans. Nevertheless, the many significant variations in the social uses of the internet around the world remain poorly understood. The Peoples’ Internet (PIN) project compares the current state and future potential of the internet in three centers of the global economy and world politics – China, Europe, and the United States – focusing on the interplay of civil society with the other two key sectors of modern societies: market and state. The internet represents the global communication infrastructure of the twenty-first century – a resource for the peoples of the world to monitor and address political and economic powers. As such, the internet is key to the development of sustainable institutions at the local, national, and global levels that enable communication and collaboration, including in domains and on topics that generate contestation and conflict. To help focus its research questions, PIN will consult with representatives of business, political life, and NGOs at the beginning as well as in the conclusion of the project. In a future perspective, PIN will contribute to a global research infrastructure to support further studies and applications of the internet around the world.

Three conditions of local and global communications

The Research Questions

Over the past two decades, the internet has emerged as the technological backbone of a network society with distinctively new forms of production, distribution, and consumption. This shift may be compared to the coming of the printing press in the fifteenth century – but it is still early days on the internet. “It is a common mistake for politicians and pundits to exaggerate the short-term effects of a new technology, but also to underestimate the long-term consequences,” notes the Principal Investigator of The Peoples’ Internet (PIN) project, Professor Klaus Bruhn Jensen, University of Copenhagen. PIN examines a social, global transformation in the making.

The English Renaissance philosopher, Francis Bacon, suggested that knowledge is power. Today, this insight translates into questions of information and communication: Who has access to what kinds of information? Who communicates with whom? As importantly, who knows what about whom: Which individuals and institutions are in position to monitor the actions of other individuals and institutions? The internet has given rise to new dynamics between different stakeholders in the political, economic, and cultural development of nations and regions. The outcomes of these dynamics depend not only on internet technology, but also on the political systems, market structures, and civil-society institutions that are already in place around the world. The PIN project addresses the development of the internet in different parts of the world at three interrelated levels: the life prospects of individuals; the prosperity and governance of nations; and the relative positions and interrelations of world regions. 

“Having examined such questions for a decade at a national and European level, the Carlsberg Foundation Semper Ardens Research Grant allows me to finally address these questions at a global level,”
says Klaus Bruhn Jensen.

Children and young people today grow up with and on the internet. Despite widespread talk of Generations X, Y, or Z being formed by new media – for better or worse – it is essential to ask not only what the internet does to people, but what kids and other people do with the internet.

The Empirical Approach

The PIN project departs from a simple, powerful model of communication, developed by the PI and co-PI, and subsequently tested and verified in a comparison of nine European countries as part of an EU project. Compared to the classic understanding of one-to-one communication (face-to-face or technologically mediated), and the twentieth-century notion of one-to-many or mass communication, the internet has made possible many-to-many communication, as exemplified by Facebook, Wikipedia, and Weibo. On top, many-to-one communication is part and parcel of the internet, as users leave behind their bit trails online for bona fide marketers and public regulators (as well as hackers and spies) to review and recycle. All these forms of communication are now available on a single digital platform – the internet – which is accessible, in principle, to everybody and anybody as a medium of expression, participation, and influence.

The project has three main components, all of which are supported by the Carlsberg Foundation ‘Semper Ardens’ grant:

  • Population surveys. In China, Europe, and the United States, identical surveys will be conducted with representative population samples about their media uses, communicative patterns, and participation in various social and cultural activities, thus mapping the relationship between formally organised and informal aspects of citizens’ social engagement.

  • Ethnographic fieldwork. In-depth ethnographies will be undertaken in selected communities in China, Europe, and the United States, with two main aims: to explore variations in how different patterns of communication relate to everyday routines and cultural traditions, and to establish how patterns of communication relate to citizens’ formal as well as informal participation in contemporary society.

  • Big data analyses. Internet technology makes possible the harvesting of so-called ‘big data’ – the bit trails left behind by users – which provide a precise account of web usage across continents with a uniform method, complementing the surveys and ethnographies of PIN.
“It is a distinctive feature of recent media and communication studies that they combine classic approaches such as surveys and ethnographies with innovative digital methods including visualisation and advanced statistical techniques,”
explains the co-PI of the PIN project, Associate Professor Rasmus Helles, University of Copenhagen

Media follow people from cradle to grave. The internet is both an individual tool and a collective resource for shaping the political, economic, and cultural conditions under which present and future generations will live their lives.

The Social Impact

From the outset, the PIN project will tap the interests and insights of stakeholders representing market, state, and civil society, thus specifying the basic research question of how humans have communicated under changing historical and technological circumstances. The opening conference will include leaders from business, political life, and NGOs to share their perspectives on the internet. In addition to marking the 50th anniversary of the internet (ARPANET, 1969), the concluding Carlsberg Conference on Civil Society and the Internet (CSI) will also feedback findings and insights to these different social sectors.

Throughout the project, PIN will engage in two forms of communication. First, there will be continuous dissemination of results and events through the project website and social media, inviting dialogue with other scholars as well as the general public. Second, the project will build on and extend existing research networks at conferences and other venues, also drawing on its Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) and their stakeholders – the SAB members represent hubs in each of the three continents: the Pew Internet and American Life project, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and the Oxford Internet Institute.

One current challenge is the incompatibility of internet research designs and measurements in different parts of the world, which may be overcome through collaboration facilitated by PIN. Last but not least, then, the PIN project will aim to contribute to a global research infrastructure in the area, which can support further studies and applications of the internet around the world.

PI’s Peer-Reviewed Papers

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