Sounds Iranian

December 14, 2006

Some preliminary thoughts…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jordan @ 3:50 am

Hamid recently posted a series of questions that have been posed to the participants of the upcoming Global Voices summit in India. I found the q’s both interesting and highly pertinent, so as follows are my crudely formulated responses. Feel free to criticize or deconstruct at will:

How can we use the Internet to build a more democratic, participatory global discourse?

While I share this ideal, I can’t help but notice that it’s a slightly loaded question, insomuch as it makes sense only within the context of a worldview that assumes the global spread and permeation of ‘democracy’ (presumably as it defined and practiced in the ‘liberal west’) is an inherently good thing. Therefore, although I don’t want to over-problematize what I agree is an admirable goal, I think it’s worthwhile being careful not to potentially isolate or exclude elements of global society by using terms that only have positive meaning to those of us coming from a particular academic, cultural or intellectual background.

For instance, if someone’s aim were to spread global goodwill, but they articulated this task through the vocabulary of ‘faith’, ‘God’, ‘belief’, etc., someone like me would be immediately turned off, due to my secular bias. This would likely alienate me and drive me to create a separate irreconcilable ‘counter’ discourse (much like we have seen throughout human history, even before the Internet 😉 ).

In other words, one of the major challenges to making global discourse more inclusive, will probably be figuring out how to effectively talk *to* each other, despite different lexicons and ideological filters – not to mention actual languages – rather than talk *past* each other (which amounts to merely catering to pockets of like-minded thinkers in other regions, rather than building new bridges).

An increase in the *volume* of opinions expressed across geographical boundaries does not necessarily equate to an increase in the amount of *dialogue* across those same boundaries. In dealing with this fact, sensitivity to the subjective nature of our vocabularies and worldviews is crucial. I don’t think we should expect, or force, a ‘consensus’ on what global society is, or how it should communicate, but rather aim simply to allow new syntheses to form. It’s a humble goal, but one that is probably worthwhile.

How can we create a more inclusive conversation about what is happening on our planet, and how human beings in different parts of the world are impacting each other in countless ways we don’t realize every day?

This is a fascinating idea. I guess we could call it ‘mapping interconnectivity’. I’m sure everyone has their own view on how this could, should, or will occur. That being said, I think the following idea is worth some thought:

I think we can promote – and that we will ultimately see – a merging of insights from the scientific study of complexity, systems-theory, and ‘emergence’ with rapidly-adapting internet technology, in an ongoing series of experiments to develop more efficient ways of sharing real-time information, and tracking the causal links between events, policies, and ideas. As a simplified example, one could start with a blogger in China reporting on the material details of a given manufacturing plant (materials used, living conditions of workers, location, environmental effects, etc.), and then encourage other bloggers in neighbouring regions, and around the world, to search for local connections to the items and processes originally described by the source-blogger. Eventually, you could create a map of causal and material interconnectivity that could help illuminate connections and feedback-mechanisms, on a global scale, that would otherwise go unnoticed, or at least unreported. This is a very crude way of explaining the idea, but I think it roughly sketches-out a direction things can, and probably will, take. The technical aspects of the answer to this question are just as important as the ideas; the form and content are, increasingly, one.

How do we bring more unheard, ignored, or disadvantaged voices into the global online conversation? How do we help people speak and be heard – even when powerful people try to stop them from doing so?

These are two interesting and important questions, especially since they are loaded with a major problem that I think we often prefer to ignore. Of course, we all want ‘important’ marginalized voices to be heard. That’s what makes blogging, and technologically-empowered citizen journalism in general, so exciting. However – as I am repeatedly reminded while traipsing around the Internet – there are plenty of voices out there that even those of us who are interested in expanding global discourse for its own sake may simply not want to hear, let alone lend credence to.

For instance, there are plenty of bloggers out there who promote ethnic hatred. They may be marginalized from the mainstream discourse, but the Internet affords them a platform for the dissemination of their views. I doubt most Global Voices editors would be interested in bringing such ‘disadvantaged voices’ into the nexus of the ‘global online conversation’. (This blindness to our own biases is an amusing, but also crucially important, phenomenon in understanding social interaction. One topical example, for instance, is the ironic fact that, although the West promotes ‘democracy’ in the Muslim world, it then becomes squeamish in dealing with Islamist governments that have resulted from actual free elections. “No, no, we meant a democracy that produces the results *we* want, not the results *you* want.” This is a very human folly, with very real repercussions vis-à-vis a movement’s credibility, and not one any of us should consider ourselves immune to.)

In this way, we should remember that promoting the empowerment of someone’s narrative is always a political act. Furthermore, working towards the espoused goal of actively promoting *everyone’s* narrative ‘blindly’, may well not produce the ‘desired result’ at all (whatever you imagine that result to be)! I.e. Bloggers are people too – subject to all the prejudices of non-blogging humanity. Not everyone’s opinions will necessarily be constructive merely because they have been empowered to express them over the Internet.

All that being said, so long as we are (trying to be) conscious of what we are doing, there certainly are ways to bring previously marginalized voices into the ‘global online conversation’, and GV is already doing a remarkable and admirable job of accomplishing this. As all GV editors are surely aware, initiatives that can further this goal involve everything from the dissemination of blogging instructions in other languages, to the diffusion of information technology itself, to the loosening of censorship laws that affect large swaths of the Earth’s population, such as the citizens of China, Iran, and other strong, centralized states.

To sum up, I think a crucial challenge to the very admirable goals of the people at GV (as well as to us like-minded researchers) is to avoid the pitfall of conflating the globalization of communication technologies with the spread of what may be construed by some as a specifically *Western* vision for global ‘democratization’ (whatever that term may mean, and however appealing it may sound).

Moreover, while freedom of information is obviously more desirable than the restriction of information, we simply cannot foresee all the consequences of undermining central governments’ information policies. While spreading free speech is, in principle, wonderful, we should remain conscious that doing so can and will cause serious political dislocations, and may provoke all sorts of unforeseeable reactions on the part of both states and sub-state groups. In other words, those of us interested in actively bringing more voices into the ‘global online conversation’ would be wise to avoid shooting ourselves in the foot with well-intentioned zealotry.

With this in mind, I think it’s most helpful to focus, first and foremost, on creating the conditions for cross-border and inter-border dialogue, rather than just wantonly promoting ‘freedom of this-or-that’ for its own sake (a la you-know-who). I’m all for concerted action; however, it will be most helpful when coupled with a certain basic patience.


1 Comment »

  1. Most interesting post. Here again I will recommend to have a look at The Upside of Down by Homer-Dixon.
    Here is a short presentation:

    Comment by homeyra — December 16, 2006 @ 7:05 am

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