Global Voices, Transparency and the need to understand technology


On April 27th, 2010, I assisted to a lecture from David Sasaki of Global Voices Online (GVO) about “Citizen Media and the Technology for Transparency Network (TNN)”. This is a transcript of the notes I took that night, plus a couple of general comments about Citizen Media, Transparency in Government and related topics.

Where do you shop each day?

David is a very good speaker. He started telling us how do we feel and what we do the morning after drinking a few too many beers and then quickly connected all those more or less irrelevant things with each other and with the several programs led by GVO and TNN. When you wake up with an hangover, chances are that you’ll wake up in your bed and need first of all some water, then a clean T-shirt. The point is that, almost surely all these things come from very, very far from where you live and work: you drink water bottled and shipped (sometimes over other water…) from remote places, wear T-shirts made with cotton from Uzbekistan and sleep on bed whose pieces were produced in 78 different countries.

You (must) shop at a literally global market every day, yet you know little or nothing about most of the places on which your lifestyle depends. Traditional, mainstream media almost never cover those places, partly because they don’t care or don’t want you to know, and partly because, due to the crisis, newspapers and TVs are shutting down many of their foreign bureaus. You can see this happen, among other places, in the Media Attention Maps of the GAP project.

Global Voices Online was created to try to fill this gap. Its goals are to give independent voices more chances to be heard outside their original community and above all to be a bridge among conversations that would otherwise remain separated because of language and other barriers. Here are some of the examples that David showed us:

How global (and free) are global voices?

David explained that, over time, GVO came across a couple of problems. One is the fact that, when you help some independent voices to be heard worldwide, it becomes both much easier to notice them and more necessary to silence them for authoritarian regimes.

Another problem is one I had already met and mentioned last year in a talk about Cultures and civil rights in the information society: while the Internet does make it much easier for everybody to be heard, all too often “everybody” turns out to only mean upper class people, maybe only white, maybe only males, maybe only living in some specific neighborhoods. In order to overcome these limits, GVO has started two projects which I invite you to look at more closely:

After David, another GVO volunteer, Bernardo Parrella, introduced some GVO initiatives to reach out to mainstream media, like the partnership with Italian newspaper La Stampa.

Can you still afford to ignore technology?

In the last part of his talk David introduced the Technology for Transparency Network that tracks civic engagement technoloy worldwide, and asked a couple of questions he’s already discussing online: what are the role and limits of technology in shaping government transparency? Why good efforts like Cuidemos el Voto haven’t lead to any sanction yet?

The second question is probably the one with the quickest answer, as David himself mentions in his report on Transparency and Technology: cyberspace is no magical place, and no amount of noise you can make inside it will change things if we don’t add to it some concrete and continuous, long-term effort in the real world (as I recommended in my Online Loser Guide).

As far as the first question is concerned, I believe that a serious problem today is that many civil rights activists are no software experts, nor do they want to become experts. Sure, they do know very well how to blog, tweet and so on, but too often they just take whatever mainstream “computer thing” is available and quicker to use and go with it. They assume or hope that technology is neutral, that it doesn’t make any difference which one you use, only what you use it for (I must confess I am regularly amused and amazed by how many advocates for privacy, freedom from big corporations and similar issues write from Gmail accounts). Or that using Free as in Freedom software (which obviously is a good thing) is enough.

These days, however, technology (especially digital technology) is legislation. You don’t need to become a software programmer or to ever see the source code of the software you use if you want to be a reporter, a civic activist, or a controller of your government. If you do want to do these things in the best or at least more effective way, however, you need to seriously understand things like the real nature of file formats, computer protocols, the role of metadata or the basic features and limits of telecom networks. It’s much simpler than it seems, and it’s becoming more and more necessary.

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